Critical Context

Because of its brief length, its unity of time and place, its small cast of characters, and its dependence on dialogue, The Lamb shares many of the characteristics of drama, as is typical of the tradition of the short novel form. Also, characteristic of the short novel, the work focuses on a tragic figure caught in a metaphysical dilemma and involved in a symbolic drama of philosophic complexity. Because of these characteristics it falls into the tradition of such works in American literature, from Herman Melville’s nineteenth century Bartleby the Scrivener (1856) to Saul Bellow’s twentieth century Seize the Day (1956), and in European literature from the short novels of Fyodor Dostoevski to those of Albert Camus.

Although The Lamb has been considered a tour de force by critics, both thematically, in its realization of a modern religious fable of Christlike sacrifice and love, and technically, in its use of a split plot line in which the novel begins with the dialogue between Jean and Michele and then moves back and forth between dialogue and narrative, it is generally not considered to be one of Mauriac’s greatest novels.

Mauriac, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1952, gave up writing fiction after the publication of The Lamb, blaming the poor critical reception of the book for his decision. A number of critics, however, in contrast to the majority opinion, argued that the novel transcended many of his earlier works about the priesthood by incorporating a saint, rather than a mere priest, while others admired the book for its ultimate theological mystery. If the work is not considered to be the finest in the Mauriac canon, it is nevertheless thought to be his most spiritual fictional parable.