The narrator of the story, a little boy, rushes to school one morning. He is especially anxious on this day, as he expects his stern teacher, M. Hamel, to question him and the rest of the pupils on participles. The narrator knows nothing about participles, as he has not learned the lesson.
The narrator’s comments—his dread of being late for class, as well getting a scolding from his teacher—communicate to the reader that he is a young child. Furthermore, the fact that the narrator has not learned the lesson on participles indicates that he is not the most diligent pupil, but rather a procrastinator when it comes to his schoolwork.
The narrator contemplates skipping school altogether and spending the day outside. The weather is warm and bright and birds are chirping. He sees Prussian soldiers doing their drills in an open field. The beautiful day tempts him, but the narrator resists the urge to skip school and hurries onwards.
The narrator’s negligence of his schooling is further reflected in the temptation that he feels to skip school all together. The Prussian soldiers that he sees allude to the presence of conflict in the region. In fact, these soldiers signal to the reader that the story is set during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). During this conflict, Prussian forces invaded the French region of Alsace-Lorraine. In spite of the beautiful day and the chirping birds, therefore, the presence of the soldiers indicates that all is not well in this idyllic French landscape.
As he passes the town hall, the narrator sees a crowd gathered around the bulletin-board. Over the previous two years, all of the town’s bad news—about battles lost, the draft, orders of the commanding officer—has been posted there, and now the narrator wonders what the matter is.
The bulletin-board is the instrument through which the Prussian occupiers of the village communicate their edicts to the villagers. In this way, the bulletin-board is also a symbol of Prussian occupiers’ oppressive power. France is losing the war to the Prussians, and this is why foreign forces have occupied the narrator’s village and the region more broadly. That the villagers perceive the news and orders posted by the Prussians on the board as “bad” points to their subjugation—they are under the control of a foreign power, one that imposes demands and restrictions on them that they are unable to challenge.
As the narrator hurries past the crowd, the town’s blacksmith, Wachter, calls out to him, referring to him as “bub,” and tells him not to go so fast, since he’ll make it to school “in plenty of time!” The narrator thinks the blacksmith is making fun of him.
Wachter’s comment to the narrator indicates that this community is tight-knit. The narrator knows the blacksmith by his first name, while Wachter uses the nickname “bub” to refer to the narrator. Though the blacksmith is indeed making fun of the narrator’s hurry, he is doing it endearingly and with humor.
Having been in such a rush, the narrator arrives at school out of breath. He is surprised to note that the school is uncharacteristically quiet. Usually, at the beginning of the day, there is a great noise. One can hear desks opening and closing, lessons being repeated, and the teacher’s ruler rapping against the table. But on this morning the school is eerily quiet and still. The narrator had hoped that he could sneak to his desk unseen in the midst of the commotion.
The eerie silence that the narrator encounters upon arriving at school indicates that something is awry on this school day. Children are naturally loud and boisterous, as they are on normal school days, but this unusual silence suggests that something drastic has silenced them. The quiet is therefore a bad sign—not only because it means that the narrator can’t sneak to his desk unseen, but because it suggests that something is amiss.
Through a window, the narrator sees his classmates already seated, and his teacher M. Hamel walking up and down with his ruler under his arm. The narrator, terrified and blushing, is forced to open the door and enter the classroom in front of everyone.
The narrator’s feelings upon entering the classroom before the assembled students and teacher points to the extent of his terror of M. Hamel in particular. This indicates the power imbalance in the relationship between the little pupil and his intimidating teacher. M. Hamel has the power to punish the narrator severely, and it is this which renders the narrator so afraid.
To his surprise, M. Hamel speaks to the narrator kindly, referring to him as “little Franz,” and tells him to take his seat quickly. Franz takes his seat, and only then, when he has recovered slightly from his fright, does he notice that M. Hamel has on his beautiful green coat, a frilled shirt, and a silk cap—clothes that he normally wears only for special occasions, such as inspection and prize days.
M. Hamel’s unexpected kindness towards the tardy narrator again alerts the reader to the fact that nothing is normal on this school day. The teacher seems to have suddenly shed the severity to which his students, including Franz, are accustomed. Furthermore, the teacher’s special clothing—elaborate dress for special occasions—reinforces the sense that something momentous is happening on this day.
The atmosphere of the classroom today is strange. There is a solemnness in the air. Not only that, but Franz is most surprised to see village people assembled on the benches at the back of the room, including old man Hauser, the former mayor, and the former postmaster of the town. Everyone looks gloomy. Old Hauser sits with an open primer on his knees.
As the narrator takes in his surroundings properly for the first time, he sees more signs confirming that this is an unusual school day. The solemnness in the room extends from and echoes the silence he had first encountered upon arriving at school. That various elder village notables are also assembled in the room is a further indication that this is a special day—but not in a good way, considering how gloomy everyone seems. That elders have come together with children in the room is also significant, because it suggests that the entire village community has assembled in the classroom. There are people of various statuses and occupations: not only young students, but a former mayor, a former postmaster, and old man Hauser, as well as M. Hamel. This broad array of individuals represents a cross-section of the entire village community gathering together in the classroom.
M. Hamel mounts his chair, and, speaking gravely and gently, announces to the gathered crowd that this will be the last lesson he will preside over. An order has arrived from Berlin—seat of the region’s Prussian occupiers—that from the next day onward, only German will be taught in the schools of Alsace-Lorraine. A new school master will arrive tomorrow. M. Hamel further instructs the crowd that he wants them to be very attentive, as this will be their last French lesson.
M. Hamel’s shocking announcement reveals the lengths to which the occupying Prussian authorities are willing to go to control and subjugate the French citizens of Alsace-Lorraine. Not only have they gained military control of their land, but they also desire to control the villagers’ means of self-expression, by banning the French language and imposing German instead. This Prussian order, therefore, indicates that the Prussian authorities seek to subjugate not only the villagers’ physical existence, but also their minds.
These words come as a shock to little Franz, who realizes that the villagers he had seen by the bulletin-board outside the town hall had gathered to read the order that had just been posted there.
Franz’s own shock over M. Hamel’s announcement indicates that the new Prussian order represents an unprecedented repression of freedoms in the village. It is an escalation of foreign oppression, as indicated by the fact that so many were gathered around the bulletin-board earlier in the day, when Franz had passed by the town hall on his way to school.
M. Hamel’s words also come as a shock to Franz because he suddenly realizes how little he knows of the French language. He barely knows how to write in French, and he is devastated that he must stop learning. He is suddenly remorseful over wasting so much time playing outdoors rather than studying. He is even sorry to think that the stern M. Hamel, whom he fears, is leaving forever.
M. Hamel’s announcement has a second effect on Franz: it jolts him into reassessing the value of his education. While Franz has clearly been negligent in applying himself to his studies, as indicated by the fact that he has not even bothered to learn the rule for participles he was assigned for this school day, the news that the Prussian authorities have banned the teaching of French awakens him not only to how little he knows of his own language, but also how much he wants to learn. Furthermore, Franz begins to have a new appreciation for his teacher, realizing that M. Hamel, in spite of his customary severity, has much knowledge to offer him, knowledge from which Franz will now be cut off.
Franz realizes that M. Hamel has on his best clothes in honor of this last lesson that he is giving, and that this is also why the villagers have gathered in the room—to show their appreciation for the school that they themselves had neglected as children, and to honor M. Hamel’s forty years of service as teacher, as well as to show respect for their country, now occupied by foreigners.
That M. Hamel is wearing his best clothes in honor of this last lesson indicates the teacher’s own great respect for his office, as well as the seriousness with which he has undertaken, and is undertaking, his duties as teacher. The day of his last lesson is indeed a momentous occasion requiring special dress, as it marks the end of his forty years of service to the school and to the village. The dress reflects M. Hamel’s dignity, giving him—and his vocation—an air of nobility. The presence of the elder villagers in the room reveals their appreciation and gratitude for M. Hamel’s service, as well as for the education of which he is a purveyor. The teacher’s dignified dress and the presence of villagers on this day of the last French lesson reveals the community’s desire to honor their country and mother tongue, both of which are under attack by the Prussian invaders.
M. Hamel calls Franz to recite the rule for the participle, which, of course, he has neglected to learn. More than ever, he is ashamed that he has not learned his lessons. He stands up to recite but stumbles on the first words.
Franz’s failure to recite the rule for participles takes on a new, grave significance on this momentous day. The neglect of his school work suddenly seems not only to be a neglect of some grammar rules, but also a neglect of his own duties as a French citizen and a French speaker whose language and identity are under threat from foreign occupiers. It is for this reason that Franz feels such immense shame upon being unable to recite the rule.
M. Hamel doesn’t scold Franz for not knowing the rule, but he uses the occasion to lecture the class. He tells the crowd that each day they have been putting off learning until tomorrow. This is the trouble with their home region of Alsace. It is why now the Prussian occupiers have the right to say to them, “you pretend to be Frenchmen, and yet you can neither speak nor write your own language?”
M. Hamel again acts with kindness by choosing not to scold Franz, but rather extrapolating from his failure to show how all the natives of Alsace-Lorraine have failed in their educational duties. By connecting the occupiers’ justification of their conquest of Alsace-Lorraine with the failure of the Alsatians to know their own language properly, M. Hamel makes explicit the link between language and power. The Prussians can justify their claim to Alsace-Lorraine because they can contend that the Alsatians are not true Frenchmen, as they cannot even speak nor write their own language properly. As such, the power that the Prussians can have over the natives of the region is directly linked to the natives’ grasp of their language, and therefore of their French identity.
M. Hamel continues by saying that the children’s parents have not been anxious to have them learn, sending them out to work instead. M. Hamel also reproaches himself, taking responsibility for those times he had encouraged his students to procrastinate, because he himself wanted to do other things.
M. Hamel highlights how the villagers have privileged labor over education. By sending out their children to work instead of encouraging them to learn, the villagers have prioritized the value of money over the value of learning. M. Hamel, however, doesn’t take a high-handed or condescending attitude towards the adults and children whom he lectures. By casting blame on himself as well, he posits himself as an equal culprit in the negligence of the children’s education. The tone and words that he adopts are ones that cast aside hierarchies and distinctions, positing adults, teachers and children as all culpable for the same mistakes.
M. Hamel then goes on to speak about the beauties of the French language. He encourages the class to guard the language carefully, because, he tells them, when a people are enslaved, so long as they “hold fast to their language it as if they had the key to their prison.”
M. Hamel’s great love for his mother tongue is reflected in the praise that he lavishes on it. Furthermore, his comment on the importance of guarding the language emphasizes the link between language, identity, and freedom. Language not only expresses cultural identity, it constitutes its very essence. Without language, those who are subjugated cannot hold onto their identity, and therefore also to their freedom.
The teacher then proceeds to the French grammar lesson, reading from a book to the students. Franz understands everything M. Hamel says with extraordinary clarity. He thinks that he has never listened so carefully to the teacher before, and that the teacher himself has never explained things so clearly and with so much patience.
Franz’s concentration and grasp of the French lesson reflects the fact that, for the first time, he is applying himself fully to his studies. He has finally come to understand the value and significance of his education. His impression that the teacher has never explained things so clearly also points to M. Hamel’s own power and competence as a teacher, in fulfilling the duties of his office on this day of the last lesson.
After the grammar lesson, the class proceeds to a lesson in writing. M. Hamel has the pupils copy out the words “France, Alsace,” over and over again. All the students are perfectly quiet as they concentrate on their work.
M. Hamel’s assignment of the words “Alsace, France” to the class indicates the teacher’s intention of instilling a sense of patriotism in his pupils. The exercise functions not only to improve their writing skills, but to challenge the Prussian claim to Alsace-Lorraine by linking Alsace to France. In this way, the students are guided to express and assert their patriotic allegiance to France.
As he writes, Franz glances up at M. Hamel every now and again. The teacher sits motionless, looking at one thing and the other in the room. Franz thinks it is as if he wants to fix in his mind how everything looks in the room. The teacher has been there for forty years, with very little changing except for the trees growing taller and the desks and benches being worn smooth by the pupils. Franz thinks that M. Hamel must be heartbroken to be leaving it all. The teacher and his sister, who is packing upstairs, are leaving the country the very next day.
Franz’s impressions of M. Hamel in these moments of silence deepen and nuance his understanding of his teacher. While before the last lesson, Franz knew his teacher only as a fearful taskmaster, over the course of the last lesson he has witnessed other sides of the teacher emerge. Not only has the teacher expressed kindness towards him and the rest of the class, as well as a deep sense of patriotism, but here he seems to embody other emotions: sadness, loss, and nostalgia. He must give up the classroom that has been a home to him for forty years.
But Franz is impressed by M. Hamel’s determination to oversee every lesson until the very last. The pupils move onto a history lesson, before the babies are given their turn to recite ABCDs. Old Hauser, sitting at the back and reading from an old primer, helps them by spelling the letters with them. He is crying, and everyone who hears him also finds that they want to laugh and cry at once.
M. Hamel’s insistence on seeing through all the lessons to the very last also reveals another side of the teacher to Franz: his dedication. In spite of M. Hamel’s tumultuous emotions, the teacher is determined to fulfill every aspect of his duties on this last day. The extent to which the village community has come together during this last lesson is reflected in old Hauser’s act of helping the babies read their letters. This act reflects the solidarity between young and old, as the old help along, and participate in, the education of the youngsters. The poignancy of this act moves the entire class.
The clock strikes twelve. Prussian trumpets sound, marking the end of the soldiers’ drill. M. Hamel stands up, pale but tall. He begins speaking, addressing the class as “My friends,” but is unable to continue. He turns to the blackboard instead, and with a piece of chalk he writes in large letters, “Vive La France!” He leans his head against the wall and gestures to the class, telling them school is dismissed.
The trumpets of the Prussian soldiers that sound along with the striking of the clock remind the reader of the ominous presence of the foreign occupiers just outside the school doors. M. Hamel’s inability to speak during the final moments of the lesson reflects the tumult of his emotions on this occasion. And yet, even in the midst of this tumult, M. Hamel manages one final act of resistance: by inscribing the words “Long Live France!” on the blackboard, M. Hamel makes a final challenge to the oppressive power of the Prussians, asserting his allegiance to his motherland, France. In this way, he again uses the instruments of education—in this case the blackboard—to assert his freedom and that of his country.