Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Alphonse Daudet’s 1873 short story “The Last Class” begins as Franz, a young French student living in Alsace, France, meanders slowly to class. He considers skipping school but decides against it. As he makes his way to his lesson, Franz chooses to take a longer route through the fields. On his way, Franz passes the notice board at the center of town, just outside the mayor’s office, and comments on the crowd of people clustered around it, reading. Weary from two years of bad news, Franz dryly comments: “‘What has happened?’” In response, the town blacksmith calls after him: “‘It is not safe. Run along quickly to school.’” 

Chastised but thinking that the blacksmith speaks in jest, Franz begins to hurry. Running the rest of the way to school, Franz is out of breath as he opens the door to his French lesson. He expects to be greeted by the bustling sounds of a busy class and the harsh remonstrations of his schoolmaster, Monsieur Hamel; instead, the classroom is silent. A collection of solemn villagers sit in the back of the room, including the old mayor and a bespectacled soldier. Franz, who still expects a scolding, is surprised and unsettled when Monsieur Hamel softly asks him to take a seat. 

As Franz finds his seat, he notices that Monsieur Hamel has donned his finest outfit, one he wears only for special occasions. The strange environment of the classroom clarifies when Monsieur Hamel resumes speaking. The refined man explains that he will no longer teach the children French; indeed, he will no longer teach nor live in the province. Monsieur Hamel continues, telling the wide-eyed students that their homeland, the Alsace province of France, has been annexed to the Germans as part of the concessions after the French loss of the Franco-Prussian war. Today, he mournfully declares, will be their last lesson in French. In the future, they will learn only German and must forget their mother tongue. 

Franz is shattered when he thinks of the many hours of lessons he wasted in frivolous pursuits. Amidst his worries for the future, he hears Monsieur Hamel call his name to recite the participles. The young student stumbles and fails to recite their proper order, although he dearly wishes he could. Despite his mistakes, the schoolmaster is uncharacteristically kind and reproaches him gently. Monsieur Hamel laments that it is the nature of the people of Alsace, who too often put off learning French because they feel there is always time. However, time has run out, and they may never have the opportunity to learn. 

Monsieur Hamel tells the children of his desire to continue teaching and speaking French. He mourns the loss of the “most beautiful language in the world” and tells his pupils to never lose their language because to lose their language is to lose themselves. Language, he says, is the key to freedom. The lesson continues, and the children conduct themselves seriously. They listen diligently and Monsieur Hamel’s final lesson with respect. 

Franz watches as Monsieur Hamel gazes around his classroom, and the young boy sees the pain in the older man’s eyes as he stares for the last time at the room he has taught in for forty years. As the bell rings, Monsieur Hamel rises to his feet, intent on offering some parting sentiment. Emotion overcomes him, and his voice breaks in the middle, leaving him unable to go on. Turning to the blackboard, he writes “Vive la France” in stark white chalk, then leans his head onto the wall, unable to look at his students. Class is dismissed, and Alsace is lost. 

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