What kinds of irony can be found in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The kinds of irony that can be found in "Lamb to the Slaughter" are verbal, situational, and dramatic irony. There is verbal irony in the title of the story, situational irony when Mary uses the leg of lamb to kill her husband, and dramatic irony when the police officers eat the leg of lamb.

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Irony can be:

  • Situational: actions result in a different outcome than expected
  • Verbal: sarcasm; when words mean the opposite of what they originally intend to mean
  • Dramatic: actions and events understood by the audience, but not the characters

All three examples of irony are evident in "Lamb to the Slaughter."

The verbal irony is found in the title of the story. The phrase "Lamb to the Slaughter" suggests an innocent creature about to undergo torture and death. Mary Maloney could represent such a creature, and she would have met a similar fate if she had been found guilty of killing her husband.

More verbal and situational irony is represented in the murder weapon and what happens to it, unbeknownst to the people investigating the scene of the crime.

The murder weapon is a frozen leg of lamb. Mary hits her husband with it after mentally "snapping" when he announces to her that he will leave her. The hit kills him instantly. Shortly after, Mary comes up with a way to dispose of the murder weapon: she cooks it. What's more, she feeds it to the policemen who come to investigate the scene.

As the audience, we know what is going on.The characters do not. That would be the dramatic irony. We realize that they are eating the very thing they need to find in order to apprehend the person guilty of killing their fellow policeman, Patrick Maloney. They even comment that the murder weapon could be right "under their noses," which it is.  

Meanwhile, in the other room, Mary Maloney giggles at the situational irony of it all. The lamb, after all, saved her from the slaughter of what could have been a death sentence, or life in jail as a pregnant woman.

 

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Situational irony occurs when something that happens is the opposite of what we would normally expect to happen or find appropriate. Certainly, the major piece of situational irony is found when Mary Maloney, who Dahl goes to great lengths to depict as a loving wife who is devoted to her husband, in a moment of madness, kills him. Consider how she is introduced:

For her, this was always a blissful time of day... She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man, and to feel - almost as a sunbather feels the sun - that warm male glow that came out of him to her when they were alone together.

Mary Maloney is presented as being so obsessed with her husband that nothing is too much to ensure his comfort and happiness. Then it is a complete shock to us as readers when she kills him with the frozen leg of lamb:

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.

This action is completely the opposite of what we would expect a character like Mary to be able to do. The second piece of situational irony comes when she manages to very coolly and in a calculating fashion organise an alibi and the removal of the murder weapon. Consider the last line, where Mary celebrates the success of her plan:

And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.

Again, this criminal behaviour and outwitting of the policemen is not the kind of activity we would expect to see from a devoted housewife. Both of these incidents serve to shock us in the story through the use of situational irony.

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One example of verbal irony in the story occurs just before Mary learns that Patrick is leaving her.  When discussing dinner options, she says, "There’s plenty of meat and stuff in the freezer, and you can have it right here and not even move out of the chair."  Looking back, this is ironic because Mary does in fact bring the leg of lamb into the living room.  Patrick "has" the lamb, but certainly not in the same way that Mary intended when she said this to him earlier in the story. 

Another example of verbal irony occurs later in the story after Patrick is already dead.  Mary has put on a little show for the grocer and she goes back into the house and calls to her husband, "How are you, darling?"  She obviously knows that he is dead, so her asking how he is doing is quite ironic.

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Dramatic irony occurs when the audience has knowledge of something that some or all of the characters do not, and because of that words or actions have a different meaning.  In "Lamb to the Slaughter" the reader knows that Mary Maloney, having been told by her policeman husband that he is leaving her, has killed him with a frozen leg of lamb.  The dramatic irony occurs when she cooks the lamb and serves it to the men investigating her husband's death while they speculate about what the murder weapon might have been and where is could be.  In fact, one of them remarks the evidence they are seeking is probably "right under their noses." The reader knows they are eating the very weapon they are seeking!  That is dramatic irony.

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Another example is the very last line of dialogue in the story.  The officers are consuming the leg of lamp and discussing the murder while, obviously, digesting the murder weapon.  Then one officer states that the weapon is "probably right  under our very noses."  And, of course, it is.

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There are a couple of ironic points to this story. First of all, the title is a pun. A lamb to the slaughter usually refers to someone who is unaware they are about to be harmed, since lambs are easily led to their slaughter since they trust the one leading them and they are unaware of what is to become of them.

In this story, the husband, Patrick Maloney, is killed like a lamb, totally trusts his wife Mary and is completely unaware of his impending doom, but the title is also ironic because it is actually a frozen leg of lamb that is used to slaughter the hapless victim.

The final irony is dramatic irony, because the reader knows that the leg of lamb was used as a murder weapon, but the police unwittingly eat the evidence when the killer serves the roast leg of lamb to them.

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