In telling the story of the last lesson that M. Hamel, a school teacher in the French region of Alsace-Lorraine, gives to Franz and his fellow pupils shortly after Prussian invasion of the region, Daudet explores the multi-faceted nature of patriotism and resistance. Through the character of M. Hamel, the reader is presented with a figure of resistance who fights his subjugation not by deploying arms, but by deploying patriotic pride. In this way, the story suggests the importance of affirming one’s national identity in the face of foreign oppression.
Daudet establishes that M. Hamel and the other the residents of Alsace-Lorraine are a defeated people, their land having passed into the control of Prussian invaders. M. Hamel begins the school lesson by announcing to the stunned students and townspeople who have gathered in the room that this is to be the last lesson to be held in French. An order has arrived from Berlin—the seat of the Prussian occupiers—that from the very next day onward, lessons will be taught in German. That M. Hamel must obey this order suggests the extent of his own powerlessness. He and the French community of which he is a part are now subject to the caprices of their foreign masters.
Yet while M. Hamel cannot undo the order from Berlin, he nonetheless acts as a patriotic Frenchman by affirming his national identity as a means of resistance against domination. This is reflected particularly in the exercises that M. Hamel assigns his students during the class. For the lesson in writing, he has the pupils copy out the words “France, Alsace,” over and over again. The nationalistic and patriotic dimension of this exercise is made evident in Franz’s remark that M. Hamel’s copies hanging around the room looked like “little flags floating everywhere.” The words associate the region of Alsace with France, rather than with the land of the Prussian occupiers. In this way, the words function as a denial of the Prussian claim to the land, and act, instead, as an affirmation of Alsatian identity as French. Overcome with emotion at the end of the lesson, M. Hamel is unable to speak, and instead writes in large letters on the blackboard, “Vive La France!” or “Long Live France!” These words he inscribes again represent an act of resistance; they affirm his loyalty to the French republic, even in the face of subjugation to the Prussians, and embody his unconquerable allegiance to his native culture and land.
Not only does the story explicitly establish M. Hamel’s allegiance to his native land, it also suggests that the young narrator has learned his teacher’s lesson well. The very fact that Franz recounts this story to the reader, giving emphasis to the profound impact M. Hamel’s final class had on him, indicates the extent to which the lesson had a lasting effect on his development and thinking. Indeed, the narrator’s name—Franz—echoes the name of his motherland. Through this play on naming, Daudet implicitly suggests that the narrator will grow up to follow his teacher’s example. The association between little “Franz” and “France” establishes an indelible link between the boy and his nation. He, like his teacher, will develop into a patriotic French citizen.
The “Last Lesson” that M. Hamel gives to his students, therefore, is not just a lesson in language and writing—it is a lesson in patriotism and resistance. Although his land is occupied by Prussian adversaries who have the advantage of superior military strength, M. Hamel defies his oppressors using only a French grammar book, a blackboard, and his own voice. In doing so, he teaches his pupils that even without arms, they have the power to challenge their subjugation.
Patriotism and Resistance ThemeTracker
Patriotism and Resistance 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.
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?”
[…] 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!”