The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet is set against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian war (1870 – 71) in which France was defeated by Prussia with the war led by Bismark. Prussia, then, consisted of what now are the nations of Germany, Poland and puts of Austria. In this story, the French districts of Alsace and Lorraine have passed into Prussian hands. This story also shows the effect of this incident on the normal life in the schools. It also highlights the pain that was inflicted upon the people of a territory by the conquerors, who took away the rights of the people to study or speak their own language.
As Franz started very late for his school that morning, he was in great fear, especially because his teacher Mr. Hamel had said that he would put up questions on participles and Franz did not know anything about it. For a moment, he thought of running away and spend the day out. It was a warm and bright day. Birds were twittering outside and soldiers were practicing. All these things were more attractive than the rules of participles, but anyhow, he forced himself to move hurriedly towards the school.
When he was passing the town hall, there was a crowd in front of the bulletin board. For the last two years, all the bad news like the lost battles and the orders of the commanding officers, had been displayed on that notice-board. He What could be the matter then ? he thought without stopping.
The blacksmith, who had read the bulletin, told Franz not to hurry. There was plenty of time he had told him. But Franz did not slow down. He thought that the blacksmith was poking fun at him.
Franz wanted to reach his desk unnoticed. He hoped that there would be noise and commotion as usual. He depended on this noise and bustle to reach his desk unnoticed. But, he was surprised. Instead, he found the school quiet. Students were sitting quietly in their seats. Mr. Hamel was not rapping his ruler on the table. He was moving up and down with the ruler under his arm. He too looked grave and quiet.
There was no chance of Franz entering the room unnoticed. He had to open the door and enter before everybody ,else. Unexpectedly, Mr. Hamel did not rebuke him. Instead, he spoke kindly to him and told him to go to his desk. When Franz had settled down, he looked at Mr. Hamel. There was another surprise for him.
Mr. Hamel had put on his beautiful green coat, his frilled shirt and his embroidered black silk cap. He used to put on these clothes only on special occasions. But it was no special day. Franz could not understand why Mr. Hamel had put on those Sunday clothes.
There was still another surprise in store for Franz. There were village people on the back benches that had always People occupied those back benches.
Mr. Hamel climbed up his chair and spoke to his pupils in a gentle and serious tone. He told them that an order had come from Berlin. French would not be taught to them any more. Instead, German was going to be taught and the day Now was expected to arrive the very next day. The students were going to have their last lesson in French that day. Now he knew what order was there on the bulletin board, and why the blacksmith had told him not to hurry. He could also see why Mr. Hamel had put on his best clothes.
Mr. Hamel’s words struck Franz like a thunderbolt. Hew as lost in thoughts. He had hardly learnt how to read and write, he felt that he would have to stop forever. He was sorry to have wasted his time. He had always been enjoying himself outdoors. He had hated his books. He had dreaded Mr. Hamel and his iron ruler. But his attitude suddenly changed. He felt that his books were good companions. He did not mind Mr. Hamel’s ruler and rebukes.
Now, he also understood why the people of the village were there. They were also sorry that they had not been to school for much time. Now, they had come to thank the teacher for his faithful service.
Mr. Hamel asked Franz to tell the rule for the participle. Franz wished he could tell the rule. But he failed miserably.
Mr. Hamel did not scold Franz. He said Franz was not the only person to blame. The people of Alsace had never been interested in learning. The people always put it off till the next day. Franz’s parents wanted Franz to earn some money instead of going to school. Mr. Hamel said they were strange Frenchmen who could not write or read their own language. He also blamed himself. He said sometimes he had closed the school when he had wanted to go fishing.
Mr. Hamel, then, praised his mother tongue. He said that French is the most beautiful, most logical and clearest language in the world. He exhorted the people to stick to it. He assured them that if they held fast to their language, they would be able to get rid of the Prussian rulers. Their language was the key to their freedom from slavery.
It was Mr. Hamel’s last day at school. But he had the courage and devotion to do his teaching work as usual. He taught grammar. He gave writing exercises. He asked little children to trace their fishhooks. Franz listened to his lesson attentively. He felt Hamel had explained the lesson so clearly which he had never done before. It appeared to him that on that last day, he wanted to give his pupils all the knowledge he had.
The church clock struck twelve. It was the time for the school to close. Mr. Hamel wanted to say something, but he was overwhelmed with emotions. He wrote “Vive La France” on the blackboard and with a wave of his hand, dismissed the class.