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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Is Mary Maloney in "Lamb to the Slaughter" guilty or not?

In "Lamb to the Slaughter," Mary Maloney is guilty in the sense that she did commit the crime of killing her husband. However, the murder was not remotely premeditated, and Mary was in an extraordinarily dissociated and shocked state when she, without even thinking, killed her husband with a leg of lamb.

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From a strictly factual viewpoint, it could certainly be said that Mary Maloney is guilty of killing her husband. There are no other factors at play in the instance of his death that could have contributed to it besides Mary's sudden attack on him. For a crime of passion, his death is surprisingly quick. One strike with the leg of lamb is all that it takes to end his life and to pull Mary out of her state of shock.

It is this state of shock that could evidence a bit of vague innocence. As her husband explains the couple's situation, presumably that he is going to leave her, Mary's mind becomes increasingly detached from reality. She even admits that it feels as though when she snaps out of this state, it will have all been a dream. She continues preparing dinner as though nothing has happened. It is when her husband tells her to stop making him dinner, thereby rejecting her most treasured of domestic duties, that she finally snaps, killing him as instinctively as an animal might.

Ironically, her guilt may have been a point of debate if the authorities had approached the situation at this point. However, everything she does from that moment on paints her in a far more guilty light. She carefully crafts an alibi with a criminality that is almost masterful, and by the end of the story, she is literally listening to the investigating police officers eat the evidence, giggling to herself. She has transformed from a victim to a remorseless murderer.

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Mary Maloney is never going to be formally convicted of murder, and so in some ways, she will never really be guilty of the crime of killing her husband. She covers up the murder incredibly successfully, by cooking the evidence to ensure its destruction and by establishing an alibi for herself. She also understands that the local police department would not consider her a suspect because she has preexisting relationships with them. She's so confident that she's completely gotten away with it that when the police, while eating the murder weapon for dinner, exclaim that the weapon is probably right under their noses (completely ignorant of how right they were), she lets out a giggle. It appears that, according to the police and the courts, Mary Maloney is perfectly innocent.

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Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head. She might just as well have hit him with a steel club.

These words in Roald Dahl's short story "Lamb to the Slaughter" make it crystal clear that Mrs. Maloney is legally guilty of murder.

Whether she is morally guilty is another matter. It is clear that her husband is going to leave her, but we never hear anything of the details. Who is to blame is entirely a matter...

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of conjecture. He promises to give her money and ensure that Mary is looked after, but his dispassionate way of talking may strike many readers as terribly cold-hearted, like the reflection that it wouldn't be very good for his job.

However, even though the story is focalized through Mary's perspective, nothing her husband says or does could be taken as justification for murder—certainly not legally and almost certainly not morally either. The last line of the story suggests that Mary feels no remorse and is rather amused by her own cleverness in getting away with her crime.

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Of course she is guilty. That is why she goes to so much trouble to establish an alibi and to dispose of the murder weapon. She is not guilty of first-degree murder because the murder was not premeditated. If all the cops investigating the case knew she was responsible for her husband's death, they would arrest her and take her to jail. No doubt she would make a full confession and would eventually plead guilty. She would be indicted for something like second-degree murder or manslaughter. It is hard to know what would happen to her unborn baby, but it would undoubtedly be taken away from her. We might expect her to serve eight or ten years because of the extenuating circumstances and also because of the fact that she has a spotless prior record. All the policemen themselves could testify as character witnesses.

As readers we are induced to share in Mary Maloney's guilt because we want to see her get away with her crime. We are in a sense accessories after the fact. If we had the power to tell the investigating cops that Mary killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb--we probably wouldn't do it. Would we? The story is not to be taken too seriously. Mary didn't really kill Patrick. Patrick wasn't really going to leave her. It is just a story. The idea of killing a man with a leg of lamb and then getting the cops to eat the lamb is ridiculous. Roald Dahl was noted for writing stories like this. His story "The Way Up to Heaven" is a good example. Another man who wrote tongue-and-cheek murder stories was John Collier. Good examples are "The Chaser" and "De Mortuis." Such stories always have a touch of humor to suggest that they are taking place in a sort of Never-Never Land where ordinary laws do not apply.

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In "Lamb to the Slaughter," did Mary Maloney go to jail after killing her husband?

The point of the story is that Mary gets away with the crime of murdering her husband. She does not go to jail. The police think she is innocent, even as they are eating the murder weapon she used, a frozen, and now cooked, leg of lamb.

The title of the story is ironic. A young and devoted wife—and one who also happens to be pregnant—discovers that her husband has been having an affair. He tells her he plans to divorce her. That would make her, Mary, the lamb to the slaughter, for "lamb to the slaughter" is a figurative phrase that describes an innocent victim.

Mary, however, takes a (leg of) lamb and literally uses it to slaughter her husband by hitting him on the back of the head with it. This is the real meaning of the title of the story.

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In "Lamb to the Slaughter," did Mary Maloney go to jail after killing her husband?

The ending makes it clear that Mary Maloney manages to commit the perfect murder by getting the police officers who visit the property to investigate themselves to dispose of the murder weapon. If you look at the ending, you see that the police officers actually eat the leg of lamb with which Mary killed her husband, and what is even more darkly ironic, they talk about the murder weapon whilst they eat it:

One of them belched.“Personally, I think it’s right here on the premises.”“Probably right under our very noses.  What you think, Jack?”And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.

This shows that Mary through her cunning has managed to kill her husband and use her knowledge as a policeman's wife to recognise how important it is to get rid of the murder weapon so it cannot be found or linked to her in any way. She has found the perfect way of doing this through cooking the leg of lamb and serving it to the officers. Her innocence and future, and that of her baby, is assured.

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In "Lamb to the Slaughter," do you feel sympathy for Mary Maloney?

The reader has to feel something for Mary Maloney in order to be engaged. She commits a murder, then finds herself in a tight spot because the house is full of detectives and uniformed cops investigating the crime. Her husband was a cop himself, which explains why the police are taking such an interest.

However, I think "sympathy" is too strong a term. Empathy would be more like it. The author uses several devices to create empathy with his character. Most importantly, he keeps the reader in Mary's point of view (POV) from beginning to end. Whenever we are in a character's point of view, we cannot help but emphasize with that  character--regardless of how good or bad, how likable or unlikable, he or she might be.

A good example of this is Jack London's "To Build a Fire." The protagonist is not a likable or sympathetic character. He seems like a brutal, ignorant, selfish man--yet we empathize with him because we are confined to his POV up to the time of his death. We also empathize with him because of his motivation, which is simply to stay alive. We can empathize with any human or even with any animal if we are in that character's POV and the character is trying to stay alive.

This is the case with Mary Maloney. She has killed her husband in an explosion of emotion and now she wants to avoid being arrested for murder and possibly executed.

It was extraordinary, now, how clear her mind became all of a sudden. She began thinking very fast. As the wife of a detective, she knew quite well what the penalty would be.

That was fine. It made no difference to her. In fact, it would be a relief. On the other hand, what about the child? What were the laws about murderers with unborn children? Did they kill them both--mother and child? Or did they wait until the tenth month? What did they do?

Roald Dahl has cleverly augmented the reader's empathy by making his character six months pregnant. She is more concerned about her child than she is about herself. We like this in her. She is unselfish. She has the instincts of a mother, and any parent can empathize with her desire to protect her baby. In fact, there could hardly be a better way of engaging identification and concern for Mary Maloney than by making her six months pregnant. In was partly her husband's cold indifference to her condition that made her so bitterly angry in the first place.

Patrick Maloney's cold indifference is another way in which Dahl creates empathy for his wife. She worships him and has been slavishly devoted to him during all their years of marriage. Now she is going to present him with a child, which is the best gift this  humble woman has to offer the man she loves. He picks this time to tell her he wants nothing more to do with her. If she were totally crushed, we might feel sympathetic--but that would be another story, wouldn't it? Instead she reacts with fury and bashes him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb. We empathize with her but do not feel sorry for her. We feel like congratulating her on finally becoming a real person instead of a doormat. We want to see her get away with her crime, and we feel a sense of satisfaction and closure when she manages to do so.

In general, we do not approve of wives killing their husbands; but Dahl characteristically treats the whole episode with a dash of humor which assures us that this is only a story not to be taken too seriouosly. This is another reason why we empathize rather than sympathize with Mary.

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In "Lamb to the Slaughter," should Mary Maloney be punished for the murder of her husband?

Should is a very different verb from will. The end of this excellent short story makes it very clear that Mary Maloney has managed to get away with the murder, as she involves the policemen in hiding the murder weapon for her permanently as they eat the leg of lamb that she has just roasted and given them to eat.

However, if you are looking at the evidence from the reader's point of view, I think there is very definitely a case for her getting off with temporary insanity or something like that. Note how the actual murder is described:

At that point Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head.

It is clear that this was unpremeditated, and was brought around by the shock of discovering that he was going to leave her. We are also told that she was in "shock" with what she did. Clearly, her position as a pregnant wife who has just found out that her husband is probably having an affair and leaving her for another woman would have enabled her to get off in the hands of a good lawyer. But remember - the beauty of this darkly humorous story is that she is able to provide the perfect alibi for herself and destroy the murder weapon.

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