Brief Biography of Alphonse Daudet
Born to a silk manufacturer in Nîmes, France, Alphonse Daudet didn’t have the smoothest of starts. When Daudet was seventeen, his father lost all of his money, leaving Daudet without any easy educational or employment prospects. Daudet moved to Paris, where he joined his elder brother, to pursue writing, and published his first book of poems, Les Amoureuses, in 1858. During his early years in Paris, he was recruited to act as undersecretary to the Duke de Morny, a powerful minister under Napoleon III. When the Franco-Prussian war began in 1870, Daudet enlisted in the army. He continued writing throughout this time, publishing books such as Letters from My Mill (1869) and The Nabob (1877), as well plays, including The Last Idol (1862). His novel Fromont the Younger and Risler the Elder (1874) won an award from the French Academy, and as a result Daudet became an established fixture in the Paris literary scene. He would not live long, however. The symptoms of a venereal disease that he had picked up as a young man escalated with age, leading to an affliction of the spinal cord. He died in 1897, at the age of 57.
Historical Context of The Last Lesson
Daudet came of age during the Second French Empire (1852-1870), headed by Emperor Napoleon III (nephew to Napoleon I, ruler of the first empire). This was a time of expansive economic and cultural growth in France, despite the authoritarian rule under which the society lived, thanks to Napoleon III’s effective dictatorship. But the prosperity of the Second Empire, as well as Napoleon’s own emperorship, would come to an end with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Prussia, (then consisting of Germany, Poland, and parts of Austria), a growing military power at the time, had imperial ambitions to unify all of the independent German states of Europe. This was resisted by France, which declared war on Prussia in July of 1870. The Prussians, however, were better prepared and organized, quickly invading parts of northeastern France, including Alsace-Lorraine, where Daudet’s “Last Lesson” is set. The French were decisively defeated in 1871, a loss that led to the end of the Second Empire and the reign of Napoleon III. The war had a deep effect on Daudet, who enlisted in the French army to fight the Prussians, and who went on to engage with and depict aspects of the conflict in writings such as the “Last Lesson.”
Other Books Related to The Last Lesson
Daudet lived and wrote in Paris at a time when many of the literary luminaries of the age—including Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary
), Edmond de Goncourt, and Émile Zola—also resided in the city. He was good friends with many of these writers and a keen follower of Zola in particular—who coined the term “naturalist” for a mode of writing that was related to, and evolved out of, the realism predominant in the period. Daudet exemplified many of the tenets of this school of writing. Like other naturalists, Daudet’s writing emphasizes an objective and realistic depiction of society and the people who live within it. His works pay special attention to the influence of environmental and social conditions on the development of the individual. “The Last Lesson,” which explores the impact of education on a young school child, is exemplary in this regard, tracing how a child’s village and school environment has a lasting effect on his evolution. This emphasis on social milieu and its impact on the individual mirrors that found in naturalist works such as Les Rougon-Macquart
, the cycle of twenty novels that Zola wrote between 1871-1893, tracing the influence of environment and heredity on two branches of a family during the Second French Empire (1852-1870).
Key Facts about The Last Lesson
Full Title: The Last Lesson
When Written: 1873
Where Written: Paris
When Published: 1873, in the collection of stories Monday Tales
Literary Period: 19th century, Naturalism
Genre: Short story
Setting: A small village in Alsace-Lorraine, France
Climax: French will be banned in school!
Antagonist: The Prussians
Point of View: First person limited
Extra Credit for The Last Lesson