Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lamb to the Slaughter – Roald Dahl.

Sub-genre:                  Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Point of View:            Third Person Omniscient
Devices used:              Dramatic Irony, Situational Irony, Verbal Irony & Black Humour.

Dramatic Irony: the author causes a character (acting as the author's mouthpiece) to speak or act in a way contrary to the truth. This technique highlights the literal facts by portraying a fictional person who is strikingly ignorant of them.
Situational Irony: a factual truth highlighted by a character's complete ignorance of it or his belief in the opposite of it. Such situations are deliberately used to emphasize facts and to taunt humans for not being aware of them — when they could easily have been enlightened.

Black humour is the use of the grotesque, morbid, or absurd for darkly comic purposes. Black humor became widespread in popular culture, especially in literature and film, beginning in the 1950s; it remains popular toward the end of the twentieth century. Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 (1961) is one of the best-known examples in American fiction. The short stories of James Thurber and the stories and novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. also offer examples. The image of the cheerful housewife suddenly smashing her husband’s skull with the frozen joint of meat is farcically quite disturbing.

Dark Humour Examples:

The image of the cheerful housewife suddenly smashing her husband’s skull with the frozen joint of meat intended for his dinner is itself darkly humorous for its unexpectedness and the grotesque incongruity of the murder weapon.

There is a morbid but funny double meaning, too, in Mary’s response to her grocer’s question about meat: “I’ve got meat, thanks. I got a nice leg of lamb from the freezer.”

She did indeed get a leg of lamb from the freezer, and after she used it as a club, she found herself with a rather large portion of dead meat on her living-room floor.

Also darkly funny is the grocer’s question about what she plans to give her husband “afterwards,” that is, for dessert. From Mary’s point of view, Patrick has already gotten his “just desserts,” and there will be no more “afterwards” for him!

The ultimate example of dark humor in “Lamb to the Slaughter” is, of course, the spectacle of the policemen and detectives sitting around the Maloney kitchen table, speculating about the murder weapon while they unwittingly devour it.


The setting is symbolic: Its domestic primness implies Mary’s having bought into a rather boring version of middle class happiness.


The frozen leg of lamb is also symbolic and indeed constitutes the central symbol of the story. The piece of meat is already a token of violence: an animal traditionally viewed as meek and gentle slaughtered for carnivorous consumption.

The notion of a lamb, moreover, resonates with biblical symbols, such as the scapegoat mentioned in Leviticus, the ram that substitutes for Isaac in the tale of Abraham and Isaac, or Jesus himself, “the Lamb of God.”
But Dahl’s story reverses the connotation of these biblical images.

Summary of the Plot

Dahl commences with a picture of static coziness in a middle-class, domestic setting. Mary Maloney, six months pregnant, waits for her policeman husband Patrick Maloney to come home from work. The scene emphasizes domesticity: ‘‘the room was warm and clean, the curtains drawn.’’ Matching chairs, lamps, glasses, and whisky, soda, and ice cubes await. Mary watches the clock, smiling quietly to herself as each minute brings her husband closer to home. When he arrives, she takes his coat and hangs it in the closet. The couple sits and drinks in silence—Mary comfortable with the knowledge that Patrick does not like to talk much until after the first drink. So by deliberate design, everything seems normal until Mary notices that Patrick drains most of his drink in a single swallow, and then pours himself another, very strong drink. Mary offers to fix dinner and serve it to him so that he does not have to leave his chair, although they usually dine out on Thursdays. She also offers to prepare a snack. Patrick declines all her offers of food. The reader becomes aware of a tension which escapes Mary’s full notice.
Patrick confronts Mary and makes a speech, only the upshot of which is given explicitly: ‘‘so there it is. . . . And I know it’s a kind of bad time to be telling you, but there simply wasn’t any other way. Of course, I’ll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss.’’ For reasons which Dahl does not make explicit, Patrick has decided to leave his pregnant wife.

Mary goes into shock. At first she wonders if she imagined the whole thing. She moves automatically to retrieve something from the basement freezer and prepare supper. She returns with a frozen leg of lamb to find Patrick standing by a window with his back to her. Hearing her come in, he tells her not to make supper for him, that he is going out. With no narrative notice of any emotional transformation, Mary walks up to him and brings the frozen joint of meat down ‘‘as hard as she could’’ on his head. Patrick falls dead.

She emerges from her shock to feel panic. Do the courts sentence pregnant women to death? Do they execute both mother and child? Do they wait until the tenth month? Not wanting to take a chance on her child’s life, she immediately begins setting up an alibi. She puts the lamb in the oven to cook, washes her hands, and tidies her hair and makeup. She hurries to her usual grocery store, telling the grocer, Sam, that she needed potatoes and peas because Patrick did not want to eat out and she was ‘‘caught . . . without any vegetables in the house.’’ In a moment of truly black comedy, the grocer asks about dessert: ‘‘How about afterwards? What are you going to give him for afterwards?’’ and she agrees to a slice of cheesecake. On her way home, she mentally prepares herself to be shocked by anything tragic or terrible she might find.

When she sees her husband’s corpse again, she remembers how much she once loved him, and her tears of loss are genuine. She is sincerely distraught when she calls the local police station—the one where Patrick has worked—to report what she has found. Mary knows the policemen who report to the crime scene, and she casts Sergeant Jack Noonan in the role of her comforter. A doctor, police photographer, fingerprint expert, and two detectives join the investigation, while Noonan periodically checks on Mary. She tells her story again, from the beginning: Patrick came home, was too tired to go out for supper, so she left him relaxing at home while she started the lamb cooking and then ran out for vegetables. One detective checks with the grocer, who confirms Mary’s account. No one seems to seriously consider her a suspect. The focus of the investigation in on finding the murder weapon— which must be a large, heavy blunt instrument. The detectives ask Mary about tools, and she professes ignorance but says that there may be some out in the garage. She remains in a chair while the house is searched.
Noonan tries to persuade Mary to stay somewhere else for the night, but she refuses. She asks him to bring her a drink and suggests that he have one too. Eventually all of the police investigators are standing around, sipping drinks, tired from their fruitless search. Noonan notices that the oven is still on and the lamb has finished cooking. Mary thanks him for turning the oven off and then asks her dead husband’s gathered colleagues–knowing that they have worked long past their own mealtimes—to eat the dinner she had fixed for Patrick. She could not eat a thing, she tells them, but Patrick would want her to offer them ‘‘decent hospitality,’’ especially as they are the men who will catch her husband’s killer.

The final scene of the story concerns the policemen eating in the kitchen and discussing the case while Mary listens from the living room. The men agree that the killer probably discarded the massive murder weapon almost immediately, and predict that they will find it on the premises. Another theorizes that the weapon is probably ‘‘right under our very noses.’’



‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ tells of at least one betrayal: Patrick Maloney’s unexplained decision to leave his pregnant wife. This violation of the marriage-vow is obviously not the only betrayal in the story, however. Mary’s killing of her husband is perhaps the ultimate betrayal. Her elaborately planned alibi and convincing lies to the detectives also constitute betrayal.


Dahl plays with the notion of identity both at the level of popular psychology and at a somewhat more philosophical, or perhaps anthropological, level. At the level of popular psychology, Dahl makes it clear through his description of the Maloney household that Mary has internalized the bourgeois, or middle class, ideal of a young mid-twentieth century housewife, maintaining a tidy home and catering to her husband; pouring drinks when the man finishes his day is a gesture that comes from movies and magazines of the day. Mary’s sudden murderous action shatters the image that we have of her and that she seems to have of herself. Dahl demonstrates, in the deadly fall of the frozen joint, that ‘‘identity’’ can be fragile. (Once she shatters her own identity, Mary must carefully reconstruct it for protective purposes, as when she sets up an alibi by feigning a normal conversation with the grocer.) In the anthropological sense, Dahl appears to suggest that, in essence, human beings are fundamentally nasty and brutish creatures capable of precipitate and bloody acts. Then there are the police detectives, who pride themselves on their ability to solve a crime, but whom Mary sweetly tricks into consuming the main exhibit. Their identity, or at least their competency, is thrown into doubt.

Love and Passion

At the beginning of ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’’ Mary Maloney feels love and physical passion for her husband Patrick. She luxuriates in his presence, in the ‘‘warm male glow that came out of him to her,’’ and adores the way he sits, walks, and behaves. Even far along into her pregnancy, she hurries to greet him, and waits on him hand and foot—much more attentively, it appears from his reactions, than he would like. Patrick is presumably motivated to leave his wife by an overriding passion for something or someone else. Mary’s mention of his failure to advance at work, and his own wish that she not make a ‘‘fuss’’ about their separation because ‘‘It wouldn’t be very good for my job’’ indicate that it may be professional success that he desires. His treatment of his wife does not suggest that he loves her.


The concept of passivity figures in the story. The first pages of the story portray Mary’s existence as almost mindlessly passive: she sits and watches the clock, thinking that each minute brings her husband closer to her. She is content to watch him closely and try to anticipate his moods and needs. Patrick’s predictability up to this point is part of this passivity. The two are living a clockwork life against which, in some way, each ultimately rebels. Passivity appears as the repression of passion, and passion finds a way to reassert itself.

Justice and Injustice

The question of justice and injustice is directly related to the question of revenge. ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ narrates a train of injustices, beginning with Patrick’s betrayal of Mary and their marriage, peaking with Mary’s killing of Patrick, and finding its denouement in Mary’s deception of the investigating officers. Patrick acts unjustly (or so it must be assumed on the basis of the evidence) in announcing his abandonment of Mary, for this breaks the wedding oath; Mary acts unustly, in a way far exceeding her husband’s injustice, in killing Patrick, and she compounds the injustice by concealing it from the authorities.


“Lamb to The Slaughter” may be an easy read to understand its literal meaning, but one needs to go little further than this to derive the true meaning the story has to convey. In order to understand their meanings that lie concealed in the title’s depth, the reader should be sensitive to scan the crux of the story. Otherwise, one may get easily misled.
The theme of deception is in fact introduced in the title itself. ‘Lamb to The Slaughter’ is not to be understood as the usual gentle lamb which is taken to the slaughter house, but as the lamb with immense potential to slaughter its butcher.

The protagonist of the story, Mrs. Maloney is an ideal wife who loves her husband from the core of her heart and counts every single second of his presence to be precious. She is no doubt a lady with lamb-like character with gentleness, docility, devotion and homeliness, but she is also the most jovial person as long as she is with Patrick, her husband. She is also projected as a person who can do anything for her husband’s sake.
Contrarily, as deception unfolds its menace she is naturally forced to drive to the other side of her human nature. She is extraordinarily alerted when she realizes that her true love for him is taken too far to be treated as of no value. Gradually her passion of anger, frustration and disappointment blindfold her to commit the most deadly scene that she could never imagine otherwise. The dreadful action takes place within a flicker of time.

It is the total deception of Patrick that leads to this gruesome act in the house that had no forebodings in the past. It is this inhuman character of her dear husband that shakes her faith and totally blinds her to wildly avenge for his deed. Understanding the magnitude of the matter, most women in her situation would go into that degree of frenzy.
The theme of deception takes its double fold, when Maloney embarks on revenge. She not only shocks her husband to death but the readers too, when she turns out to be like a tigress with her strategic forays.

Once she realizes that she is into an affair there is no going back for her. So she wittily plans to deceive everybody involved in the matter. There is no exception for the detectives. Why should she trust others when she knows her most trusted person failed to hold accountability. In that regard she even succeeds in making the detectives eat away the whole meat club which is the testimony of her crime that would have darkened the rest of her life.
At the end, Mrs. Maloney becomes a good deceiver as she successfully deceives many besides her husband who deceived her at first, hence the title, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’.

Justification of the Title:

The story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is a story that presents human characters with all its vices and virtues, with all its positive and negative qualities blended together. The story begins with Mary Maloney, six months pregnant and a very affectionate and devoted wife eagerly waiting for her policeman husband Patrick Maloney. She is an exemplary housewife maintaining her house neat and clean and willingly doing everything for the comfort and happiness of her husband. Every day she eagerly waits for the return of her husband. Thus we can comfortably say that she symbolises a lamb – an innocent and gentle creature. But when she realizes that everything was over from her husband’s side and that he has decided to leave her and break their marriage she immediately decides, out of extreme frustration and anger’ to slaughter her husband. After killing her husband she does not feel sad, nor does she regret her action. Rather she cleverly makes a perfect alibi to save herself from all the consequences of her crime and she becomes successful too. Thus the title of the story is very appropriate and suitable.

From other point of view too, the title appears to be very suitable. Patrick Maloney, the husband, too can be considered to be a lamb. As people often kill a lamb without any fuss or warning so he has been slaughtered by his wife without any warning or fuss. Therefore the title, once again, seems to be appropriate. However we should not forget that keeping his monstrous actions in mind – his decision to leave his wife when she is so caring and loving and at the time when she is six months pregnant – it is difficult to associate him with such an innocent creature as lamb. Thus his association with lamb could be valid only for his slaughter like a lamb.
And lastly we should not forget that a lamb (leg) has been used in this story as the tool, as the weapon for the murder and hence from this point of view too, the title of the story is very much appropriate.


Mary Maloney: Mary Maloney is the central character or the protagonist of this story. In this story her character is the one that presents all the aspects that may be associated with a human character. Her character has been developed very skillfully in this story by the author to bring out all the possible aspects of a human character. She is gentle and a loving housewife who is six months pregnant and eagerly waiting for her husband in the evening. She exhibits all the qualities of a caring and loving housewife. She maintains her house neatly, she enjoys and longs for the company of her husband, and she is willing to do everything to comfort and please her husband. Till this point she is such a nice and lovable character. But then the shocking decision or her husband to end their marriage changes her completely. She appears to be an innocent victim in the hand of her husband. But then everything changes. The victim turns out to be a clever and smart villain. Immediately she decides to take revenge and kill her husband by hitting him on the head with a frozen leg of a lamb. After the killing she does not feel any sadness or regret. Rather she crafts a clever alibi, for the sake of herself and her unborn child, to deceive the police investigation and she accomplishes this task with clinical precision. Thus we find all the human aspects and qualities such as love, faithfulness, anger, frustration, revenge and deception have been blended in one character of Mary Maloney.

Patrick Maloney: Patrick Maloney could very well be described as a villain in this story who ultimately ends up to be the final victim by being ruthlessly slaughtered. He is senior detective and husband of Mary Maloney. More than this nothing much has been said about him in this story. But by analysing the incidents of this story we can say that he is not as much in love with his wife as she is with him. Moreover he appears to be unkind and unreasonable too, otherwise he would have chosen some better time to leave his wife and end up their marriage. His wife is six months pregnant when he tells her about his decision to leave her. This proves him to be irresponsible not only for his wife but also for his unborn child. However he is not a seasoned villain as he assures her to keep on helping her financially even after the break. This only proves that he had some sense of responsibility left in him and whatever had happened between the two was just a case of failed marriage. Further he also appears to have underestimated his wife. He had never thought that his wife could be so revengeful and that she could even kill him. Ultimately he happens to be a character that appears in the story like a villain but ends up as a victim.


‘Mary Maloney appears to be a very faithful and affectionate wife in the beginning of the story.’ Analyze/elaborate this statement with appropriate supporting argument.      
Describe Mary Maloney eagerly waiting for her husband in the evening at home.

Mary Maloney loved her husband dearly and always enjoyed his company. As usual that day too she was eagerly waiting for her husband in her drawing room. She had already made the necessary arrangement and had set the room neatly for his drinks upon his return from duty. She was sewing but at the same time she was often and anxiously looking outside expecting her husband to reach any moment. Even though she was pregnant for six months she did not show any sign of lethargy or laziness while setting the room for her husband. This clearly shows that she was a loving and affectionate wife eagerly waiting for her husband to return home after his duty as a police detective.

What was unusual about Patrick Maloney that day?

Patrick Maloney appeared quite tired and exhausted when he reached home in the evening. There was no sign of excitement to come back home and be with his loving and caring wife once again. He took his first drink in hurry and declined his wife’s offer for the second; rather he himself took his second drink which was quite unusual. He was also appearing tense and unsound. He did not talk with his wife enthusiastically. He also appeared to be in a hurry. These things were quite unusual about him that day.

What was it that shocked Mary Maloney and how did she react to that shocking information?

Though nothing has been revealed clearly in the story about the shocking information but from the happenings in the story we can very clearly guess that Patrick Maloney had told her about his intention to leave her and end their marriage. Initially she simply could not believe what she had heard. She wished that all that she had heard was a nightmare and everything would be alright once she got up. She tried to divert the talk and his attention from the topic by making so many offers of eating something but he declined every offer and very clearly expressed his intention to leave her and go out that evening itself. By then she had already come back to the drawing room from the grocery with the frozen leg of lamb with her intention to cook. At that moment he was standing near the window and looking outside with his back towards her. Once again he expressed his intention very clearly. She, then, reached behind him, swung the frozen leg of lamb with her both hands and with all her might and hit him hard on the back of his head. This powerful blow ultimately killed him instantly. 

 In what way their Thursdays used to be different from other days?
How did Mary create the alibi for her?                                Or
How did Mary handle the situation after killing her husband?

After realizing that she had killed her husband, Mary Maloney behaved like and experienced and seasoned criminal in the story. She did not panic at all. Rather she started preparing a strong alibi for her defence against the investigating authority. Firstly she put the murder weapon – the frozen leg of lamb – into the oven for cooking, thereby destroying the weapon used for murder. Then she rehearsed in front of mirror to appear normal and to talk normally. After thorough rehearsal she took her bag and went for shopping. There she deliberately talked about her husband being tired and her intention to cook a nice supper at home rather than going out as they used to go every Thursday. By doing this she created a very strong testimony to prove that she was out for shopping at the time of murder. Then coolly she came back from the market and called the cops informing them about the murder. Upon the arrival of the cops she told that she had gone for the shopping and when she came back she found her husband dead in the drawing room. The shopkeeper testified her story to the cops and in this way she was proved out of any doubt for the crime.

“And in the other room Mary Maloney began to giggle.” Why?

Mary Maloney had offered the lamb chops to those policemen who were there to investigate the murder of her husband. While eating they were discussing about the weapon used for the murder. One of them said that the weapon used must be around somewhere below their nose oblivious of the fact that they were all busy eating the weapon used for murder and the weapon was really under their nose. When Mary heard this she started giggling at the ignorance of those policemen and also at her own shrewdness and success in hiding her crime without leaving any chance of finding the evidence in the form of murder weapon even in distant future.

How does the author use the symbol of ‘lamb’ ironically in this story?

Biblically ‘lamb’ is the symbol of peace and innocence. It is such a gentle and innocent animal that violence cannot be attached with it. But in this story the author has used the lamb as the weapon for murder and it becomes a symbol of violence, murder, death, and something that is dangerous and dreadful. This is how the author has ironically used the symbol of peace and innocence as the weapon of murder and an instrument of death.
Further the lamb chop offered to all the investigating policemen and their discussing about the weapon of murder while eating the same presents a very fine example of dramatic irony and black humour.

·         What Point of View is "Lamb to the Slaughter" told from and why is that important?

"Lamb to the Slaughter" is told from the point of view of Mary Maloney. This choice to tell the story from the point of view of the murderer is an interesting choice and one that largely defines this story. The reader knows only what she knows. At times, such as the end of the story, this means that the reader knows more than the other characters, especially in relation to the leg of lamb. On the other hand, the reader is not given access to the reasoning behind Patrick’s decision to leave. This makes it far easier for the reader to be on Mary’s side when she makes questionable decisions.

·         What influence does Mary's pregnancy have on the Story?

Early in the story, the reader discovers that Mary Maloney is pregnant. This understanding is important to the story on a number of levels. The most basic is that it helps the reader to understand just what it is that her husband is doing by leaving her. This makes the story more ambiguous in morality by making the reader associate with the woman more. In addition, it almost certainly helps keep her from being suspected. The motherly instinct of protection is invoked by this understanding as anyone can understand the instinct of a mother protecting her child and the fear of execution is vital to making Mary a more positive character.

·         Why are the exact words Patrick says when leaving Mary left out?

In the middle of the conversation between Patrick and Mary, the narration changes for a single paragraph at the very climax of the conversation. Patrick leads into the conversation with the hope she won’t blame him too much. It then says that he told her, though not exactly what, and ends with him saying that he will take care of her. This change in narration is disconcerting and in large part that is the point. This helps the reader to understand the disorientation and detachment of Mary.
In addition to this, by not telling the reader exactly what happened, it gives far more power to the reader in the interpretation of her later actions. By not knowing exactly what he said, it lets the reader decide if Mary’s actions in the rest of the story are justified or not.

·         Why is Patrick's profession important?

Patrick is a police detective. This bit of information is vital to the story in a number of ways. As a story in which the reader is supposed to empathize with the murderer, having the victim be a vital and trusted member of society creates even more conflict in the mind. In addition to this, it plays with two basic ideas that the police will look for a killer more vigorously if an officer is killed, but also that she knows the officers who will investigate the crime. This means that they are more likely to be comfortable with her. Also important is the understanding that Mary is likely to have an escape of being arrested for the crime. As the wife of a police detective, she has almost certainly heard many stories about crimes that he has solved and how he has done it. Finally, this creates many other suspects that could have committed the crime because as a police detective he has many enemies.

·         What is the Dramatic Irony in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

There are a couple of moments of dramatic irony in "Lamb to the Slaughter." These are cases in which the reader understands more than the characters. The most clear of these occurs near the end of the story. Mary has called the police and the detectives are in her house. As they are eating the lamb of leg, one of the officers says in relation to the murder weapon that it is “probably right under our very noses.” This statement is literally true though the officer who says it has no idea what he is saying.

·         What is the Origin and Meaning of the Title "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The original use of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is found in the Bible. This phrase is located in both Jeremiah and Isaiah. It refers to someone who goes innocently and unconcernedly into a dangerous or life threatening situation. In the story "Lamb to the Slaughter," it has a number of meanings though.
The first clear meaning is one that is a form of dark humor. The lamb in this case is actually a murder weapon. This twists the meaning of lamb to the slaughter into something that is not a metaphor but what actually happens.
While the first meaning is clear, the metaphorical use of the statement is still valid and in fact there are two people who go into a situation like lambs to the slaughter. The first of these is the murder victim who, while knowing he is going to do something uncomfortable, has no idea what is going to happen to him. The second though is Mary herself. It is the shock because she doesn’t know what is coming and that shock is what drives her over the edge.

·         Why does Mary insist the Police eat the ‘Leg of Lamb’?

In the story, Mary asks the detectives to eat the leg of lamb she had made for her husband, and even when they turn it down, she insists that they eat this. This insistence is important beyond simply the idea that it is the murder weapon. By having the detectives eat the lamb, they have destroyed the evidence which will make them look stupid even if they later understand. This will discourage them from thinking of it as a weapon. In addition, because she ensures they have seen the murder weapon rather than hiding it, she defies the expectations as most criminals hide the weapon.