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The Last Lesson standard 12

The Last Lesson

About the author
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.

Notice these expressions in the text.
Infer their meaning from the context
  •  in great dread of          . in unison
  •  counted on       . a great bustle
  •  thumbed at the edges      . reproach ourselves with

I started for school very late that morning and was in great
dread of a scolding, especially because M. Hamel had said
that he would question us on participles, and I did not
know the first word about them. For a moment I thought of
running away and spending the day out of doors. It was so
warm, so bright! The birds were chirping at the edge of the
woods; and in the open field back of the sawmill the
Prussian soldiers were drilling. It was all much more
tempting than the rule for participles, but I had the
strength to resist, and hurried off to school.
When I passed the town hall there was a crowd in
front of the bulletin-board. For the last two years all our
bad news had come from there — the lost battles, the draft,
the orders of the commanding officer — and I thought to
myself, without stopping, “What can be the matter now?”
Then, as I hurried by as fast as I could go, the
blacksmith, Wachter, who was there, with his apprentice,
reading the bulletin, called after me, “Don’t go so fast,
bub; you’ll get to your school in plenty of time!”
I thought he was making fun of me, and reached
M. Hamel’s little garden all out of breath.
Usually, when school began, there was a great bustle,
which could be heard out in the street, the opening and
closing of desks, lessons repeated in unison, very loud, with
our hands over our ears to understand better, and the
teacher’s great ruler rapping on the table. But now it was
all so still! I had counted on the commotion to get to my
desk without being seen; but, of course, that day everything
had to be as quiet as Sunday morning. Through the window
I saw my classmates, already in their places, and M. Hamel
walking up and down with his terrible iron ruler under his
arm. I had to open the door and go in before everybody. You
can imagine how I blushed and how frightened I was.
But nothing happened. M. Hamel saw me and said
very kindly, “Go to your place quickly, little Franz. We were
beginning without you.”
I jumped over the bench and sat down at my desk. Not
till then, when I had got a little over my fright, did I see
that our teacher had on his beautiful green coat, his frilled shirt, and the little black silk
cap, all embroidered, that he
never wore except on
inspection and prize days.
Besides, the whole school
seemed so strange and
solemn. But the thing that
surprised me most was to
see, on the back benches that
were always empty, the village
people sitting quietly like
ourselves; old Hauser, with
his three-cornered hat, the
former mayor, the former
postmaster, and several others besides. Everybody looked
sad; and Hauser had brought an old primer, thumbed at
the edges, and he held it open on his knees with his great
spectacles lying across the pages.
While I was wondering about it all, M. Hamel mounted
his chair, and, in the same grave and gentle tone which he
had used to me, said, “My children, this is the last lesson
I shall give you. The order has come from Berlin to teach
only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The
new master comes tomorrow. This is your last French
lesson. I want you to be very attentive.”
What a thunderclap these words were to me!
Oh, the wretches; that was what they had put up at
the town-hall!
My last French lesson! Why, I hardly knew how to
write! I should never learn any more! I must stop there, then!
Oh, how sorry I was for not learning my lessons, for seeking
birds’ eggs, or going sliding on the Saar! My books, that had
seemed such a nuisance a while ago, so heavy to carry, my
grammar, and my history of the saints, were old friends now
that I couldn’t give up. And M. Hamel, too; the idea that he
was going away, that I should never see him again, made me
forget all about his ruler and how cranky he was.
Poor man! It was in honour of this last lesson that he
had put on his fine Sunday clothes, and now I understood why the old men of the village were sitting there in the
back of the room. It was because they were sorry, too, that
they had not gone to school more. It was their way of
thanking our master for his forty years of faithful service
and of showing their respect for the country that was theirs
no more.
While I was thinking of all this, I heard my name called.
It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be
able to say that dreadful rule for the participle all through,
very loud and clear, and without one mistake? But I got
mixed up on the first words and stood there, holding on to
my desk, my heart beating, and not daring to look up.
I heard M. Hamel say to me, “I won’t scold you, little
Franz; you must feel bad enough. See how it is! Every day
we have said to ourselves, ‘Bah! I’ve plenty of time. I’ll
learn it tomorrow.’ And now you see where we’ve come out.
Ah, that’s the great trouble with Alsace; she puts off
learning till tomorrow. 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?’ But you are not the worst, poor little Franz.
We’ve all a great deal to reproach ourselves with.”
“Your parents were not anxious enough to have you
learn. They preferred to put you to work on a farm or at
the mills, so as to have a little more money. And I? I’ve
been to blame also. Have I not often
sent you to water my flowers
instead of learning your
lessons? And when I
wanted to go fishing,
did I not just give
you a holiday?”
Then, from one
thing to another,
M. Hamel went on
to talk of the
French language,
saying that it was
the most beautiful language in the world — the
clearest, the most logical; that
we must guard it among us and
never forget it, because when a
people are enslaved, as long as
they hold fast to their language
it is as if they had the key to their
prison. Then he opened a
grammar and read us our lesson.
I was amazed to see how well I
understood it. All he said seemed
so easy, so easy! I think, too, that
I had never listened so carefully,
and that he had never explained
everything with so much patience.
It seemed almost as if the poor
man wanted to give us all he knew
before going away, and to put it
all into our heads at one stroke.
After the grammar, we had a
lesson in writing. That day M.
Hamel had new copies for us,
written in a beautiful round hand
— France, Alsace, France, Alsace. They looked like little
flags floating everywhere in the school-room, hung from
the rod at the top of our desks. You ought to have seen how
every one set to work, and how quiet it was! The only sound
was the scratching of the pens over the paper. Once some
beetles flew in; but nobody paid any attention to them, not
even the littlest ones, who worked right on tracing their
fish-hooks, as if that was French, too. On the roof the
pigeons cooed very low, and I thought to myself, “Will they
make them sing in German, even the pigeons?”
Whenever I looked up from my writing I saw M. Hamel
sitting motionless in his chair and gazing first at one thing,
then at another, as if he wanted to fix in his mind just how
everything looked in that little school-room. 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. Only the desks and benches had been worn
smooth; the walnut-trees in the garden were taller, and
the hopvine that he had planted himself twined about the
windows to the roof. How it must have broken his heart to
leave it all, poor man; to hear his sister moving about in
the room above, packing their trunks! For they must leave
the country next day.
But he had the courage to hear every lesson to the
very last. After the writing, we had a lesson in history,
and then the babies chanted their ba, be bi, bo, bu. Down
there at the back of the room old Hauser had put on his
spectacles and, holding his primer in both hands, spelled
the letters with them. You could see that he, too, was crying;
his voice trembled with emotion, and it was so funny to
hear him that we all wanted to laugh and cry. Ah, how
well I remember it, that last lesson!
All at once the church-clock struck twelve. Then the
Angelus. At the same moment the trumpets of the
Prussians, returning from drill, sounded under our
windows. M. Hamel stood up, very pale, in his chair.
I never saw him look so tall.
“My friends,” said he, “I—I—” But something choked
him. He could not go on.
Then he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk,
and, bearing on with all his
might, he wrote as large as he
could —
“Vive La France!”
Then he stopped and leaned
his head against the wall, and,
without a word, he made a
gesture to us with his hand —
“School is dismissed — you
may go.”

Understanding the text


1. The people in this story suddenly realise how precious their
language is to them. What shows you this? Why does this
happen?

2. Franz thinks, “Will they make them sing in German, even the
pigeons?” What could this mean?
(There could be more than one answer.)
Talking about the text
1. “When a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their
language it is as if they had the key to their prison.”
Can you think of examples in history where a conquered people
had their language taken away from them or had a language
imposed on them?
2. What happens to a linguistic minority in a state? How do you
think they can keep their language alive? For example: 
Punjabis in Bangalore
 Tamilians in Mumbai
 Kannadigas in Delhi
Gujaratis in Kolkata
3. Is it possible to carry pride in one’s language too far?
Do you know what ‘linguistic chauvinism’ means?

Working with words


1. English is a language that contains words from many other
languages. This inclusiveness is one of the reasons it is now a
world language, For example:
petite – French
 kindergarten – German
capital – Latin
democracy – Greek
bazaar – Hindi

Find out the origins of the following words.
tycoon barbecue zero
tulip veranda ski
logo robot trek
bandicoot
2. Notice the underlined words in these sentences and tick the
option that best explains their meaning.
(a) “What a thunderclap these words were to me!”
The words were
(i) loud and clear.
(ii) startling and unexpected.
(iii) pleasant and welcome.
(b) “When a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to
their language it is as if they had the key to their prison”
It is as if they have the key to the prison as long as they
(i) do not lose their language.
(ii) are attached to their language.
(iii) quickly learn the conqueror’s language.
(c) Don’t go so fast, you will get to your school in plenty of time.
You will get to your school
(i) very late.
(ii) too early.
(iii) early enough.
(d) I never saw him look so tall.
M. Hamel (a) had grown physically taller
(b) seemed very confident
(c) stood on the chair
Noticing form
Read this sentence
M. Hamel had said that he would question us on participles.
In the sentence above, the verb form “had said” in the first
part is used to indicate an “earlier past”. The whole story is
narrated in the past. M. Hamel’s “saying” happened earlier

than the events in this story. This form of the verb is called the
past perfect.
Pick out five sentences from the story with this form of the verb
and say why this form has been used.
Writing
1. Write a notice for your school bulletin board. Your notice could
be an announcement of a forthcoming event, or a requirement
to be fulfilled, or a rule to be followed.
2. Write a paragraph of about 100 words arguing for or against
having to study three languages at school.
3. Have you ever changed your opinion about someone or
something that you had earlier liked or disliked? Narrate what
led you to change your mind.
Things to do
1. Find out about the following (You may go to the internet, interview
people, consult reference books or visit a library.)
(a) Linguistic human rights
(b) Constitutional guarantees for linguistic minorities in India.
2. Given below is a survey form. Talk to at least five of your
classmates and fill in the information you get in the form.
S.No. Languages Home Neighbourhood City/Town School
you know language language language language
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

ABOUT THE UNIT 

THEME


The pain that is inflicted on the people of a territory by its
conquerors by taking away the right to study or speak their
own language.

SUB-THEME

Student and teacher attitudes to learning and teaching.
READING COMPREHENSION
The comprehension check at the end of each section in the
unit helps pupils make sure that they have understood the
facts before they move on to the next section. One session of
forty minutes is likely to be enough for one section of the unit.
Pupils can read each section silently and discuss the answers
in pairs.
The questions at the end of the unit are inferential. These help
pupils make sense of the writer’s intention in focussing on a
local episode and to comment on an issue of universal
significance. There could be a follow-up discussion on parts
for which students need explanation.

TALKING ABOUT THE TEXT

Topics to be discussed in small groups or pairs. This shall help
pupils think of issues that relate to the realities of the society
they live in. Gives scope for developing speaking skills in the
English language on varied issues. Fluency development.

WORKING WITH WORDS

To make pupils aware of
• the enrichment of the English language through borrowings
from the other languages.
• idiomatic expressions and figurative use of language.

NOTICING FORM

To make pupils notice tense form and understand the context
of its use.

WRITING


• Practice in a functional genre, e.g., bulletin.
• Argumentative writing on a topic related to their life at school.
• Narrating subjective experience discussing personal likes and
dislikes.

THINGS TO DO


Extension activity that will help pupils understand language
rights of citizens and the problems of linguistic minorities. Social
and political awareness.



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