illustrated tablesetting with a plate containing a large lamb-leg roast resting on a puddle of blood

Lamb to the Slaughter

by Roald Dahl
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How does Dahl describe Mary’s characteristics in "Lamb to the Slaughter"? What textual evidence does the author use to describe Mary and her house in order to achieve this effect?

Dahl describes Mary Maloney early in "Lamb to the Slaughter" as a caring and doting wife who is entirely focused on the needs of her husband. Because of his presumed infidelity, she transforms into a woman capable of calmly and thoroughly covering the murder of her husband.

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Mary is carefully characterized from the opening lines of "Lamb to the Slaughter" as a woman whose entire life revolves around her husband. Even before her name is mentioned, it is clear that she has made the room warm and cozy and set out drinks and glasses in anticipation of his return. The first action she performs is to glance at the clock. Although Dahl says that she does this "without anxiety," his description makes it evident that she is waiting for the really important part of her day to begin. At a certain time, she begins to listen for the sounds of his car arriving. The rest of her calm, quiet existence is merely a preparation for the time she spends with Patrick.

The sounds that accompany Patrick's arrival are carefully described: "the car tires on the stones outside, the car door closing, footsteps passing the window, the key turning in the lock." This shows just how much of a ritual this part of the day has become for Mary. She stands up, despite being in her sixth month of pregnancy, so that she can greet him with a kiss at the door. Dahl then describes the details of this "wonderful time of day," which Mary spends luxuriating in Patrick's proximity.

All the characterization of Mary shows her to be not just as a woman who loves her husband, but one who idolizes and arranges her life around him. This makes her sudden violence and her almost unconscious decision that if she cannot have him, no one can more credible. It seems likely that Dahl had in mind the words of William Congreve as he wrote this story:

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned

Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.

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Early in the story, Mary is described as a doting and nurturing wife, carefully anticipating and attending to her husband's needs. As the time for his return home draws near, she counts each minute in anticipation. She waits to hear the sound of his tires on the rock driveway. When he enters, she takes his coat and makes his favorite drink. She sews quietly while he drinks, knowing that he doesn't like to speak much "until the first drink [is] finished." Mary is content to attend to her husband's needs, considering this time "wonderful," and she simply enjoys sitting in the presence of his company. The environment she's created in their home is peaceful, her domestic work evident in the small details of this scene.

In many ways, Mary is described as the familiar—and invisible—wife, silent behind her husband. That she seems entirely focused on his needs is a testament to her dedication to her husband and her marriage. Yet this isn't enough for Patrick, and the news of her husband's affair comes as such a shock that "her first instinct [is] not to believe any of it" as she calmly begins to prepare their supper.

Mary's sudden change in character is shocking because of this early description. It seems unfathomable that a dedicated, doting, and fairly invisible wife could deliver a singular blow capable of killing her (presumably) cheating husband, and her icy resolve in covering up the crime is even more chilling.

Though Mary begins the story as the "ideal" wife, she is described at the end of the story as laughing at the detectives who are eating the murder weapon in the next room. The transformation of Mary Maloney shows the vindictive power of a woman scorned.

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Dahl first describes Mary as a gentle angel of the home by describing such externals as her physical appearance, activities, and demeanor. She bends over her sewing, a domestic task, looking "curiously peaceful." She is sixth months pregnant, and her calm eyes seem larger and darker than ever. Everything about her exudes a gentle, madonna like quality.

We are shown too how Mary waits on her husband when he gets home, hanging his coat and making his drink.

Dahl's narrator also gets inside Mary's head to record some of her thoughts. For instance, she is looking forward happily to her husband returning from work. We learn that the time of day when he comes home is "wonderful" for her.

However, Dahl shows that while Mary's calm, cool exterior never changes, her emotions do, turning from love and appreciation for her husband to intense anger. After she learns he is leaving her, she whacks him on the back of the head and kills him just as calmly as just made him a drink—and then just as calmly cooks the murder weapon for the police to eat.

At the end of the story, when we are left with Mary laughing over having deceived the police, we understand that she may be externally calm but she is not all innocent.

Although this is a seemingly simple story, Dahl paints a portrait of woman whose actions show she is more complicated than her innocent exterior might suggest.

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In order to answer your question, I will first define characterization and what you should look for in order to assess a character. Direct characterization occurs when an author tells the reader what a character is like, while indirect characterization occurs when an author demonstrates what a character is like. A reader should focus on a character’s words, actions, appearance, thoughts, and relationship with other characters to assess his or her character.

In Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Mary Maloney is a dutiful, pregnant housewife to her police officer husband. Throughout the story, Dahl relies on indirect characterization to reveal her traits. Chiefly, Dahl’s use of the third-person limited omniscient point of view gives the reader direct access to Mary’s thoughts and feelings as she awaits her husband’s return from work. For example, one could infer from her anxious thoughts at the beginning of the story that Mary doesn’t like being alone.

In addition, Dahl describes the details of the Maloney home in a way that makes everything seem clean and organized. The specific way in which Mary arranges her home, one might argue, demonstrates her meticulous attention to detail—a trait that serves her well after her husband’s accidental death.

I hope these suggestions allow you to fully understand how Dahl lets the reader infer what kind of person Mary Maloney is despite the expectations that are placed upon her by others.

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