One of the most prominent themes in "The Last Lesson" is the inextricable connection between language and identity. After delivering the news that the Prussian leadership in Berlin has decreed that the French language will no longer be taught in the schools of the annexed regions of Alsace and Lorraine, M. Hamel briefly lectures his students on the importance of holding onto their language. With a sense of nationalist pride, Hamel says the French language is the most beautiful language in the world, as well as the most logical. Hamel understands that the Prussians are replacing French with German in order to erase the local identity of the people of the region and guarantee that the region will remain under the authority of the German Empire. If the people of Alsace and Lorraine no longer speak French but German, they are less likely to maintain allegiances to France. Hamel believes that by holding onto their language, his students will hold the key to their prison: i.e. they will retain their sense of French identity by continuing to speak the language.
The Value of Education
Another of the story's major themes is the value of education. Although Franz begins the story by running late to school and dreading a participles quiz for which he has not prepared, when Franz learns he will no longer be allowed to learn French he suddenly sees value in what Hamel says, and the lessons enter Franz's mind easily. Franz is not the only person to transform into a diligent student: the room is full of pupils focused on their handwriting, and the only sound Franz can hear is pens scratching into paper. Even men from the village who never took their education seriously have come to sit in on Hamel's lesson: the men sit mournfully at the back of the classroom, as though they have come to attend a funeral for education itself. Hamel gently reprimands his pupils and the people of the region for not having taken education and their language more seriously, but he ultimately reflects that he too never suspected the opportunity to learn would ever be taken away.
The Prussian leadership's decree that German will be taught in place of French is an attempt at cultural erasure. The Prussians believe they are more likely to enfold the formerly French region into the German Empire if they replace the local Francophone culture with German-speaking culture and curtail French-language instruction. By steadily erasing French culture in the region, the Prussians hope to make the people of Alsace and Lorraine German in their identity, as they are much less likely to form allegiances with French authorities if they no longer conceive of themselves as French. In the face of institutionally mandated cultural erasure, Hamel instructs his pupils to hold fast to their language and history, as he knows the only way to maintain their cultural identity is to never relinquish their language or national pride.
As another key theme in "The Last Lesson," regret touches every character in the story. For Franz, regret arrives in the form of an internal monologue about how he wishes he had spent more time dedicating himself to learning instead of skipping school to play in nature. Similarly, Hamel regrets that he didn't put more thought into how he could have engaged students like Franz, whom he often sent to water the garden instead of sitting in class. Hamel also regrets that he prioritized his desire to go fishing over his students' educations, taking vacations and cancelling school when he pleased. Regret is also present in the village people who sit in on Hamel's last lesson, particularly in Hauser, who has tears in his eyes as he reads along with the youngest students as they recite rudimentary grammar lessons. Hauser, like Franz and Hamel, regrets not having understood the true value of learning French before it became too late; they only appreciate what they have when it is gone.
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.