In Roald Dahl’s “The Lamb to Slaughter,” Mary Maloney reacts with denial, shock, repressed anger, and eerie calmness to news that her husband wants to leave her. A stereotypical 1950s wife, she is portrayed as happily domestic and obediently devoted to her husband. She contentedly awaits his return home from work and then greets him with a kiss and drink. Fussing over him—jumping up to refill his drink and insisting on cooking his dinner instead of going out as planned—Mary relents when he commands her to sit and listen: “It wasn't until then that she began to get frightened.”
Like a docile and intimidated child, she obeys him and keeps her “large, puzzled eyes” glued to him. Her husband quickly delivers the news that he wants to leave her within “four or five minutes at most, and she sat still through it all, watching him with puzzled horror.” Initially, Mary is confused; after all, she has been fulfilling her expected duties as a housewife. To complicate matters further, she is carrying this man’s child. Of course she is horrified; in 1950s America, his leaving her would mean a scandalous divorce and her becoming a single mother.
At first, Mary reacts with denial to this crazy news:
her first instinct was not to believe any of it. She thought that perhaps she'd imagined the whole thing. Perhaps, if she acted as though she had not heard him, she would find out that none of it had ever happened.
She questions her own sanity (“that perhaps she'd imagined the whole thing”) and then behaves the only way she knows how or is expected: as a Stepford-like housewife whose solution is to pretend nothing happened, carry on, and start dinner.
In shock over the news, she loses all feeling expect “a slight sickness.” Without thinking, she automatically looks for food in the basement freezer to cook for supper. She fails to internalize the gravity of the news; after finding a leg of lamb in the freezer she thinks, “All right, then, they would have lamb for supper” and carries it back upstairs. Then she sees her husband standing
with his back to her, and stopped.
"I've already told you," he said. "Don't make supper for me. I'm going out."
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. She might as well have hit him with a steel bar.
This passage illustrates her repressed anger and begs the question: is her murder of him briefly premeditated? When she sees him in a vulnerable position, “with his back to her,” she pauses and seems to be observing him, maybe or maybe not plotting. At that moment, what is she thinking? Is his final command what makes her snap? Does she hit him intending just to hurt him but not murder him?...
In any case, the fact that she “simply walked up behind him” and unhesitatingly winds up the lamb leg before bludgeoning him “as hard as she could” demonstrates volition, determination, and silent rage—traits she does not display as the traditional housewife earlier in the story.
After hitting her husband, Mary just steps back silently and watches him fall to the floor. Only when his crashing fall overturns a table does she come “out of the shock…. feeling cold and surprised” as if she was in a trance. The fact that she is “surprised” suggests that her actions are not premeditated. The wording indicates spontaneous and temporary insanity.
She remains eerily calm while standing over his body; instead of screaming or panicking, she tells herself, “All right… So I've killed him.” With this matter-of-fact statement, Mary may be revealing her belief that he got what he deserved. After all, his destruction of their seemingly perfect marriage—at least to outsiders—and desertion of her would be reprehensible in 1950s American society.