Lamb To The Slaughter Setting

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ajacks | College Teacher | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

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In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Roald Dahl does not give an exact time and place that the story is set in.  However, he does this deliberately, giving it a universal setting of the time in which the story was published: America in the 1950’s.

The opening scene of Mary Malony, six months pregnant, waiting in the living room for her husband to come home from work represented the typical home life of any married couple in the 1950’s living in suburban America.  Mary is described as almost the “perfect” housewife, and the reader assumes that she and her husband have the “perfect” life.

At least, that what Mary thinks, and as the story unfolds we find out it isn’t; however, at the end of the story it is back to the classic 50’s setting again, with the men all enjoying the dinner that the “perfect” wife had created.

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is significant that Mary is expecting a baby because the story takes place during the so-called Baby Boom. The United States Census Bureau defines the Baby Boom as the period between 1946 and 1964. It was a period of great prosperity because Americans were on a buying binge after World War II ended in 1945. Millions of men were discharged from the armed forces and the majority of them wanted homes and families. One of the consumer items that was extremely popular for a short time, coinciding with the Baby Boom, was big home freezers which looked like huge white coffins and were usually kept out in the garage. People bought them because they thought they could save money through buying large quantities of meat at wholesale prices. The popularity of big home freezers probably ended with the end of the Baby Boom.

There were several drawbacks to home freezers. One was that there could be power failures and an entire freezer full of steaks, roasts, chops, etc., might have to be thrown out. Besides that, the freezer used a lot of electricity, since the meat had to be kept frozen twenty-four hours a day for 365 days of the year. The cost of electricity detracted from the savings supposedly resulting from buying in quantity. There was also some doubt about the taste of meat that has been frozen for a long period of time. This doubt is discussed by Mary and the grocer in Dahl's story. It seems reasonable to assume that a steak or roast that had been kept frozen for many months would be tougher and would not taste as good as one that was more fresh. Furthermore, a big cut of meat had to be thawed out for a long time, which was inconvenient. If a housewife wanted to cook a leg of lamb, she would typically have to let it thaw out on the kitchen drainboard for one day and night in order to cook it the following day to be eaten for dinner that night. Manufacturers began introducing gigantic refrigerators with extra-large freezer compartments on top, and these became the standard appliance for most households because they are more "user-friendly." 

Mary can only cook her leg of lamb in a big hurry because she turns the oven on at the top temperature. The detectives take an inordinately long time searching the house. Otherwise there was no way they would be able to eat the murder weapon in the time frame involved. This is a weak point in the plot. A police team ought to be able to search a suburban house thoroughly in an hour or less. It is hard to imagine what they could have been doing for such a long time. Anyway, the story was originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1953 during the America's great Baby Boom, and it is safe to assume that the time in the story was approximately 1953. It has an historical interest as well as a literary one because it depicts life in America during the consumer boom and the Baby Boom. It was a time when the husbands were the breadwinners and the wives were housewives and mothers who did the cleaning, shopping and cooking. Perhaps Mary's perfect crime could be read as an early blow for militant feminism. Her unborn baby would be about sixty years old by now.

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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