Set against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which saw the defeat of France at the hands of Prussia (then consisting of Germany, Poland, and parts of Austria), Daudet’s “Last Lesson” explores the effects of cultural subjugation in a time of war. Little Franz, a schoolboy in the French region of Alsace-Lorraine, arrives at school one morning only to discover that, on the order of the Prussian forces that have taken control of the region, lessons will no longer be taught in French, but in German—the language of the invaders. The story emphasizes the deep link that exists between language and cultural identity, suggesting that language is not only a marker of unique cultural heritage, it also constitutes its very essence.
Franz isn’t very keen on his French lessons to begin with. On the day the story is set, Franz expects to be quizzed by his teacher M. Hamel about grammar, but he hasn’t learned the rules on participles he was supposed to and is unprepared for questioning. He would have preferred to spend his day outside, in the beautiful weather, among the fields and the woods, rather than go to class. To Franz, his French grammar lesson represents the drudgery of school—he finds his school work boring and pointless, as reflected in his preference for doing other, seemingly more exciting things. Together, these details establish that Franz initially fails to value his own language.
Yet upon arriving for class and discovering that this is going to be his last French lesson, Franz is devastated, just as the other pupils and the villagers in the classroom are. M. Hamel’s announcement that the Prussians have mandated only the teaching of German in the schools of Alsace-Lorraine, the region they’ve invaded and home to Franz, makes him realize the importance of his language. Franz says that he hardly knows how to write in French, and he is terribly dejected that he must now stop learning the language altogether. When Franz is called on to recite the rule for the participle, he is unable to do so. More than ever, he regrets not studying when he had the chance: “What would I not have given,” he tells the reader, “to be able to say that dreadful rule for the participle all through, very loud and clear, and without one mistake?” It is only when he finds his way of life threatened by foreign occupiers that Franz learns that the language he has taken for granted is in fact central to his identity, as well as to his freedom.
The link between the French language and French cultural identity becomes clearer to Franz as the lesson proceeds. When Franz fails to recite the rule for the participle, M. Hamel gently chides him, telling him and the rest of the gathered school children and villagers that it has not served them well to put off learning until tomorrow. It is this procrastination that now gives the Prussian occupiers the right to say, “[Y]ou pretend to be Frenchmen, and yet you can neither speak nor write your own language?” M. Hamel even blames himself, taking responsibility for the times he sent his students to water his flowers, or gave them a holiday, instead of obliging them to learn their lessons. Thus, the teacher emphasizes language as the central aspect of cultural identity. One cannot be French, or even claim to be French, without mastering the French language first. M. Hamel dwells on the specific beauty and clarity of the French language. He exhorts the gathered crowd to guard it carefully, “because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison.” Thus, M. Hamel posits the French language not only as a marker of cultural identity, but as its very essence. Without it, those who are subjugated cannot hold on to themselves or their cultures, and thus also their freedom.
M. Hamel not only lectures his students on the link between language and culture, he also demonstrates this link through the final grammar instruction that he gives them. Franz remarks that the school teacher “had never explained everything with so much patience,” so that the lesson seems “so easy, so easy!” to little Franz. M. Hamel thus discharges his role as a teacher of French with immense diligence. In communicating the principles of French so effectively, he not only equips his students with a better grasp of their language, he also equips them with a better grasp of their French cultural identity.
Daudet’s “Last Lesson,” therefore, highlights how people often take language for granted, failing to realize the extent to which it lies at the very heart of their identity. Language, the story argues, is not only the means through which people express themselves, it is also the means through which their culture is preserved and perpetuated.
Culture and Language ThemeTracker
Culture and Language Quotes in The Last Lesson
For a moment I thought of running away and spending the day out of doors. It was so warm, so bright! The birds were chirping at the edge of the woods; and in the open field back of the sawmill the Prussian soldiers were drilling. It was all much more tempting than the rule for participles, but I had strength to resist, and hurried off to school.
[…] 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?”
[…] M. Hamel went on to talk of the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world—the clearest, the most logical; that we must guard it among us and never forget it, because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison.
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!”