Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
As befits a story dealing with appearances and reality, much of “Lamb to the Slaughter” is told through details that Dahl carefully selects and arranges into various patterns to cause the reader to go below the surface to find the meanings in the story. Reference is made to Mary’s large, dark, placid eyes early in the story, indicating her harmless, domestic personality; they are referred to again when she persuades Patrick’s friends to eat the leg of lamb, revealing this time how deceptive Mary’s appearance is. Throughout the story, words such as “simple,” “easy,” “normal,” and “natural” acquire an ironic overtone, for the reader perceives the complex, artificial, and abnormal state of the world. Patrick’s announcement of divorce and the police officers’ dismissal of Mary as a likely murder suspect are never actually depicted; the reader is left to deduce these events from snatches of dialogue.
Dahl’s technique reaches a hilarious crescendo in the dinner scene, in which the police officers eat the leg of lamb and discuss the possibility of finding the blunt instrument used to kill Patrick. The officers’ complacence, their belief that as soon as they finish eating they will easily be able to track down the murder weapon, and their actual behavior as unwitting accessories to their friend’s murder reveal the polarities on which the story is built. On the surface, the story depicts a world that is orderly, rational, and...
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The Post-War Decade
Dahl began his writing career in 1942 with a story about being shot down while fighting in North Africa. Violence, whether associated with warfare or with crime, continued to fascinate Dahl and figures prominently even in his childrens’ stories. ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ belongs to the first full decade of Dahl’s writing career and to the first decade of what historians call the Post-War period. This period witnessed the sociological and cultural transformation of the Western world and took hold as strongly in the United States, where Dahl had come to live, as in Europe. Among the features of the Post-War period may be tallied the growth of cities and the attendant rise in urban tension, the incipient liberation of women, young people, and minorities, the sense that the normative, agriculturally based America that had existed up until the nation’s involvement in World War II was in radical dissolution. It is significant with respect to Dahl’s story that divorce, formerly rare in the statistics of American life, began to rise in the aftermath of the war.
The same decade was also the heyday of popular fiction in the United States, with dozens of weekly and monthly journals featuring short fiction and serialized novels, and with paperback publishing getting under way. Dahl began his career in the ‘‘weeklies’’ before breaking into print in commercial book form. The wave of...
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Black humor 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 suddently smashing her husband’s skull with the frozen joint of meat intended for his dinner is itself blackly 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 black humor in ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ is, of course, the spectacle of the policemen and detectives...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Almost no one who reads this story ever forgets it. The policemen eating the evidence stands out in the mind as fresh as the day it was first read. The challenge in generating a discussion about "Lamb to the Slaughter" will be pointing it in a productive direction. The admiration of the stark emotional impact of the story's resolution needs to give way to thought about its contents. One aspect to focus on would be the system of values inherent in the story; is it good that a woman murders her husband and gets away with it? Can anyone's fawning adoration of another instantly become murderous hate? Would the woman really feel no grief over her deed?
Another workable approach to discussing the story would be to focus on its technical aspects. "Lamb to the Slaughter" is representative of a popular form of literature, the very short, tightly focused mystery story (what some writers and critics call the "shortshort story"). To be successful, such a story must have a brief, sensational event at its center, with easily recognizable stereotypes for characters. The story needs to be startling and in someway surprising, either by defying the conventions of its genre (in this case the mystery genre), by defying social conventions, or by supplying an ingenious and artful turn of the plot. Which of these does "Lamb to the Slaughter" supply?
1. When subjecting a brief entertainment like "Lamb to the Slaughter" to close inspection, it may be too easy to find...
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"Lamb to the Slaughter" is a typical Dahl story because it is very succinct and bare of any details that do not contribute directly to the plot. The story does not philosophize; there are no broodings on right and wrong or life and death. Mary's thoughts are direct and to the point — she must save her baby. The moral implications of murder do not occur to her, nor does the narrative point out the complex feelings one might reasonably expect a woman to feel who has just killed her husband. On the other hand, her feelings about being abandoned by her husband are discussed. She is numbed, shocked, and bewildered. These details are important to know because they motivate the sudden assault on her husband. After his death, the only details of her feelings that are necessary for plot development are her concerns for her unborn child.
"Lamb to the Slaughter" probably captures the imagination of the reader because of the ingenious way Mary solves the problem of hiding the murder weapon. Find the murder weapon, one policeman declares, and you will find the murderer. This little detail is enough to make the story's ending significant. Critics often compare Dahl to short-story writer O. Henry because of his surprise endings, and having the policemen eat the evidence while discussing how to find the murder weapon is a memorable plot twist.
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Mary Maloney lives in a middleclass household and is slavishly devoted to her husband. When "Lamb to the Slaughter" begins, she is eagerly waiting for her husband to come home from his job as a policeman. Her life is suddenly shattered when he comes home and announces that he plans to divorce her. In Mary, he has the perfect housewife; she is six months pregnant, content to stay at home and do the household chores, and devoted to making her husband as comfortable as possible. Why he would want to divorce her is not explained, but it does seem unjust for him to abruptly leave Mary.
Unable to accept his announcement, she continues to do what she has always done; she cares for her husband; she goes to the freezer and grabs a leg of lamb for his dinner. When she sees Patrick Maloney with his back to her and he announces that he is going out, she spontaneously hits him on the back of his head with the frozen leg of lamb, killing him.
In this moralistic tale, the reader is asked to consider the actions of her husband, who so easily tosses away Mary's life by ending the marriage for which she has worked hard. In a sense he is killed because he has killed. When Mary giggles at the end, it is an unhappy moment, not because she may get away with the murder of her husband, but because she has no real life ahead of her.
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: Precisely because the traditional social norms had begun to come under the pressures that would lead to change, American society in the 1950s tended to reaffirm the norms of religion, family, self-reliance, law and order, and strongly defined gender roles.
1990s: Certain social trends only barely visible in 1950 now present themselves glaringly: the statistical likelihood that many marriages will fail, for example, and the ubiquitousness of violent crime. Restrictive gender roles are one of the most frequently attacked social mores in the late twentieth century. Murder is commonplace and horrific domestic violence abounds. For example, in the mid-1980s, a suburban Detroit, Michigan man killed his wife and kept her body in a locked freezer for several years, until one of the couple’s daughters discovered it.
1953: Simone de Beauvoir’s nonfiction study of 1949 denouncing the unequal position of women in most public and private arenas is published in translation in the United States as The Second Sex.
1990s: Women still earn, on average, only 75% of what similarly educated men earn in comparable positions.
1950s: The English and American populations, recovering from two wars (World War II and the Korean War), responded enthusiastically to economic trends, embracing the new standard of cheap housing and abundant material goods within the price-range of middle-class...
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Topics for Further Study
Examine the elements of the story that make it a black comedy. How does Dahl use irony to bring humor to the plot?
‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ can be considered a revenge fantasy. Think of some other revenge fantasies you have read or seen in movies and on television shows. Write about how such stories can function as a catharsis. Think of a revenge fantasy you have had yourself and write it as a fictional story.
What percentage of murders are instances of domestic abuse? Does the unpremeditated nature of Mary’s crime make it seem less horrible than if it had been planned? Do you think a person like Mary could really kill someone so suddenly?
An old saying hold that ‘‘Revenge is a dish best served cold,’’ meaning that if you want to take vengeance, you should wait and plan carefully and not act impulsively against the person who has wronged you. If Mary had consciously decided to avenge herself on her husband for deserting her, and waited and planned, do you think she would have killed him? What else might she have done to pay him back for his treatment of her?
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What Do I Read Next?
Dahl’s first published story, ‘‘Shot Down over Libya,’’ appeared in Saturday Evening Post in August 1942. As Dahl’s earliest work, it merits the attention of anyone interested in the remainder of his stories. The story stems from Dahl’s experience in the Royal Air Force, heavily fictionalized, and introduces the element of violence which threads through his oeuvre. A pilot, a British flying his Hurricane in support of ground troops, meets up with an aerial ambush by Italian aircraft, which shoot him into the ground. He survives the crash, but is injured. Despite its slightness, ‘‘Shot Down’’ prefigures much of the later writing.
The short stories of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., collected in Welcome to the Monkey House, have been cited in comparison with those of Dahl for their darkly comic nature and often bleak assessments of human nature.
In Dahl’s story ‘‘The Way Up To Heaven,’’ a woman is infuriated by her husband’s chronic lateness. She begins to suspect that he is late deliberately to torment her. She siezes a chance opportunity to leave him stranded in a disabled elevator where he will almost certainly die.
For many years, Dahl was married to the actress Patricia Neal, whose autobiography As I Am (1988) contains a frank depiction of their life together and of the factors that drove them apart.
In James Thurber’s short story ‘‘Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1994, p. 105.
Raphael, Frederic. ‘‘Stories from the Source of Heartlessness.’’ The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4618, October 4, 1991, p. 28. An assessment of Dahl’s career, noting that he was a mass-market writer but comparing him to some of the finest prose stylists of the twentieth century. Raphael theorizes that Dahl’s war experiences as a fighter pilot, which he wrote about in the stories collected in Over to You, are responsible for the bitterness and cruelty of much of his later fiction.
Warren, Alan. Roald Dahl. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont, 1988, 105 p. Critical study of Dahl’s fiction, including a chapter on filmed adaptations of his stories.
West, Mark I. Roald Dahl. N.Y.: Twayne, 1992, 148 p. Biographical and critical study, covering Dahl’s life and literary career.
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