Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The story of the woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then has the murder weapon eaten by the detectives is one of the most famous examples of the “perfect crime” story. However, this work’s value lies, not simply in the originality of the murder method but in the way that Roald Dahl ties this to larger themes. The use of a leg of lamb as an instrument of death reveals the hidden and sinister meanings that lie in seemingly innocent objects. Dahl, like many modern suspense writers, weaves his stories around trivial, everyday events that suddenly take on frightening aspects revealing the danger and uncertainty that underlies modern life, rather than reviving medieval settings and horrors in the manner of the earlier gothic writers.
Mary Maloney lives the life of a devoted housewife almost until she actually murders her husband. The news of her divorce causes no outward change in her behavior. She goes on, as if pretending that nothing has happened will make it so. The murder seems almost an unconscious and unwilled act. However, after the murder, Mary becomes a deliberate and clear thinker. She now artificially creates her alibi for the murder by consciously returning to her innocent state before Patrick’s death. She practices her lines, voice tone, and facial expressions before she goes to the grocery so that they will appear perfectly natural and arouse no suspicions in the grocer’s mind. When Mary arrives home, her shock...
(The entire section is 433 words.)
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In "Lamb to the Slaughter," Dahl explores the theme of devotion. Mary is devoted to her husband until he announces that he wants their marriage to end. After she kills him, she works out a scheme to create an alibi, not so much for her own sake, as for her unborn baby's: "She began thinking very fast. As the wife of a detective, she knew quite well what the penalty would be. That was fine. It made no difference to her. In fact, it would be a relief. On the other hand, what about the child? What were the laws about murderers and unborn children?" Mary would surrender her own life willingly, but out of devotion to her unborn child, she chooses to create an alibi.
Devotion is also seen in the police officers who come to investigate Patrick's death. They thoroughly check out Mary's alibi, not because they suspect her, but because their duty to a slain comrade demands that they check every detail, no matter how small. Patrick died because he despised his wife's devotion, but they do not know this. Therefore, when Mary shows devotion to the officers by serving them the leg of lamb, they accept the meal at face value.
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‘‘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-twentiethcentury 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...
(The entire section is 627 words.)