I started for school very late that morning and was in great dread of scolding, especially because M. Hamel had said that he would question us on participles, and I did not know the first word about them.
The story begins with Franz running late to school and dreading a quiz on participles for which he has not prepared. However, in an instance of situational irony, the young narrator's concerns prove inconsequential when he receives the news that French will no longer be taught in his school. The contrast between Franz's attitude toward his studies at the beginning of the story contrasts sharply with his later remorse for not having put more effort into his education when he had the chance.
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.
In this passage, Franz arrives late to school hoping that he can sneak to his desk under cover of the usual cacophony of students loudly settling in their seats. However, his expectations are undermined by the sight of his fellow students sitting silently and still. The surreal image of the unusually solemn classroom foreshadows the news Hamel is about to deliver.
"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.”
Franz's confusion about why everyone in the classroom is behaving so politely and why the back benches are full of men from the village bearing sad expressions is answered by Hamel breaking the news that he and all other French teachers will no longer teach the students their native language. As a testament to his professionalism as a teacher, in this passage Hamel delivers the facts of the oppressive and culture-erasing dictate from Berlin without embellishment, letting no resentment or bitterness seep into his diction.
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! 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 all he knew before going away, and to put it all into our heads at one stroke.
Although Franz has a history of being an apathetic and neglectful student, he takes in Hamel's last lesson with a level of comprehension Franz finds shocking. In this passage, Daudet illustrates how the exceptional, mournful circumstances of Franz's last lesson prompt Franz to embrace education and the French language, whose importance he comes to appreciate, now that both are threatened.
"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!
At the end of "The Last Lesson," the church bell strikes twelve and the trumpets of Prussian military men can be heard outside the classroom windows. Hamel stands proud and begins to address his students and the village people who have come to sit in on the last lesson. However, Hamel becomes choked up with emotion and he summarizes the would-be contents of his speech with the nationalistic motto Vive La France, meaning roughly "hooray for France" or "long live France." The spirited slogan captures Hamel's desire for his students to hold on to their language and culture in the face of oppression from the German government; at the same time, Hamel's inability to say anything more attests to his sense of defeat and resignation as a humble schoolteacher living under the dictates of greater political forces.
The Last Lesson Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Last Lesson is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.