Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Franz is a carefree young boy who is more excited by the whistling of the blackbirds and the drills of the Prussian army than his French lessons. When he is late, Franz is concerned about the prospect of receiving a scolding and not the class time he will miss. Indeed, he exacerbates his lateness by taking a longer route to school and speaking to the people he passes along the way.
Although Franz initially seems to be a frivolous child guided by immature desires, the schoolmaster’s shocking revelations reveal a deeper layer of Franz’s character. Although the boy can be careless and lazy, these traits are merely expressions of his boyishness. Indeed, Franz is a thoughtful child whose only fault is presuming, like many who live in Alsace, that there will be more time to learn. Throughout the story, Franz changes significantly. The impending German occupation forces him to grow up prematurely, becoming as solemn and sober as the older villagers who sit quietly at the back of the classroom. Circumstances force him to mature rapidly, and readers watch as he evolves throughout the brief final lesson. From a young boy who wishes only to play in the meadow, Franz becomes a serious young man who understands the complex weight of the world around him.
Franz’s schoolmaster, Monsieur Hamel, has taught French in the same room at Franz’s school for forty years. A man of deep national pride, Monsieur Hamel views his four-decade tenure as a French teacher as a service to the nation. He has spent his life instructing the youth of Alsace in their language and culture, tying them to their French heritage, and ensuring that they properly respect their motherland. German occupation is a massive blow to him, as it is an affront to his life’s work and all that he finds valuable. The loss of the land is nothing compared to the loss of the language, a prospect that affects Monsieur Hamel deeply.
In the final lesson, the once-stern Monsieur Hamel seems a changed man. He does not lecture or scold as he usually does. Instead, he speaks with earnest fervor, seeking to ensure that his pupils do not forget the roots he has so carefully instilled in them. Readers see the care he has for his students and the French language, which he calls "the most beautiful language in the world." By the end of the story, Monsieur Hamel is so choked with emotion that he can't get the words out to say goodbye. All he can do is write "Vive la France" on the board.
Although the blacksmith appears only briefly, his ominous warning to Franz foreshadows the tragedy ahead. As the blacksmith hangs the public notice informing the villagers of their forthcoming occupation, he warns Franz that it is not safe and suggests the boy hurry along to class. The blacksmith is a relatively unimportant character, but his fearful tone suggests the anxious climate of the town as it contrasts with Franz’s childish and carefree nature.
The Old Soldier
Seated at the back of the classroom and clutched a “tri-colored flag,” the old soldier holds a tattered spelling book that he reads through bespectacled eyes. The soldier, like Monsieur Hamel, represents national pride and the importance of language as a means of preserving one’s heritage and country. Although he is older and has served his country in battle, he attends the lesson with an old spelling book he has carefully kept over the long years since he took lessons as a boy as a final nod to the language and nation he so dearly loves.