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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Justify the title of the story "Lamb to the Slaughter." 

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The title "Lamb to the Slaughter" can be justified because it refers to the multiple layers of meaning in the story. It can refer to the literal fact that Mary murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. It can refer to the pregnant Mary as an innocent "lamb" sacrificed to her husband's desire for a divorce. It can refer, too, to Mr. Malone being slaughtered by his wife.

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The title "Lamb to the Slaughter" has multiple layers of meaning. On a literal level, a frozen leg of lamb "slaughters" or kills Mr. Malone when his wife Mary whacks him on the head with it, but "lamb to the slaughter" is also a phrase meaning an innocent person who is sacrificed to serve the needs of others.

One could say the innocent Mary, who is likened as the story opens to a gentle, loving Madonna, has been the lamb metaphorically slaughtered to serve her husband's needs. Although she is heavily pregnant, her husband tells her is going to divorce her. This is a blow Mary didn't see coming and could be considered a death knell to all her dreams. He tells her he doesn't expect her to make a fuss but merely to step aside to suit his desire for a new life.

Mr. Malone could also be understood as the lamb to the slaughter as he has absolutely no idea his wife is about to murder him.

Finally, the policeman could be characterized as lambs to the slaughter as they innocently eat the murder evidence when Mary serves them the leg of lamb that she used to murder her husband for dinner. She "plays" them for all they all worth, then laughs when they are gone. The title encompasses the many ways people are used or duped in this story.

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The title is justified since, firstly, in a direct and literal sense, the object used to kill Patrick Maloney is a frozen leg of lamb. Patrick is essentially "slaughtered" with a leg of lamb as the murder weapon. In this sense, then, the lamb, or rather, a part of it, is brought to the slaughter.

The title also has a metaphorical connotation. It generally refers to someone who goes innocently and unconcernedly into a dangerous or life threatening-situation. Patrick Maloney is a good example of this. Mary Maloney is described as someone who is meek and mild-mannered. She is a doting and loving wife who takes care of her husband's every need. She is, therefore, the last person anyone would suspect of committing a heinous crime, but that is precisely what she does. She kills the unsuspecting Patrick.

One can, furthermore, describe Mary as being "as gentle as a lamb." Ironically, it is this very same meek and mild-mannered person who, after killing her husband, coldly sets about creating an alibi to cover herself. She acts as if she is the traumatized victim of an offensive act when, indeed, she is the one who committed the deed. The fact that her gentle nature is not doubted adds credence to the title. Mary Maloney looks like the proverbial gentle lamb—but she is the one who committed the slaughter in this instance. 

Furthermore, given of Dahl's physical description of her having calm, dark, large eyes and his explanation of her behavior toward Patrick, one would expect him to be good-natured and loving toward her. However, she becomes an unsuspecting victim of his selfish and uncaring attitude. He plans to leave her even though she is pregnant with his child. In this sense, then, Mary, who naively believes in her husband's loyalty and commitment, becomes an innocent victim of his ruthless attitude. She is essentially also, like an unsuspecting lamb, led on by Patrick until he divulges his heartbreaking intention. The news devastates her and she, without any forethought, lashes out. She also becomes, in the instant that she kills him, a victim of her own inner malice—a trait she most surely did not know she had until after she had killed him.

Finally, the unsuspecting detectives and other investigators, like lambs, innocently destroy the evidence by ingesting the murder weapon. They are unaware that the murderer is within their midst. Mary, to them, cannot possibly be held accountable for what happened to Patrick. She, however, takes morbid pleasure in the fact that, with each bite, the men are demolishing the only proof of her crime. She begins to laugh in the other room when she hears them talking about the evidence while they're actually eating it.

It is for all these reasons that the title aptly reflects the main and sub themes of Dahl's brilliant tale. 

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The title of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is rather ingenious because it has so many possible meanings. "Lamb to the Slaughter" is more than a double-entendre; it might be called a "quadruple-entendre." A frozen leg of lamb is used by Mary Maloney to "slaughter" her husband. That weapon once belonged to a real lamb that was "slaughtered" in order to be used as food. Patrick is the one who is "slaughtered" in the story. He is an easy victim of his enraged wife because, like a lamb going to the slaughter, he is completely unsuspecting. Mary, who does the slaughtering in the story, behaves very much like a meek lamb until her husband shatters her illusions by telling her that he wants out of their marriage. The police who arrive on the scene do not suspect Mary because they have always considered her a very meek, mild, gentle, patient woman, not unlike a lamb. The whole story is based on the fact that the murder weapon is never found because no one would ever think of a murderer using a frozen leg of lamb for the "slaughter."

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