The Last Lesson - Summary

Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was a French novelist and short-story writer. The Last Lesson is set in the days of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) in which France was defeated by Prussia led by Bismarck. Prussia then consisted of what now are the nations of Germany, Poland and parts of Austria. In this story the French districts of Alsace and Lorraine have passed into Prussian hands. Read the story to find out what effect this had on life at school.
The narrator of this story is a little French boy named ‘Franz’. The story is set in 1870–71, a period when the Franco–Prussian War was going on and the French districts of Alsace and Lorraine had been captured by the Prussian Army. Prussia was a large kingdom at that time and comprised of an area that spreads over modern–day Germany, Poland, and some portion of Austria. Prussia, under Bismarck’s leadership, defeated France and forced several new laws and rules upon the French and this story focuses on one such rule.

The story starts with Franz hurrying off to school as he had started out late in the morning. He was a bit scared as he had not prepared for a grammar test that was to take place that day. He did not want to go to school but forced himself to go.
On the way, he passed from the front of Town Hall and noticed a big crowd in front of the bulletin board. To him, it was a bad sign as all the news about the war was given to the town from that board. He wondered about what might have been posted there that caused everyone to gather. But, he did not stop there to find out and kept going.
When he reached there, he noticed that everything was quite silent that day unlike other days when there used to be a lot of noise like opening and closing of desks, and students reading out their lessons loudly. He had thought that he would reach his desk in the class unnoticed due to all the noise but with everything quiet all around, he knew he would be noticed and the teacher, M. Hamel, would scold him. But, he was pleasantly surprised when M. Hamel did not scold him and, instead, simply asked him to go to his seat.
When he sat down, he noticed that M. Hamel was dressed up that day and was wearing his best clothes – “his beautiful green coat, his frilled shirt, and the little black silk cap, all embroidered”. Then, he was surprised to see some prominent village people sitting at the back of the class like the Mayor and the postmaster. All of them looked quite sad but he could not understand the reason behind their presence and their sadness.
He was still wondering about it when M. Hamel said something shocking and things started becoming clearer. He announced that it was their ‘Last Lesson’ in French as an order had come from Berlin prohibiting study of French and making German mandatory instead. Franz realized that that was probably what was on the bulletin board at the Town Hall. He started becoming worried as he was not good in French and if there were no more classes that would have meant that Franz would not be able to read or write French properly ever. He started feeling sorry for himself and the fact that he had not been serious about his French lessons till then. Till then, he had never liked his books or his teacher but after that announcement, he felt that he would prefer them over anything else.
He, further, understood why M. Hamel was wearing his best clothes and why the village elders were sitting at the back of the class in a sad and sorry manner. They were showing respect to the teacher who had worked in that school for forty years and to their country and language.
He was still thinking about all that when his turn came to recite a part of the lesson for the day about rules of grammar. He wanted to get it right but ended up mixing the words and just stood at his desk waiting for M. Hamel to scold him. But, the teacher did not scold him that day. Instead, he commented on the bad and over-relaxed attitude of the French due to which they did not work hard at learning their own language. And, with the study of French banned, there were sure to be a large number of Frenchmen who would not be able to read or write French properly just like Franz. The habit of preferring work or relaxation over learning had resulted in them being behind. He kept talking about the beauty of the French language and how language and culture are the most important things that the people of a country should try and preserve.
Then, he started teaching a lesson and for the first time, Franz was able to  listen to everything carefully and patiently and was able to understand all of it. To him it even seemed that M. Hamel had not explained a lesson with so much patience ever. It was as if he wanted the Last Lesson to be the best one.
When he gave everyone a lesson in writing, everyone quietly set to work. Franz’s thoughts kept flitting from one thing to another; from the beetles flying into the room and the scratching of pens on paper to M. Hamel who was sitting motionless in the chair and was gazing at one thing after another inside the room. He even thought about the beautiful garden in front of the school that M. Hamel had grown on his own.
They kept moving from one lesson to another and even the elders at the back of the class joined them in an oral lesson. Their sadness and emotions came out while they spoke. It went on like that till twelve at which time M. Hamel stood up to signify the end of the class. But, he could not say anything despite his best efforts. Instead, he went to the blackboard and wrote on it “Vive La France!”, which means “Long Live France”.
With that, he leaned on the wall and dismissed the class - “School is dismissed — you may go.”

Word Meanings
Angelus                        A bell rung for prayers
Apprentice                    Trainee
Chanted                       Sang
Chirping                       Sound of birds
Commotion                   Confusion and noise
Cranky                         Irritated
Dread                           Fear
Drilling                         Parading
Gesture                        Sign / Movement
Grave                           Serious
In Unison                     Together
Nuisance                      Problem / Trouble
Primer                          A kind of learning book
Recite                           To speak or say a piece of writing loudly
Reproach                      Blame / Scold
Sawmill                        A place for cutting and processing wood
Sliding                         Moving in a smooth manner
Solemn                        Serious
Thunderclap                 Loud sound of thunder
Trembled                      Shook
Twined                         Entangled
Wretches                      Unhappy people in bad condition

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