Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story begins with the most innocent of domestic scenes. Mary Maloney, a housewife in her sixth month of pregnancy, is waiting for her husband to return home. It is a Thursday night, and they usually eat out. When Patrick Maloney does come home, he is strangely moody and takes a stronger drink than usual. Mary tries to divert him with the usual domestic comforts but to no avail. Patrick asks her to sit down, announcing that he has an important matter to discuss with her. Though the reader is never told, it is clear that Patrick is going to divorce Mary. He ends his speech by saying that he will see that she is provided for and that he hopes that there will be no fuss because it might reflect badly on his position in the police department.
The announcement that she will lose the man around whom her world revolves puts Mary into a daze of unbelief. Instead of arguing with Patrick, she goes on as if nothing has happened, hoping that this will somehow cause her problem to go away. She prepares to make supper and goes down to the deep freezer. She chooses a frozen leg of lamb for the meal. Moving like a somnambulist, she walks into the living room. When Patrick tells her that he does not want dinner, Mary moves behind him and hits him over the head with the leg of lamb.
Patrick falls to the floor with a crash, and this brings Mary to her senses. Mary realizes that she has killed Patrick, and though she is willing to take the legal consequences, she fears for her unborn child, who might die if she is executed. Her mind is now working clearly, and she devises an elaborate deception for the police. She prepares the leg of lamb and puts it in the oven. She then goes to her room and gets ready to go out. As she does so, she rehearses the conversation that...
(The entire section is 725 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Dahl shows his mastery of short-form psychological horror, in which the very absence of overtly fantastical elements only accentuates the building atmosphere of horror. The entire story takes place within the apartment of one Mary Maloney, pregnant wife of a loutish and incompetent police detective. Hers has been a steadfastly domestic existence, and she has ignored her husband’s misbehavior until one night, when he comes home late after yet another round of drinking and informs her that he is going to leave her for another woman. Still she clings to her illusion of happy domesticity, telling him she will fix supper.
Only when he sneeringly tells her not to bother with supper does she snap and bludgeon him with the frozen leg of lamb that was to have been their meal. After the initial fit of anger, she comes back to her senses and realizes what she has done. Not wanting to ruin the life of the baby she is expecting, she puts the leg of lamb into the oven and goes to the grocery store to get some vegetables. While there, she makes a point of talking cheerfully with the grocer about fixing her husband’s supper.
Upon returning to their apartment, she screams in horror and makes a great commotion at finding her husband’s body lying on the floor. She then calls the police, and within the hour they are investigating. Agreeing that he was killed by a heavy, blunt object, they begin a search for the murder weapon...
(The entire section is 444 words.)