The Last Lesson is a short story written by Alphonse Daudet. It deals with the theme of Language imposition and Language loyalty. It is set in the days of the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871, in which France was defeated by Germany (Prussia). The French districts of Alsace and Lorraine were occupied by Germany and the German language was imposed on them. M. Hamel the French teacher, his students and the villagers are devastated by this imposition and in great distress and dismay go through the last lesson.
The narrator (Franz) started very late for school that morning, he was afraid because M. Hamel would question them on participles and he did not know anything about them. He thought of running away and spending the day out of doors. He found the outside world to be more tempting than the participles, but he had enough strength to resist, so he hurried off to school.
As Franz passed the town hall there was a crowd in front of the bulletin board. For the last two years all their bad news of the lost battles, the draft, the orders of the commanding officer, had come from there. He wondered what could be the matter, but he had no time to stop there.
Usually, when school began there was a lot of noise. The opening and closing of desks, lessons repeated in unison, the teacher’s great ruler rapping on the table created enough bustle which could be heard out in the street. Franz had counted on the commotion to get to his desk without being seen.
But to his amazement, that day everything was as quiet as Sunday morning. He saw his classmates already in their places, and M. Hamel walking up and down with his terrible iron ruler in his arm.
M. Hamel spoke very kindly to him. He was dressed in his beautiful green coat, his frilled shirt, and the little black silk cap, all embroidered which he wore only on inspection and prize days. But the thing that surprised Franz the most was to see, the village people sitting on the backbenchers.
M. Hamel mounted his chair, and in a grave and gentle tone announced that in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine only German would be taught. The order had come from Berlin, so that was their last French Lesson. He requested them to be very attentive.
The narrator was shocked. He felt extremely sorry for not learning his lessons. His books that had seemed such a nuisance had all of a sudden become his best friends difficult to part with. The idea that M.Hamel wouldn’t teach him anymore made him forget about his ruler and how cranky he was.
M. Hamel made the class realize how reluctant they were to learn and would put off learning their own native language. He confessed that he too at times was not serious, and when he had to go fishing he would give them a holiday. He told them that the French language was the most beautiful, the most logical and the clearest language. He advised them to hold fast to their language as it would be as if they had the key to their prison.
M. Hamel explained the grammar lesson with so much patience, the narrator had never listened so carefully, he was amazed how well he understood. Everyone worked sincerely. When the narrator heard the pigeons coo, a strange thought came to his mind, he thought would they (Germans) make the pigeons sing in German.
All were busy writing, while M. Hamel sat motionless in his chair, for forty years he had been there, only the desks and benches had been worn smooth, the walnut trees were taller and the hopvine that he had planted twined about the windows to the roof. It was difficult for him to leave. His voice trembled with emotion.
All at once, the Church clock struck twelve. The trumpets of the Prussian soldiers, returning from the drill, sounded under their windows. M. Hamel stood up, very pale, in his chair, the narrator had never seen him so tall. He tried to speak but couldn’t. He turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk and with all his might, he wrote as large as he could — “Vive La France“. Then without a word, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed the class.