Set during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Daudet’s story depicts French villagers responding to restrictions on their freedoms that have been imposed on them by foreign Prussian invaders. As Franz, his school teacher M. Hamel, and other pupils and villagers gather in a classroom on the morning that news arrives that the French language will be banned in schools in the Prussian-controlled Alsace-Lorraine region, hierarchies and divisions among the village people are cast aside. Instead, the villagers come together as equals and comrades united in their resistance to a foreign adversary, one that threatens their way of life and identity. In portraying the way in which villagers of all ranks, statuses, and ages come together in the classroom, the “Last Lesson” posits the values of equality and solidarity as central aspects of community.
Franz, the narrator of Daudet’s story, is a small boy who is at the mercy of the adults of the Alsatian village in which he lives. He is particularly frightened of the stern M. Hamel, his school teacher, who carries a “terrible iron ruler” that he raps violently against the table during lessons. Franz is in a discombobulated state on the morning that the story opens, as he has not learned the rule for participles he was meant to memorize, and is in “great dread of a scolding” by M. Hamel. Franz’s anxiety and fear of his stern teacher allude to the rigid social hierarchies that exist in the village. As a child, Franz is no equal to his teacher—and presumably to other adults in the village—and as such he is subject to their authority and displeasure.
Yet when Franz arrives in the classroom, he finds that the rigid distinctions that govern village life have been cast aside on this day. For one thing, he’s surprised that M. Hamel, rather than scolding him for his late arrival, speaks kindly to him as he directs him to his seat. Franz is further surprised to see that it is not only small children who have taken their places in the classroom on this morning. The village people have also assembled on the back benches of the room. The presence of the adult villagers in the same room as the children dramatizes the coming together of young and old as one community. The occasion for this leveling of community ties is the dark and momentous news that has reached the villagers from Berlin: the French language will be banned in schools in Alsace-Lorraine by order of the Prussian authorities.
Although M. Hamel, who stands at the front of the room, occupies a position of authority in relation to the assembled crowd, he posits himself as their equal in more ways than one. When Franz fails to recite the rule for the participle he was supposed to learn, M. Hamel doesn’t scold him. Instead, he portrays Franz’s negligence as emblematic of the negligence of the entire community. Using the collective pronoun, “we,” M. Hamel tells the congregation: “Every day we have said to ourselves, ‘Bah! I’ve plenty of time. I’ll learn it tomorrow.’ And now you see where we’ve come out […] We’ve all a great deal to reproach ourselves with.” In using “we,” M. Hamel thus includes himself in the reproach, casting himself as no better than the villagers whom he lectures. M. Hamel further castigates himself, by publicly regretting those times he has encouraged his students to put off doing their lessons, by sending them to tend to his flowers, or by giving them a holiday because he wanted to go fishing. By extrapolating and generalizing from Franz’s mistake, therefore, M. Hamel draws a lesson that posits all the villagers—including himself—as negligent in their responsibilities. In this way, M. Hamel’s lecture casts aside hierarchies and distinctions, rendering children, adults, and teachers alike as liable to the same follies.
The sense of solidarity that the lesson establishes among the gathered villagers is further reflected in the exercises that young and old undertake together. As an exercise in writing, M. Hamel assigns the class to write the words “France, Alsace” over and over again. Franz tells the reader, “You ought to have seen how every one set to work, and how quiet it was! The only sound was the scratching of the pens over the paper.” As such, the adults in the room apply themselves to the exercise just as the youngsters do. This joint activity reinforces a sense of the community working together as one unit, and in one spirit. The words that they inscribe—“France, Alsace”—further reflect their communal commitment to their native country, even in the face of Prussian occupiers who have claimed Alsace for themselves. The solidarity between young and old is embodied poignantly in the image of old Hauser, a man who sits at the back of room holding an elementary book in his hands, and helps the babies chant their letters.
The warm, supportive relations that are established and affirmed between M. Hamel, his pupils, and the villagers during the last lesson, therefore, indicate how the community comes together through its practice of the values of solidarity and equality. It is through acts and words of cooperation that the villagers assert not only their commitment to each other, but also their commitment to their homeland in the face of a foreign threat.
Community and Solidarity ThemeTracker
Community and Solidarity Quotes in The Last Lesson
When I passed the town hall there was a crowd in front of the bulletin-board. For the last two years all our bad news had come from there—the lost battles, the draft, the orders of the commanding officer—and I thought to myself, without stopping, “What can be the matter now?”
Usually, when school began, there was a great bustle, which could be heard out in the street, the opening and closing of desks, lessons repeated in unison […] and the teacher’s great ruler rapping the table. But now it was all so still! I had counted on the commotion to get to my desk without being seen; but, of course, that day everything had to be as quiet as Sunday morning.
[…] the thing that surprised me most was to see, on the back benches that were always empty, the village people sitting quietly like ourselves; old Hauser, with his three-cornered hat, the former mayor, the former postmaster, and several others besides.
[…] M. Hamel mounted his chair, and in the same grave and gentle tone which he had used to me, said, “My children, this is the last lesson I shall give you. The order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The new master comes tomorrow. This is your last French lesson. I want you to be very attentive.”
My last French lesson! Why, I hardly knew how to write! I should never learn any more! I must stop there, then! Oh, how sorry I was for not learning my lessons, for seeking birds’ eggs, or going sliding on the Saar! My books, that had seemed such a nuisance a while ago, so heavy to carry, my grammar, and my history of the saints, were old friends now that I couldn’t give up. And M. Hamel, too; the idea that he was going away, that I should never see him again, made me forget all about his ruler and how cranky he was.
“I won’t scold you, little Franz; you must feel bad enough. See how it is! Every day we have said to ourselves, ‘Bah! I’ve plenty of time. I’ll learn it tomorrow.’ And now you see where we’ve come out. Ah, that’s the great trouble with Alsace; she puts off learning till tomorrow. Now those fellows out there will have the right to say to you, ‘How is it; you pretend to be Frenchmen, and yet you can neither speak nor write your own language?’”
“Your parents were not anxious enough to have you learn. They preferred to put you to work on a farm or at the mills, so as to have a little more money. And I? I’ve been to blame also. Have I not often sent you to water my flowers instead of learning your lessons? And when I wanted to go fishing, did I not just give you a holiday?”
After the grammar, we had a lesson in writing. That day M. Hamel had new copies for us, written in a beautiful round hand—France, Alsace, France, Alsace. They looked like little flags floating everywhere in the school-room, hung from the rod at the top of our desks.
After the writing, we had a lesson in history, and then the babies chanted their ba, be bi, bo, bu. Down there at the back of the room old Hauser had put on his spectacles and, holding his primer in both hands, spelled the letters with them. You could see that he, too, was crying; his voice trembled with emotion, and it was so funny to hear him that we all wanted to laugh and cry.
All at once the church-clock struck twelve. Then the Angelus. At the same moment the trumpets of the Prussians, returning from drill, sounded under our windows. M. Hamel stood up, very pale, in his chair. I never saw him look so tall.
“My friends,” said he, “I—I—” But something choked him. He could not go on.
Then he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and, bearing on with all his might, he wrote as large as he could—
“Vive La France!”