“The Last Lesson” by Alphonse Daudet: Answers to Questions
1. In what ways does the narrator demonstrate the significance of language for cultural identity?
The narrator, Little Franz, demonstrates the significance of language for cultural identity in a number of ways. First, he echoes M. Hamel’s words when the latter tells him, as well as the other students, that “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” (Daudet 44). This means that language is not only a people’s means of communicating with each other but also – and more importantly – a means of defining the cultural identity of a people and a means of fostering national unity. Most of all, according to the words of M. Hamel, language is the key to freedom. This means that, as long as people do not forget to speak their language, their identity and their culture can never be truly controlled by anyone. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Germans subdued a portion of France and subsequently banned the use of the French language in schools. In the story, Little Franz, despite his age, somehow shows the urgency of this situation by narrating the events of how the school’s language has to change from French to German. Nevertheless, all throughout the story, Little Franz echoes the optimism of his French teacher, M. Hamel.
Another way that Little Franz demonstrates the value of language for cultural identity is through his use of logic. In the midst of the silence that ensues from the full concentration that the students give their French grammar class, Little Franz hears the coos of the pigeons on the roof and thinks to himself, “Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?” (Daudet 44). The question may seem outright stupid at first, but a closer look into it reveals a seemingly sharp sarcasm from Little Franz. The truth is that he believes that the Germans may be able to force the French people to speak German but these Germans will never be powerful enough to make even the pigeons speak German. Another interpretation of the line is that, perhaps, for the narrator, Little Franz, the pigeons of France represent the French people themselves – the Germans may actually be able to make the French speak German now, but actually will never be able to do so, for, like pigeons, the French people are meant for freedom. Lastly, Little Franz’s question may also express a sort of sulky indignation towards the new German rule. Perhaps he is thinking about how cruel these Germans would be if they actually even made the pigeons sing in German! Little Franz may liken himself to a boy who, after being beaten up by bullies, would scream at them “So, after beating me up, will you now even kill me?” Nevertheless, however, this line may be interpreted, it remains to bear witness to the idea that language, by virtue of the natural connection between it and its speaker, is indeed significant for cultural identity.
A third way that Little Franz expresses how important language is to maintaining cultural identity is by expressing his own personal sentiments on the imposition of the new rule and narrating his own regrets about wasting his time not learning French. Upon hearing M. Hamel say, “My children, this is the last lesson I shall give you,” Little Franz expresses his guilt as he says, “Oh, how sorry I was for not learning my lessons” (Daudet 44). Instead of studying his French lessons, he has sought birds’ eggs and done other things. Now, it is too late for him to learn it, and it is only then that he has somehow agreed with M. Hamel that the French language is the “the most beautiful language in the world – the clearest, the most logical” (Daudet 44). In short, Little Franz has made known to the reader that through his regrets, he has realized the value of language. It is also only then that he is able to realize that French is so easy: “I was amazed to see how well I understood it [and that it was] so easy, so easy!” (Daudet 44). This is actually an awakening on Little Franz’s part about the natural connection that he shares with his own language. Through this, he demonstrates that the connection that every group of people has with their own language lies deep within them and it is that which defines their cultural identity.
2. Identify the characters by their ages and then discuss the significance of this subtle detail for the story.
The main characters in the story include Little Franz and M. Hamel. Little Franz may well be from 8 to 10 years of age. M. Hamel, on the other hand, maybe anyone in his 40’s or 50’s because old people inside the classroom somehow regard him with respect. The people in the classroom who are mentioned include perhaps three people in their sixties – old Hauser, the former mayor, the former postmaster, and many others. They are obviously so much older than Little Franz. However, the fact that none of them has felt anything surprising about the strange mix of ages among the students in the classroom that particular day somehow tells the reader how absorbed each character is in their last lesson on French. This particular mix of ages somehow signify that the issue of language and cultural identity affects, and should be the concern of, everyone – both young and old. National or cultural identity, therefore, is not at all a matter of age or status. However, the differing ages could also mean that everyone, without any exception – young and old – has to do either of two things. They are there to learn and appreciate French, or they all have to face up to the truth that, according to M. Hamel, they have all wasted their time doing everything else except appreciate the one thing that defines their identity as a people – the French language.
The other characters in the story include the blacksmith Wachter, who is perhaps a middle-aged man, and his young apprentice, who is perhaps in his twenties. The ages of Wachter and his apprentice, however, do not have any bearing to the theme of the story, which is the value of language in defining a people’s cultural identity.
Daudet, Alphonse. The Last Lesson. New York: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989. Print.