The Last Lesson
This lesson is set in the days of France-Prussian war. France was ruled by Bismarck. Prussia then consisted of what now are the nations of Germany, Polland, and parts of Austria. The Prussians defeated the French and the districts of Alsace and Lorraine fell into the hands of the Prussians. The oppressors not only wanted the territory but dominated over the language and culture of the Germans, thus to take away their identity. Read the lesson to find out what impact this had on life at school.
I started for school very late that morning and was in great dread of a scolding, especially because M. Hamel had said that he would question us on participles, and I did not know the first word about them. For a moment I thought of running away and spending the day out of doors. It was so warm, so bright! The birds were chirping at the edge of the woods; and in the open field back of the saw mill the Prussian soldiers were drilling. It was all much more tempting than the rule for participles, but I had the strength to resist, and hurried off to school.
When I passed the town hall there was a crowd in front of the bulletin-board. For the last two years all our bad news had come from there — the lost battles, the draft, the orders of the commanding officer — and I thought to myself, without stopping, “What can be the matter now?”
Then, as I hurried by as fast as I could go, the blacksmith, Wachter, who was there, with his apprentice, reading the bulletin, called after me, “Don’t go so fast, bub; you’ll get to your school in plenty of time!”
I thought he was making fun of me, and reached M. Hamel’s little garden all out of breath.
Usually, when school began, there was a great bustle, which could be heard out in the street, the opening and closing of desks, lessons repeated in unison, very loud, with our hands over our ears to understand better, and the teacher’s great ruler rapping on the table. But now it was all so still! I had counted on the commotion to get to my desk without being seen; but, of course, that day everything had to be as quiet as Sunday morning. Through the window I saw my classmates, already in their places, and M. Hamel walking up and down with his terrible iron ruler under his arm. I had to open the door and go in before everybody. You can imagine how I blushed and how frightened I was.
But nothing happened. M. Hamel saw me and said very kindly, “Go to your place quickly, little Franz. We were beginning without you.”
I jumped over the bench and sat down at my desk. Not till then, when I had got a little over my fright, did I see that our teacher had on his beautiful green coat, his frilled shirt, and the little black silk cap, all embroidered, that he never wore except on inspection and prize days. Besides, the whole school seemed so strange and solemn. But the thing that surprised me most was to see, on the back benches that were always empty, the village people sitting quietly like ourselves; old Hauser, with his three-cornered hat, the former mayor, the former postmaster, and several others besides. Everybody looked sad; and Hauser had brought an old primer, thumbed at the edges, and he held it open on his knees with his great spectacles lying across the pages.
While I was wondering about it all, M. Hamel mounted his chair, and, in the same grave and gentle tone which he had used to me, said, “My children, this is the last lesson I shall give you. The order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The new master comes tomorrow. This is your last French lesson. I want you to be very attentive.”
What a thunderclap these words were to me!
Oh, the wretches; that was what they had put up at the town-hall!
My last French lesson! Why, I hardly knew how to write! I should never learn anymore! I must stop there, then! Oh, how sorry I was for not learning my lessons, for seeking birds’ eggs, or going sliding on the *Saar! My books, that had seemed such a nuisance a while ago, so heavy to carry, my grammar, and my history of the saints, were old friends now that I couldn’t give up. And M. Hamel, too; the idea that he was going away, that I should never see him again, made me forget all about his ruler and how cranky he was.
Poor man! It was in honour of this last lesson that he had put on his fine Sunday clothes, and now I understood why the old men of the village were sitting there in the back of the room. It was because they were sorry, too, that they had not gone to school more. It was their way of thanking our master for his forty years of faithful service and of showing their respect for the country that was theirs no more.
While I was thinking of all this, I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say that dreadful rule for the participle all through, very loud and clear, and without one mistake? But I got mixed up on the first words and stood there, holding on to my desk, my heart beating, and not daring to look up.
I heard M. Hamel say to me, “I won’t scold you, little Franz; you must feel bad enough. See how it is! Every day we have said to ourselves, ‘Bah! I’ve plenty of time. I’ll learn it tomorrow.’ And now you see where we’ve come out. Ah, that’s the great trouble with Alsace; she puts off learning till tomorrow. Now those fellows out there will have the right to say to you, ‘How is it; you pretend to be Frenchmen, and yet you can neither speak nor write your own language?’ But you are not the worst, poor little Franz. We’ve all a great deal to reproach ourselves with.”
“Your parents were not anxious enough to have you learn. They preferred to put you to work on a farm or at the mills, so as to have a little more money. And I? I’ve been to blame also. Have I not often sent you to water my flowers instead of learning your lessons? And when I wanted to go fishing, did I not just give you a holiday?”
Then, from one thing to another, M. Hamel went on to talk of the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world — the clearest, the most logical; that we must guard it among us and never forget it, because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison. Then he opened a grammar and read us our lesson. I was amazed to see how well I understood it. All he said seemed so easy, so easy! I think, too, that I had never listened so carefully, and that he had never explained everything with so much patience. It seemed almost as if the poor man wanted to give us all he knew before going away, and to put it all into our heads at one stroke.
After the grammar, we had a lesson in writing. That day M. Hamel had new copies for us, written in a beautiful round hand — France, Alsace, France, Alsace. They looked like little flags floating everywhere in the school-room, hung from the rod at the top of our desks. You ought to have seen how everyone set to work, and how quiet it was! The only sound was the scratching of the pens over the paper. Once some beetles flew in; but nobody paid any attention to them, not even the littlest ones, who worked right on tracing their fish-hooks, as if that was French, too. On the roof the pigeons cooed very low, and I thought to myself, “Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?”
Whenever I looked up from my writing I saw M. Hamel sitting motionless in his chair and gazing first at one thing, then at another, as if he wanted to fix in his mind just how everything looked in that little school-room. Fancy! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his garden outside the window and his class in front of him, just like that. Only the desks and benches had been worn smooth; the walnut-trees in the garden were taller, and the hopvine that he had planted himself twined about the windows to the roof. How it must have broken his heart to leave it all, poor man; to hear his sister moving about in the room above, packing their trunks! For they must leave the country next day.
But he had the courage to hear every lesson to the very last. After the writing, we had a lesson in history, and then the babies chanted their ba, be bi, bo, bu. Down there at the back of the room old Hauser had put on his spectacles and, holding his primer in both hands, spelled the letters with them. You could see that he, too, was crying; his voice trembled with emotion, and it was so funny to hear him that we all wanted to laugh and cry. Ah, how well I remember it, that last lesson!
All at once the church-clock struck twelve. Then the *Angelus. At the same moment the trumpets of the Prussians, returning from drill, sounded under our windows. M. Hamel stood up, very pale, in his chair. I never saw him look so tall.
“My friends,” said he, “I—I—” But something choked him. He could not go on.
Then he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and, bearing on with all his might, he wrote as large as he could —* “Vive La France!”
Then he stopped and leaned his head against the wall, and, without a word, he made a gesture to us with his hand — “School is dismissed — you may go.”
About the author
Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was a French novelist and short-story writer. The Last Lesson is set in the days of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) in which France was defeated by Prussia led by Bismarck. Prussia then consisted of what now are the nations of Germany, Poland and parts of Austria. In this story the French districts of Alsace and Lorraine have passed into Prussian hands.
Questions from the lesson:
a. What kind of news was usually put up on the bulletin board?
Ans: The last battles, the draft, and the orders of the commanding officer.
b. What was the usual scene when school began everyday?
Ans: When school began every day, there was a great bustle of opening and closing of the desks, lessons were repeated in unison loudly and the teacher’s ruler rapped on the table.
c. Other than the students, who were present in the class?
Ans: The old Hauser, the former mayor, the former postmaster, the village people, and several others were present in the class.
d. Why did Mr. Hamel say it was the last French lesson?
Ans: The order had come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. So Mr. Hamel said that was the last French lesson.
e. What was Franz asked to tell? Was he able to answer?
Ans: Franz was asked to recite the rules of participles. No, he was not able to answer.
f. Why did Mr.Hamel blame himself?
Ans: Mr. Hamel blamed himself because he had often sent Franz to water his flowers instead of learning his lessons and when he went fishing he gave him a holiday.
g. What did M. Hamel say about the French language?
Ans: M. Hamel told that French was a beautiful language. It was the clearest and the most logical language.
h. How many years had M. Hamel been in the village?
Ans: 40 years.
chirping (v) - making a short, sharp high pitched sound (usually by small. birds or insects)
bustle (v) - move in an energetic manner
unison (n) - simultaneous utterance of words
rapping (v) - striking with a series of rapid audible blows
thumbed (v) - a book which has been read often and bearing the marks of frequent handling
cranky (adj.) - strange
Saar - a river in north-eastern France and western Germany
Angelus (n) - a Roman Catholic devotion commemorating the Incarnation of Jesus and including the Hail Mary, said at morning, noon, and sunset.
“Vive la France!” - is an expression used in French to show patriotism. It’s difficult to translate the term literally into English, but it generally means “Long live France!”
Answer the following questions in two or three sentences:
1. Why did Franz dread to go to school that day?
Ans: Franz dreaded to go to school that day because M.Hamel had said he would question them on participles and he did not know the first word about them.
2. What were the various things that tempted Franz to spend his day outdoors?
Ans: The things that tempted Franz to spend his day outdoors were, the weather was warm and bright and the birds were chirping.
3. Why was the narrator not able to get to his desk without being seen?
Ans: Because that day everything was quiet in the school. He had to open the door and go in before everybody, who were in their places already.
4. What was Frank sorry for?
Ans: Franz was sorry for having not learned French properly.
5. Why were the old villagers sitting in the last desk?
Ans: The old villagers sat in the last desks feeling sad that, that was the last French lesson that would be taught at school. They were sorry that they hadn’t gone to school, it was their way of thanking the master for his forty years of faithful service.
6. What were the thoughts of the narrator’s parents?
Ans: The narrator’s parents preferred to sent him to work on a farm or at the mills so as to have a little more money.
7. Why does M. Hamel say that we must guard our language?
Ans: M. Hamel said that we must guard our language among us and never forget it because when a people are enslaved, if they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison.
8. M. Hamel was gazing at many things. What were they?
Ans: M. Hamel was gazing at the garden outside, walnut trees and the hop – vine twinner planted by him.
9. When and how did M. Hamel bid farewell to the class?
Ans: When the trumpets of the Prussians sounded under their windows, M.Hamel stood up, very pale, with words choking his throat, he turned to the blackboard and wrote “Vive la France! (Long Live France!)” in French with a great deal of effort and a heavy heart.
Franz – The little boy who is also the narrator of this story.
M.Hamel – French teacher at the school
Wachter – The blacksmith in the town hall
1. Who were drilling in the open field back of the sawmill?
Ans: Prussian soldiers
2. Where was the crowd in the town hall?
Ans: In front of the bulletin-board
3. For how many years the bad news were coming from the bulletin board?
Ans: Last two years
4. On whose words did Franz thought that, he is being made fun?
5. That day when Franz was going towards his desk, everything was as quiet as ____ day morning?
6. M.Hamel was walking in the class room up and down with his terrible _____ in the hand?
Ans: Iron ruler
7. What did M.Hamel said to Franz when he saw him entering the class?
Ans: He asked him to go to his place quickly.
8. How M.Hamel behaved to Franz when he was entering the class room?
Ans: He was behaving very kindly.
9. What was M.Hamel wearing?
Ans: He was wearing his beautiful green coat, his frilled shirt, and the little black silk cap, all emridered.
10. On what days did M.Hamel would wore his favorite dress?
Ans: On inspection and prize days.
11. What surprised Franz the most?
Ans: To see the villagers sitting in the black bench which would be mostly empty.
12. Who said that, this is the last lesson he is going to give because of orders from Berlin?
13. How did Franz though when M.Hamel taught Grammar?
Ans: He was amazed to see how well he understood it. It was so easy that, he though he never listened so carefully and also that M.Hamel never explained everything with so much patience.
14. On that day, M.Hamel had new copies, written in beautiful round hand as?
Ans: France, Alsace, France, Alsace.
15. What was on the roof that cooed very low?
16. Who was moving in the room above and packing their trunks, since they need to leave the country next day?
Ans: M.Hamel’s sister.
17. How did the babied chanted?
Ans: ba, be bi, bo, bu
18. What was heard when the church clock stuck twelve?
19. What was the gesture made by M.Hamel with his hand?
Ans: School is dismissed – and the students may go.