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 whiskey as a symbol reinforce the theme in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

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In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” the symbol of whiskey reinforces the theme of gender roles in a patriarchal society. Mary is a faithful, traditional housewife who tends to her husband’s needs. In her domestic role, she stays at home and prepares it for his return from a long, hard day at work as a policeman.

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.

Mary sets the scene for her husband’s maximum comfort. The his-and-her drinking glasses exemplify their neat marital pairing. His drink of choice is whiskey, often known as a “man’s drink.” The drinks that she fixes (a strong one for him and a weak one for herself) parallel traditional masculine and feminine gender stereotypes.

Whiskey is also fuel for the husband; he needs to down two glasses of the “dark amber” liquid with “oily swirls” in order to muster up the courage to confess his infidelity. But does this macho drink provide him strength, or is it a crutch?

Gendered power roles are subverted when Mary becomes her husband’s killer; he is no longer free to abandon her for another woman. After Mary plots and enacts her alibi (and cleverly disposes of the murder weapon by baking it), she asks for whiskey from her husband’s colleagues. Like her husband, she uses whisky for relaxation and self-comfort.

Then she offers whiskey to the Sergeant Noonan. He acquiesces.

“Well,” he answered. “It’s not strictly allowed, but I might take just a drop to keep me going.”
One by one the others came in and were persuaded to take a little nip of whiskey. They stood around rather awkwardly with the drinks in their hands, uncomfortable in her presence, trying to say consoling things to her.

Mary becomes the one in command while the male policemen reluctantly sip whiskey and give—rather than receive—comfort. Unaccustomed to their roles as consolers, the men seem to drink in order to keep her company just as she did with her husband when he was alive.

Finally, Mary uses whiskey as a means of control. Her encouragement of the men to drink whiskey is not a subservient act (as it was with her husband) but a strategic plot to dull their minds and senses. She acts like the perfect hostess by serving them whiskey as well as a home-cooked, meaty dinner. In the story’s patriarchal society, the men readily accept her behavior and suspect no subterfuge.

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