The critical reception of Dahl’s story ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ needs to be put in the context of his critical reception generally. First of all, Dahl achieved commercial success and, after a period of struggle, became wealthy on the basis of his writing. For this to happen, a writer must have talent and a sense of how to make that talent appeal to large numbers of ordinary readers. There is, moreover, often a difference between what a large segment of the literate public wants and what academically trained editors, who stand between authors and the public, think that the public wants or what the public ought to want. Once his writing reached its audience, Dahl never experienced any difficulty; before reaching his audience, at the editorial level, however, Dahl often confronted obstacles. ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ was originally rejected by the New Yorker in 1951. In the meantime, Dahl had established contact with the publishing firm of Knopf, which brought out a collection of his previously published stories called Someone Like You in 1953. This collection was successful with the American reading public. Unpublished Dahl stories were now sought by magazines, and Colliers ran the stories that the New Yorker had rejected, including ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter.’’
Critical reaction to Dahl’s first published collection, summarized by Jeremy Treglown in a biography of the author, makes the case. Someone Like You received a good number of reviews, the majority favorable, a few condescending; but even the favorable ones tended to categorize Dahl as a strictly popular writer. Treglown quotes New York Times critic James Kelly praising Dahl as ‘‘the compleat short-story writer.’’ Yet Kelly went on to differentiate classes of short-story specialists. On the one hand there are writers like Chekhov, the Russian, an indubitable artist and explorer of human psychological depth; on the other hand, there are ‘‘solid plotters like Saki, O. Henry, Maupassant and Maugham,’’ to which latter category he assigns Dahl. ‘‘The reader looking for sweetness, light, and subtle characterization will have to try another address,’’ Kelly wrote. Among the negative reviews, one from the Buffalo News opined that even though he was a beginning author, Dahl was unlikely to achieve much in the way of a higher level of artistic expression; the same reviewer disliked Dahl’s stories for their unrelievedly sardonic attitude and for their lack of social significance. Nevertheless, as Treglown notes, ‘‘by Christmas , 7500 hundred copies had been sold.’’
‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ benefited from the success of Someone Like You, and Dahl quickly marketed it to Colliers. The story has been widely reprinted ever since. As Treglown writes, the story of Mary Maloney’s murder of her husband constitutes ‘‘a comic crime thriller in miniature which was to become one of [Dahl’s] best-known stories and whose plot must be among the first to depend on a domestic freezer.’’ Notice that Treglown refers to the story as ‘‘comic,’’ stressing its black humor. Treglown makes a virtue of what other critics of Dahl have seen as a vice, namely a penchant for the grotesque and a nasty vision of human existence. This divergence of opinion sums up the critical reaction to Dahl rather neatly.
As he gradually deemphasized ‘‘adult’’ fiction in favor of ‘‘children’s stories’’ in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dahl found that, despite the popularity of such items as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, some academic students of ‘‘children’s stories’’ did not approve of him. It was thought that an amoral viciousness undermined the moral order in Dahl’s children’s fiction. In its elements of savagery and rejection of the rules of behavior, ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ might be described as a ‘‘children’s story for adults.’’