Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Lesson follows a session between the Professor and the Pupil, who are not named, with some interruptions by Marie, his maid.

Initially the Pupil seems to be catching on well, and the Professor praises her as “magnificent.” As they move on from addition to subtraction, she starts to stumble, and he encourages her to count, asking how high she can go.

PUPIL: I can count to . . . to infinity.

PROFESSOR: That's not possible, miss.

PUPIL: Well then, let's say to sixteen.

PROFESSOR: That is enough. One must know one's limits.

When he tells her that he will next teach her linguistics and comparative philology, the Maid opposes him.

MAID: No, Professor, no! . . . Professor, especially not philology, philology leads to calamity.

He ignores her and begins, telling an anecdote about a friend who mispronounced the sound “f.” He states that the friend mistook “f” for “f,” using a large number of examples (it seems that these sounds are indistinguishable). As he ends the story by telling how he hid the fault, the Pupil complains of a toothache.

PROFESSOR: He managed to conceal his fault so effectively that, thanks to the hats he wore, no one ever noticed it.

PUPIL: Yes, I’ve got a toothache.

Through a lengthy interchange, the Professor continues to instruct the Pupil in language, with a fantastic array of misinformation, as she complains of her toothache until he threatens to pull the tooth out or to lose his temper.

He next tells her that he will start teaching her “all the translations of the word ‘knife.’” Consulting with Marie about translation and ‘knife,’ she cautions him against continuing on this path. The stage directions next say:

He goes quickly to the drawer where he finds a big knife, invisible or real according to the preference of the director.

As he brandishes it and tries to make the Pupil say knife “in all the languages,” repeating “knife” or just “kni,” her toothache grows even worse and her ears begin to hurt from his voice. The Professor threatens to tear off her ears. As she complains of each body part that starts to hurt, she touches that part and he continues telling her to say “knife.”

With two swift strikes, the Professor kills the Pupil with the knife. As he realizes what he has done, he goes into a state of denial and begs the dead Pupil to get up off the floor.

PROFESSOR: Come now, young lady . . . the lesson is over . . . you may go . . . you can pay another time.

Marie enters and sees the scene, asking sarcastically if the Pupil benefited from her lesson. She then chastises the professor.

MARIE: And today makes it the fortieth time! . . . And every day it’s the same thing. Every day! You should be ashamed at your age . . . and you’re going to make yourself sick.

They continue with a discussion, hearkening back to her statement about calamity, which he claims he thought was a city. Regarding how they will explain yet another coffin and funeral, the stage directions tell us that Marie “takes out an armband with an insignia, perhaps the Nazi swastika.” She tells him that if he is afraid, “wear this, then you won’t have anything more to be afraid of.”

The Professor puts on the band. They take out the body, and the cycle begins again, with a new Pupil waiting in the next room.

Ionesco, Eugène. 1982. “The Lesson.” In Four Plays. Trans. Donald M. Allen. New York: Grove Press.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access