Narrated from the first-person, past-tense perspective of Franz, the story’s protagonist, “The Last Lesson” opens with Franz running late to school. Franz dreads the scolding he assumes he will receive from his teacher, Monsieur Hamel, particularly because Hamel told Franz the class will be quizzed about participles, and Franz doesn’t know anything about participles.
Franz considers running away and, instead of attending school, spending the day outdoors. The weather is warm and the sky is bright. Birds chirp at the edge of the wood, while Prussian soldiers are drilling in the field behind the sawmill. But Franz resists the impulse to skip school and hurries to get to class. He passes a bulletin board outside the town hall. People have crowded around it. Franz comments that for two years all the town’s bad news has come from the bulletin board: the lost battles, the military draft, the orders of commanding officers.
Franz doesn’t stop at the board, but simply thinks to himself, “What can be the matter now?” as he hurries past. Wachter, the blacksmith, is standing at the bulletin board with his apprentice. Wachter calls out to Franz not to go so fast, saying he’ll get to school in plenty of time. Franz assumes Wachter is making fun of him.
Out of breath, Franz pauses at Monsieur Hamel’s garden. Franz comments that usually at the beginning of school there is a great bustle of sounds—desks opening, lessons starting, and iron rulers being rapping on the tables—that echoes from the school over the street. Franz counted on the commotion to sneak to his desk unnoticed, but everything is still and quiet as a Sunday morning.
Through the window, Franz can see his classmates at their desks while Hamel walks down the rows with a terrible iron ruler under his arm. Franz has to walk past everybody, his tardiness conspicuous to everyone. He blushes and feels frightened. But nothing happens. Hamel sees Franz and says very kindly, “Go to your place quickly little Franz. We were beginning without you.” Franz jumps over the bench and sits at his desk. Once seated, he overcomes his fright and notices the teacher is wearing a beautiful green coat, frilled shirt, and black silk cap. The garments are all embroidered, and Hamel never wears them except on special occasions, such as when prizes are given out.
The teacher’s outfit is especially strange to Franz when he considers how solemn the whole school feels. But he is even more surprised to notice that the usually empty benches at the back of the classroom are full of adults from the village, all of whom sit quietly. Franz recognizes old Hauser, with his three-corner hat, the former mayor, former postmaster, and several others. Everyone looks sad. Hauser has brought an old and well-thumbed introductory textbook. He holds it open on his knees.
While Franz is wondering about the teacher’s outfit, the school’s solemn mood, and the villagers, Hamel mounts his chair. In the same grave, gentle tone he used to address Franz, Hamel tells the children that this is the last lesson he will give them. He says an order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. He says the new teacher will come tomorrow. This is their last French lesson, so he wants the students to be very attentive.
For readers who know that “The Last Lesson” concerns the end of French language instruction in Alsace and Lorraine, the story’s seemingly innocuous opening line rings out with irony: While Franz dreads going to school because he has not prepared for a French grammar quiz about participles, he is oblivious to the fact that his concerns are minor—and indeed, precisely beside the point—in the context of the Prussian leaders’ attempts to remove the French language from the schools of the Prussian-annexed territories of Alsace and Lorraine.
Daudet continues to contrast Franz’s quotidian concern with neglected schoolwork against the backdrop of a geopolitical sea change when Franz doesn’t bother to stop and see why the townspeople have gathered before the town hall bulletin board. Similarly, Franz lists the Prussian soldiers practicing drills as just another element of the scenery. With this subtly inserted detail, Daudet shows how Franz has become inured to the presence of a foreign military.
Franz’s resignation is also evident in how he responds to the arrival of yet more bad news with the flippant, passing thought, “What can be the matter now?” Ultimately, Franz’s casual attitude toward the arrival of bad news and the presence of Prussian soldiers sets him up for the extreme shock of having the consequences of war affect his life in such a direct way.
Daudet draws out Franz’s obliviousness even further with the surreal image of his fellow pupils sitting very still and quiet at their desks—a stark contrast to the cacophonous, bustling atmosphere that would usually provide him cover for sneaking in late to class. In an instance of situational irony, Franz’s belief that he will be scolded for his tardiness is undermined when Hamel addresses him in a gentle voice. Daudet builds on the surreal, dreamlike mood by having Franz acknowledge at a delay that Hamel is dressed in formal clothes and the normally empty back benches are full of men he recognizes from the village.
Franz learns that M. Hamel doesn’t scold him and that the school has taken on a serious, mournful air because the Prussian leadership in Berlin has decreed that French language lessons will be replaced by German instruction in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. With this turn of events, Daudet introduces each of the story’s major themes: language and identity, the value of education, regret, and cultural erasure.