Discuss the theme of appearance and reality in Roald Dahl's Lamb to the Slaughter.

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is quite simple to identify what is appearance and what is reality in Roald Dahl's short story "Lamb to the Slaughter." The interesting part is finding out how the author juxtaposes them in a way such that what is real is invisible to the eye, and what is not real is wonderfully illustrated with a lot of fakery. 

The first sign of appearance is the setting of the story. It is the Maloney household, where a young, pregnant homemaker waits for her husband. She is described as someone existing in the lap of comfort. 

The room was warm and clean, the curtains drawn, the two table lamps alight-hers and the one by the empty chair opposite. On the sideboard behind her, two tall glasses, soda water, whiskey. Fresh ice cubes in the Thermos bucket.

The scene suggests security, solidity, love, and even a hint of familiar warmth. All is perfectly set to appear that things are fine at the Maloney household; after all, what could possibly go wrong with so much goodness going on?

Except that there is a lot of wrong going on. 

First, Mary is hit with a cruel reality check right as she is planning to make her husband his nightly dinner. He tells her that he is leaving her, that he will do his best to take care of her from afar, and that she better not fuss too much about that, either. 

"And I know it's kind of a bad time to be telling you, bet there simply wasn't any other way. Of course I'll give you money and see you're looked after. But there needn't really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn't be very good for my job."

All this begs the question: Since when has this been going on, and how blinded was Mary to her own reality?

We see crumbs of reality when the couple interacts. She dotes on him so strongly only to receive cold and blurted answers ranging from his refusal to eat dinner to his arrogance in asking her to "not blame him too much anyway" for what is going on. Is it possible that behind the facade of a perfect home there was a black hole of neglect and blind devotion? 

All points to the fact that there was a whole side to the Maloneys that had been hiding within the home. 

Now, let's review Mary. It was very simple for her to calculate how to get rid of the evidence with which she killed her husband. We can concede that the woman simply snapped and hit him with the frozen leg of lamb because that was the first object she had in her hands at the time.  

Yet, even though panic set in she was able to create an alibi at the store, and even fake an entry into the house knowing that Patrick was dead on the floor. 

She [...] went through into the living room; and when she saw him lying there on the floor with his legs doubled up and one arm twisted back underneath his body, it really was rather a shock.

All the old love and longing for him welled up inside her, and she ran over to him, knelt down beside him, and began to cry her heart out. It was easy. No acting was necessary.

Here we have a smidgen of reality. Mary loved and still loves Patrick, the husband whom she killed when he revealed his plan to abandon the family home. However, both Mary and Patrick seem to have a penchant for easily changing their minds, or adapting to a new personality. Is that just them, or is anyone vying for personal, financial, or social survival capable of the same thing? 

The last thing that shows a potential lapse into insanity is the way that Mary laughs in the end of the story at the thought of having gotten away with the crime. She fed the policemen the lamb, which is the murder weapon.  Is hers the laughter of a sociopath who feels victorious, that of a shocked woman, or that of just someone who is plain evil in her own secret way? 

There is a lot to wonder about the Maloneys, which also reflects on us as an audience. How alike or different would we be if something or someone took away the foundation of our life and threatened to take it away the way Patrick did with Mary? Those are the essential questions to the story that tap into the topic of appearance and reality.