THE LAST LESSON
THE LAST LESSON
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
|Alphonse Daudet was a French novelist and playwright and was a part of the French Naturalism movement. He started his career as a school teacher but quickly got tired of the vocation. Soon, he gave up teaching and decided to go to Paris to become a journalist. There, he was hired by Le Figaro and wrote some plays which made him popular in the literary circles. He was later hired as a private secretary by the Duke of Morny, a powerful minister of Napoleon III . Daudet later published Lettre de mon Moulin which gained him a sizable readership. He produced works like Le Petit Chose, L’Arlésienne and Aventures Prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon among others. However, it was Fromont jeune et Risler aîné which turned out to be his masterpiece. Daudet died of syphilis on 16th December 1897.|
|The language of any country is the pride of that country. It not only defines the culture but also tells us about the people, literature and history of of the country. Language for some people is just the medium of communication but for others it is the question of life and death. The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War, often referred to in France as the 1870 War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871) was a conflict between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia was aided by the North German Confederation, of which it was a member, and the South German states of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria. The complete Prussian and German victory brought about the final unification of Germany under King Wilhelm I of Prussia. It also marked the downfall of Napoleon III and the end of the Second French Empire, which was replaced by the French Third Republic. As part of the settlement, the territory of Alsace-Lorraine was taken by Prussia to become a part of Germany, which it would retain until the end of World War I when it was given back to France in the Treaty of Versaillesath. 'The Last Lesson' very prominently raises the question of linguistic and cultural hegemony of the colonial and imperial powers and their lust for controlling the world and influencing their cultures and identities. The Last Lesson raises the burning question very innocently through the words of little Franz that "Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?" This raises the question of immorality of imposing imperial languages and cultures on the colonies. The child questions that when even the birds and animals can't be forced to abandon their language and speak others then what forces the man to think that it would be prudent force other human beings to forcibly accept any language other than theirs. The language of a country is not only a medium of communication for the people but also the link for identity, once the native language is snatched away from the people. It's not only the loss of convenient communicating medium but also the loss of identity for people for what they have been and what they might become. When a small child like Franz can think of the irrationality behind snatching away the right of language and identity from people then why can't the war lords and colonizers understand the fact?|
|The themes of patriotism, freedom of language and the love for one’s mother tongue are predominant in the story. The people of Alsace and Lorraine were denied the freedom to learn their own language by the Prussians. This story reflects upon the arrogance of the colonizer to forcibly take away the rights of those who are colonized. “The last lesson” stresses on the importance of education and the necessity to respect and learn one’s own language. This story draws our attention to the unfair practice of linguistic chauvinism. It refers to an unreasonable pride in one’s own language while disregarding all the other languages as inferior. The people living in the regions of Alsace and Lorraine are the victims of this aggressive concept of linguistic chauvinism. They are forcibly made to learn German. In this story, the author brings into limelight the oppression of the majority. This story also makes a universal appeal as it highlights our tendency to value things more when we no longer have access to them. When French was taught in the school, Franz and the likes of him did not take it seriously. The parents also preferred to see their kids working and earning for the family rather learning French. It is only when they are denied the freedom of knowing their own language, they realize how sorry they are for not paying enough attention to the French lessons and how unfairly they are being treated. The sense of loss is suggested with the mention of the Prussians drilling their land. There is a sense of helplessness that runs throughout the poem. Franz feels guilty for not learning his French lessons properly. M. Hamel feels guilty about not being able to impart all his knowledge to his students. The sense of defeat is evident in his tone which is usually strict and cranky but today he was gentle, quiet and motionless. It is not justified to take away the natural right of the people to speak their mother tongue. The solemnity of the classroom builds up the mood of gloom and despair. M. Hamel says that the only way to free themselves from the enslavement is by clinging to their own language. In confined existence, the only key to our prison is our language.|
Franz was hesitant about going to school that particular morning; not only was he late, he had not even prepared his lesson on participles. Nevertheless, he managed to curb the temptation to miss the class, and hurried off to school.
Bulletin-board at the town hall
Franz came across a crowd in front of the infamous bulletin-board at the town hall. He walked past it wondering what could be the matter. The board was the standard mediator between the public and the government, conveying news, orders and other declarations from Berlin.
The queer silence at the school
The school was unusually silent that morning. The customary commotion at the school – the sounds of opening and closing of desks, of lessons repeated in unison and that of the teacher’s great ruler hitting the table – was replaced by a conspicuous stillness.
The teacher, M. Hamel, was dressed in his best attire, and seemed uncommonly kind even when Franz showed up late for his class. The most surprising of all was the presence of the villagers inside the classroom occupying the usually empty backbenches.
A stunning announcement
|As we have seen in this summary, The Last Lesson is an intensely poignant story about what it means to speak a certain language and how closely one’s language is linked to one’s identity. The story demonstrates how the linguistic chauvinism of one race can lead to the enslavement of another and what we as individuals can do to overcome such a challenge. Themes of war, identity, linguistic chauvinism, uncertainty and displacement are replete in the story.
Because the story is narrated from the perspective of a little boy instead of an adult figure, the story becomes all the powerful in showing the magnitude of the damage that has been done through neglecting one’s language. This is because a child narrator like Franz represents the future of France and the French language. The fact that this future of France is so unprepared to face the challenges that lie ahead doesn’t bode well for France and her people. Franz’s situation may also be seen as a generational failure – the failure of his parents and the teacher who did not do enough to inculcate the love of language in the new generation. However, everything hasn’t been lost just yet. As long as the memory of the Last Lesson is fresh in Franz’s mind, the language still has a future. And the great detail with which he remembers the Last Lesson is a sign of hope:
“Ah, how well I remember it, that last lesson!”
The use of the child narrator is very effective in such stories because it allows one to talk about the most serious matters in the most innocent manner. The simple, straightforward narration by the child narrator sets the reader completely off guard. Furthermore, the character of Franz elicits sympathy and the sincere representation of his joys, fears, apprehensions and embarrassment endears him to the reader. A case in point may be Franz’s musings about the cooing pigeons:
I thought to myself, “Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?”
These seemingly harmless lines present a sharp critique of the linguistic chauvinism of the Prussians and the repressive nature of the Prussian regime. It also hints at the limits beyond which they will never be able to assert their brute force.
The literary device of contrast is employed at the end of the lesson when the striking of the church clock is followed by the recital of the Angelus, a Catholic prayer. Simultaneously, the Prussians sound their trumpet and the two contrasting worlds of peace and violence, faith and force meet at a brief moment in time. And it is in this moment that the last lesson comes to an end.
The deep connection between identity and language becomes prominent when the Prussians, out of their linguistic chauvinism impose their language on a French speaking populace of the districts they have captured. This connection between the two is also expressed in the passage where M. Hamel suggests that by neglecting the language, the residents of Alsace have given up their identity :
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?’
The theme of uncertainty is seen in the first paragraph of the story through the eyes of the narrator when he learns the inconvenient fact that it is M. Hamel’s Last Lesson. Also, the lines spoken by M. Hamel “she (Alsace) puts off learning till tomorrow” shows the mistake of not recognizing the presence of uncertainty in our lives and taking the present for granted.
Finally, the fact that M. Hamel is being evicted from the place after forty years of service to the very place brings forth the theme of displacement. His emotional suffering is dealt with in most empathic terms:
Fancy! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his garden outside the window and his class in front of him, just like that… …How it must have broken his heart to leave it all, poor man
WORKSHEET ON THE LAST LESSON
- Why was Franz afraid of going to school? What other distractions tempted him to miss school?
- What was the significance of the bulletin board? What had been put up that day?
- What difference did Franz notice when he entered his class?
- What was unusual about M Hamel’s dress on his last day in the school?
- Why the order from Berlin is called a ‘thunder clap’ by Franz?
- Who occupied the back benches during M Hamel’s last lesson? Why?
- Who did M Hamel blame for not giving due attention to their language?
- What changes did the order from Berlin cause in school that day?
- What changes came over little Franz after he heard M Hamel’s announcement?
- How did Franz's feelings about M. Hamel and school change?
- What did M. Hamel say about the French language? Why did he urge them to guard it?
- Franz thinks, “Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons ?” What could this means?
WORKSHEET ANSWERS ON THE LAST LESSON
- Ans: Franz was afraid to go to school that day because he had not prepared the test on participles in the least. Mr. M Hamel was a strict teacher. So he was scared of being embarrassed and punished by his teacher. Besides, the warm, bright weather, the chirping of birds and the sight of the marching Prussian soldiers also tempted him to stay away from school.
- Ans: A bulletin board had been put up at the Town Hall for every news and announcement. the details of lost battles, the draft and the order of the commanding officers, all were put up on the bulletin board. The bulletin board was the carrier of all the bad news for the district of Alsace and Lorraine. That day also the bulletin board carried the information that German will be taught instead of French in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine.
- Ans: Usually, there was a great commotion of the opening and closing of desks, of lessons repeated in unison, and the teacher's huge ruler rapping on the table. But that particular day, it was as quiet as Sunday morning. When Franz entered his school, he found a pin-drop silence. This was very surprising for him. Secondly, M. Hamel asked him to enter the class and take his seat politely. Thirdly, he was astonished to see that the village people were also present in the class. They have occupied the last benches. The village people were very sad and worried. The reason for their sadness was that from now onwards German would be taught in the schools of French districts of Alsace and Lorraine.
- Ans: M Hamel was dressed in his special suit which comprised his beautiful green coat, frilled shirt and a little black silk cap, all embroidered. He never wore this attire except on inspection and prize days. But that day deserved such a special suit because it was going to be his last lesson in French and from the next day onward, Germany would assert its political rights over Alsace and Lorraine.
- Ans: When M.Hamel mounted on the chair and announced that he was there to teach his last French lesson that day, Franz was shocked and surprised. He felt very guilty for deliberately ignoring to learn his native language and he suddenly developed a strange fascination for his language and his school. The order from Berlin is called a thunderclap by Franz, because it was a complete shock for him. He had never thought that he would be deprived of the right of learning his native language.
- Ans: In the story "The Last Lesson" by Alphonse Daudet, the elderly people of the village occupied the back benches in the classroom on the day of the last lesson. They sat there, attending M Hamel's last lesson to pay their respect to their native language and country that was theirs no longer. These elderly people also wanted to thank and show their gratitude to their French teacher, M Hamel, for his years of faithful service.
- Ans: Mr. M Hamel blamed the inhabitants of Alsace and Lorraine for their lackadaisical attitude to learning French. He blamed them for not being anxious enough to have their children learn French and preferring to put them to work on their farms or at their mills. He also blamed himself for sending his students to water his plants and taking holidays when he wanted to go for fishing.
- Ans: The order from Berlin brought all the routine hustle-bustle of the school life to a stand-still. The teacher, M. Hamel, became more sympathetic to his students and taught his lessons with more patience. The students became more attentive in their classes. The villagers, who were sitting at the usually empty back benches and had come to show their respect and gratitude to M. Hamel, regretted not going to school more than they did. The order also brought about a great change in the feelings of the people towards their country and their native language. There was a general sadness about not being able to utilise the opportunities of learning French when it was easily accessible.
- Ans: After hearing the announcement, Franz was very sad and he regretted not learning his lessons seriously, and being deprived of the opportunity to learn his own mother tongue. His books suddenly became his 'old friends' whom he could not abandon. He felt sorry for France, his motherland and French, his mother tongue.
- Ans: Franz was shocked when M. Hamel told the students about the order from Berlin and that it was their last French lesson. He forgot about his teacher’s ruler and crankiness. He developed a fondness for M. Hamel at the troubling idea of being separated from him forever. He understood the pain and agony his teacher was undergoing. And, he became more sympathetic towards his teacher. His school too, now, carried a different meaning. His books and lessons seemed old friends whom he couldn’t give up. He realised with pain how much French meant to him and regretted not being attentive in his classes earlier. Suddenly, he felt that the ‘difficult concepts’ had never actually been difficult.
- Ans: M. Hamel told them that French was the most beautiful language in the world. It was the clearest and the most logical language. He asked them to guard it among them and never forget it. He gave a reason also. When people were enslaved, as long as they held fast to their language, they had the key to their prison. He urged his students to guard it among themselves and reminded them never to forget it.
- Ans: Alphonse Daudet’s ‘The Last Lesson’ very prominently raises the question of linguistic and cultural hegemony of the colonial and imperial powers and their lust for controlling the world and influencing their cultures and identities. Prussians acquired the districts of Alsace and Lorraine in Franco-Prussian War , but they were not satisfied with mere political domination ,they desired to enforce their own language on the people of the defeated nation. They released the order that from now German would be taught in schools rather than French. Franz wondered whether they would make even pigeons sing in German. It means that they had grown up using French as their language and now snatching away their language from them would be unfair and unkind. The language was as natural to them as cooing is to the pigeon. So, compulsion to speak another language is like dominating the force of nature and enslaving it. As it is next to impossible to alter the way pigeons sing, in the same way it is difficult for people to accept a language which is forcibly imposed on them. Adopting a new language causes pain and discomfort.
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