Roald Dahl Short Fiction Analysis
In stories ranging from the macabre to the hilarious, Roald Dahl enriched the modern gothic tale through the indirection and subtlety of a narrative method loaded with surprises for the unsuspecting reader. His most famous works include “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “Royal Jelly,” “Man from the South,” “The Landlady,” and “Neck.” In situations which include both domestic life and high adventure, Dahl creates suspense and humor of a highly sophisticated nature. Beyond the simple surface of the stories lie the psychological complexities that fascinate his readers. In many of the stories, for example, a hidden sexual theme controls the violence of the plot. Jealousy, hatred, lust, and greed dominate the characters of Dahl’s stories.
“Lamb to the Slaughter”
In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a woman murders her husband and succeeds in serving the murder weapon, a large leg of lamb (deadly when frozen, delicious when cooked), to the police officers who investigate his death. An ironic tour de force, the story is typical of Dahl’s ability to develop an effect both chilling and wryly humorous. The story begins as Mrs. Maloney, a highly domestic, apparently devoted wife, awaits her husband’s arrival home. His drink is prepared for him, but no dinner is waiting because on Thursdays they always dine out. Six months pregnant, Mrs. Maloney is especially eager to have company in the house since she now remains at home all day. Her husband’s behavior when he arrives, however, is much different from the usual friendliness and tenderness she expects. He drinks more than usual and rejects her sympathetic inquiries about his work as a detective. When he bluntly informs her that he is divorcing her, she is stunned and can think only of somehow maintaining their daily routine by preparing supper. Automatically, she descends to the cellar, where she reaches into the freezer and retrieves the first thing she touches, a large leg of lamb. After lugging the heavy package upstairs, she observes her husband standing with his back to her. When he angrily announces that he will go out for supper, she unhesitatingly swings the leg of lamb high in the air and brings it down hard on the back of his head.
Instantly killed, the detective falls to the floor with a crash that brings Mrs. Maloney out of her state of shock, and she begins immediately to fear the consequences for herself and her unborn child. She quickly plans a maneuver which will supply her with an alibi and which prepares the way for Dahl’s ironic denouement. She puts the lamb into the oven to cook, tidies her hair, and rehearses an anticipated conversation with the grocer who will sell her the vegetables lacking for her husband’s dinner. She manages to chat pleasantly with the grocer, and when she returns home, she unleashes her emotions in an expression of sincere shock and grief at the sight of her husband’s crumpled body. Nearly hysterical, she telephones the police, who have all been friends of her husband and who treat her with sympathy and understanding when they arrive. Still, they check her alibi, and, finding it satisfactory, they begin to search the house for the murder weapon, which may provide clues to the identity of the murderer. When Mrs. Maloney begs them, as friends deserving hospitality, to eat the meal she cannot bear to eat now, they hesitate but finally agree. While they are devouring the juicy lamb, their dining conversation reflects the irony of their unwitting ignorance: Surely, they say, the murder weapon must be somewhere in the house, even right under their noses. In the next room Mrs. Maloney giggles as they finish off the main dish. A simple prose narrative turning on a single major irony, the tale has been transferred to film, and, in either medium, it effectively demonstrates the author’s characteristically ironic denouement, which has been likened in effect to the appearance of a grinning skull.
Another story which depends on a pattern of ironies is “Royal Jelly,” one of Dahl’s famous tales of the grotesque. The plot concerns a baby born to a beekeeper who experiments with the products of his hives. Almost from birth, the beekeeper’s new daughter loses weight because she cannot tolerate the formula his wife prepares. When the anxious mother becomes exhausted from worry and sleepless nights, the father calmly takes over the schedule of feedings. Noticing in one of his apiculture journals that bees nurtured on royal jelly, one of the richest food substances known to humans, gain many times their birth weight, the concerned father secretly decides to add some royal jelly to the baby’s formula.
At first the effect of the new food seems favorable, for the baby begins to eat eagerly and to sleep peacefully between feedings. When the beekeeper adds more and more royal jelly to the formula, the child gains weight and becomes cherublike in appearance. Within a short time, however, the baby demands such huge quantities of the food that the pleased father can no longer hide his secret. His wife is angry when she learns of his casual experimentation with their precious child. In his efforts to reassure her, he makes a still more startling revelation. He himself has been consuming tremendous amounts of the potent substance ever since he read that it helped overcome infertility in men. Their beautiful new baby is the result of his desperate attempt.
For the first time in months the anxious wife looks closely at her husband. To her horror, she finds his appearance much altered. He has not merely gained weight, but the contours of his body seem very strange. His neck has nearly disappeared, and tufts of stiff black body hair point upward to his head. The child in the crib, too, is surprisingly beelike in appearance. Like a queen bee, however, she has begun developing her digestive and reproductive organs at the expense of her tiny limbs. Her belly is swollen and glossy; her arms and legs lie motionless on the sides of the bed. The story concludes with the father’s final ironic reference to his daughter as their “little queen.” In his concern for her nurture, he has assumed the role of a worker bee; indeed, his capacity for emotional exchange is seriously diminished. The final scene depicts the horror and the helplessness of the mother estranged from her husband and her child by a bizarre turn of nature that she cannot comprehend.
“Man from the South”
Another of Dahl’s most famous tales of the grotesque is “Man from the South,” a story of macabre gamesmanship at a fashionable Jamaican resort hotel. The narrator of this story becomes the reluctant referee in a bizarre gambling arrangement between a wealthy, middle-aged South American businessman and a handsome young British soldier. Casually...
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