What is the meaning of the title of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From the Holy Bible, Isaiah 53:7 says 

All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. 

The lamb represents any living being that is innocently being led to a bad situation; one which could even end his or her life. 

In Roald Dahl's short story "Lamb to the Slaughter," the protagonist is a woman whose life gravitates around her husband, a policeman. She admires him, pampers him, is a good housewife and, to top it all, she is heavily pregnant with their first child. 

The description of this woman suggests that she is vulnerable and innocent. She is dependent on her man. She does not work, for all we know, and her existence is based on the wants and needs of her husband. Still, one night after work, he tells her that he is leaving her, making her an innocent person entering a bad situation.

This piece of news is the trigger that leads Mary, the protagonist, to suddenly lose her mind. Without planning or scheming, she simply goes to the kitchen to cook her husband a leg of lamb. She takes it from the freezer and, almost automatically, she turns around and pounds her husband's head with it, killing him instantly. Was it blinding rage? We will never know. However, we do now this: this pregnant woman, whose life depended on the man she just killed, will face prison and perhaps even the death penalty if she is proven guilty. Then, she would be the lamb going to the slaughter. 

As such, Mary has to protect herself and conceal the weapon that killed Patrick. How does she do it? By feeding it to the policemen who come to the scene. She cooks the leg of lamb, feeds it to them, makes her weapon disappear. and, like the story shows, 

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

We can argue that there are two innocent people who go "to the slaughter." The first is Patrick, Mary's husband. He is a mean man for leaving his pregnant wife, but he has no idea that the outcome of this decision will be his death. The second person is Mary. If she had been accused of her husband's death, she would have had to give birth in prison, give up her child, and possibly face death. The irony of the title is that the murder weapon is a leg of lamb, which the policemen investigating the scene end up eating. 

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the reasons this story is so successful is that its title works on many different levels, and part of the evident irony of the story is the way that this title functions. Let us consider the main meaning of this phrase. "Lamb to the slaughter" is used to describe someone who is normally innocent, weak and defenceless going into a situation where they are going to get attacked, beaten up, or killed (metaphorically if not physically). You could argue that it is Mary Maloney who is going to get "slaughtered" by the news that her husband is leaving her. She is clearly a well-meaning innocent. However, equally, and more deviously, it is Patrick Maloney who comes like a lamb to the slaughter. He would never have expected his wife to kill him (and nor would the reader) and thus goes like an innocent to his death. Of course, the irony is compounded by the fact that lamb is literally used to slaughter Patrick. Likewise it could be said that the policemen who come go like lamb to the slaughter - they are intent on finding the murder weapon to find the killer, but are innocently deceived by Mary Maloney into eating the very murder weapon that they are talking about needing to find. They are poor, unsuspecting little lambs who are metaphorically "slaughtered" or tricked by Mary into getting her off the crime free.

Thus the fact that the "lamb" could be identified as any one of the characters combined with the actual use of the leg of lamb as the murder weapon serves to make this a highly successful ironic title that operates on many different levels.