Lamb to the Slaughter Questions and Answers
by Roald Dahl

Lamb to the Slaughter book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Lamb To The Slaughter Symbolism

In "Lamb to the Slaughter," what two symbols appear in the story?

Expert Answers info

Carter Westfall eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseTeacher (K-12)

bookB.A. from University of the Western Cape, South Africa


calendarEducator since 2014

write1,246 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

The two most significant symbols are 'lamb' and 'supper'. Both of these are used in a profoundly ironic context on many different levels.

A lamb is deemed an innocent, harmless animal. It is feeble and non-threatening, and, dare we say, quite stupid. Mary, in this context, may be represented as the lamb for, throughout the story she presents a docile, servile attitude. She does her best to please her husband, and, like the innocent and unsuspecting lamb, is punished for her love, kindness and unquestioning duty to him. He unscrupulously discards her like a rotten rag, even though she had...

(The entire section contains 522 words.)

Unlock This Answer Now


check Approved by eNotes Editorial


calliyoung | Student

The symbolism of the lamb is most significant in this short story and is also used to symbolize the character of both Mr. and Mrs. Maloney.

Lambs have always been identified as weak, innocent, and completely dependent on a someone stronger than themselves to survive. In the story, we first see Mary Maloney as the lamb. She is a subservient wife, doing everything for her husband without question. At the beginning of the story, we can see that she has everything so perfectly timed, that her husband will have to wait for nothing and want for nothing from the time he steps in the door until he leaves. She is a lamb in the sense that she has no identity in the relationship, but is merely a follower and depends on him for life. When Patrick comes home that night, readers can easily see that he uses this lamb-like character of Mary. Even after he asks for a divorce, he still expects her to be lamb-like and subservient to him. Shockingly enough, she follows through and goes into the kitchen to prepare supper.

Symbolism of the lamb can be seen in the character of Patrick Maroney also, though not as evident as with his wife. Patrick's lamb-like qualities are in his way of thinking and his innocent viewpoint that Mary will do anything for him. He is quite unaware that she was become no longer a victim and is taking her life into her own hands. His innocence and stupidity are what leads to his death.

The leg of lamb itself, has the most ironic symbolism of the lamb. What should be an innocent and unsuspecting piece of meat from an innocent and unsuspecting animal, ends up being the murder weapon and meal for the unsuspecting policemen.

The second symbol in the story is the supper. Readers begin the story with supper and the way in which Mary frets over the supper shows its importance in the household. She so badly wants to please him that she always makes sure that Patrick's supper is perfect. This "Last Supper" leads to the death of Mr. Maroney and ultimately serves as a ironic and twisted ending when the policemen end up eating the murder weapon, not wanting to waste the perfectly prepared meal that lamb-like Mary has prepared.

theenglishteachertotherescue | Student

The first symbol could be the obvious use of the word "lamb". Look at the fact that the title suggests that an animal will be killed. What do we know about lambs? They're weak, they're feeble, they're unimportant, and lastly, they're followers. So, with all of this background knowledge about lambs, you can tell that Ronald Dahl wanted to create a pun, since Mary Maloney seems to be the weak, unimportant, feeble character throughout the story. Mary is the lamb; she dutifully follows her husband--doing all she can to please and appease him as a wife. What was her repayment? A divorce! 

The idiom "lamb to the slaughter" suggests something innocent that is willingly, in fact, blindly following something that will ultimately lead to its demise. Mary (also an allusion to the children's sing-a-long "Mary had a little lamb") was the lamb, but just like in classic fable stories, she becomes the strong one as she overpowers her husband, killing him with a leg of lamb.

The other symbol would be the religious implication of the word "lamb". In the bible, a lamb is sacrificed (Jesus Christ) for the sins of the world. In the story, the lamb is not sacrificed for sins, it is rather, being sacrificed as atonement for wrong doing. Patrick Maloney had done his wife wrong by falling out of love with her after years of service and devotion. Therefore, in the spirit of atonement, he was to be sacrificed.