illustrated tablesetting with a plate containing a large lamb-leg roast resting on a puddle of blood

Lamb to the Slaughter

by Roald Dahl

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Anthropological Implications of Narrative

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2015

In his short story ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ Roald Dahl offers his readers a tale so grotesque, so darkly comic, so hilarious in some of its incidental details (the fourth line from the end features a belch), that one can easily fail to take it seriously. ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ seems a kind of literary joke, a morbid toss-off, which the author luckily convinced some editor to buy. Yet part of Dahl’s cleverness in this slick tale of domestic comfort disrupted, of marriage betrayed, and of a life taken, is that he tricks his readers into complicity with a murder, just as the murderer tricks the investigators into complicity by getting them to consume the evidence.

If readers feel sympathetic to Mary Maloney (as well they might) because her husband Patrick has abrogated their marriage and rejected her love without prelude, they must nevertheless not forget that Mary’s act, her escalated turnabout against Patrick, violates a much deeper tabu than that against the unilateral dissolution of marriage; it violates the tabu against murder. Rather like an authorial devil, Dahl tempts readers to join with Mary’s ‘‘giggle’’ at the end of the tale, when her self-exculpating plan has prevailed. Attentive students of Dahl’s text will understand, however, that the comedy conceals an eruption of ugly vengefulness and that such vengefulness potentially entangles all people, actual and fictional. The law, represented in the story by the unfaithful Patrick and the bumbling detectives, serves in real life, under coercive threat, to defer just this type of personal score-settling. ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’’ perhaps surprisingly, turns out to be a story about the fundamental—and fragile—devices of civilization, and about the ease with which the seemingly law-abiding citizen lapses back into the murderous brute.

Consider the murder itself and its immediate effects. Approaching Patrick from behind, with the frozen leg of lamb hefted as a club, Mary swings high and directs the full weight of it on Patrick’s head ‘‘as hard as she could.’’ As Dahl affirms, a frozen joint smashes as well as cold steel. (The detectives will suspect something like ‘‘a heavy metal vase.’’) Grotesquely, Patrick ‘‘remained standing there for at least four or five seconds, gently swaying.’’ The adverbial qualification constitutes a neat, and telling, bit of narrative irony on Dahl’s part, for the act is anything but gentle. Patrick crashes to the carpet. When Sergeant Jack Noonan arrives, he finds ‘‘a small patch of congealed blood on the dead man’s head.’’ Over the sinister repast, one investigating detective remarks that the police doctor had found Patrick’s head to be ‘‘smashed all to pieces just like from a sledgehammer.’’ In the story, these details lie dispersed at different stages of the telling. Putting them together serves as a reminder that Patrick’s death is quite brutal, and that Mary, seemingly out of character, has summoned the grim strength of a Neanderthal. To Patrick, it seems, falls the role of sacrificial lamb to which the story’s title refers, the one who goes unwittingly to his own pathetic slaughter. Yet whatever his offense, no matter how much he corresponds to stereotype of the male betrayer of women, Patrick does not deserve to die.

One might imagine a feminist reading of ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ in which the interpreter focuses on Patrick’s betrayal of Mary, his casual sacrifice of the marriage to his career, to his ambition, to his very own withdrawn intentness. Perhaps one does not even have to be a feminist to succumb to the urge to defend Mary on just such suppositional grounds. Patrick’s piggishness—if that is what it is—after all seems to...

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confirm the worst things that contemporary (especially academic) convention ascribes to the naturally reprobate male character. The plight of abandoned, and at least emotionally abused, women circulates widely and is well known to many. Why should readers therefore not side with Mary and even delight in her revenge against patriarchal oppression? All the more so because the events take place in a story, not in real life. Are not stories, after all, precisely the locus in which our impractical wishes may be carried imaginatively to fruition, thereby sublimating dangerous thoughts and urges? A close reading of the details ought to dampen this urge. The scene in which Patrick announces his intention to leave Mary looms as particularly interesting.

Patrick begins his tense speech to Mary with the assertion that ‘‘this is going to be a bit of a shock to you.’’ Mary, whom Dahl has previously characterized as being ‘‘without anxiety,’’ exhibiting ‘‘a slow smiling air,’’ and being ‘‘curiously tranquil,’’ has already ‘‘begun to get frightened,’’ now infuses her eye with a ‘‘bewildered look.’’ Patrick says that he has thought about what he is planning to say ‘‘a good deal’’ and that he hopes that Mary will not lay too much ‘‘blame’’ on him. So far, Dahl has employed direct discourse. Now, however, he switches to indirect discourse and to a purposefully vague vocabulary: ‘‘And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at the most, and she sat very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word.’’ Switching back to direct discourse, Dahl makes Patrick conclude his speech with remarks about how ‘‘there needn’t be any fuss’’ and how a fuss ‘‘wouldn’t be very good for my job.’’ It sounds selfish. What else can it be? But the important thing to note is what Dahl premeditatedly declines to divulge, what he quite deliberately conceals through elision. Readers never learn from Dahl’s carefully elided narrative precisely what Patrick’s line of reasoning, his case, is. (Or even what his line of unreasonable self-justifi- cation, his non-case, is, for it could be one as easily as the other.) While a strong tendency to put the worst light on such matters no doubt afflicts every reader, the fact remains that Patrick’s motive hovers outside any reader’s ken. To fill in the blank, no matter how certain one is about an assignable motive, would be to collaborate unbidden in the storytelling, a violation of critical principles.

What happens to the instinctive reading of the story (namely that Mary is primitively justified) immediately the reader’s lack of knowledge about Patrick’s motive makes itself known? In the first place, what Dahl casually calls Mary’s ‘‘instinct,’’ her ‘‘instinct . . . not to believe any of it, to reject it all,’’ becomes suspicious, the more so since, having dispatched Patrick with the convenient and fatal mutton-joint, she herself experiences clarity: ‘‘It was extraordinary, now, how clear her mind became all of a sudden.’’ In the light of this clarity, Mary carefully rehearses her alibi. She sits in front of her vanity mirror and practices saying normal things to Sam the grocer. Her talent for lying rises, here, to the superb. It shows itself superb again when, returning from Sam’s, she convinces herself to act naturally, as though she did not know the fact of her own criminal deed. It expands into the superlative when she skillfully lies to Sergeant Noonan and O’Malley, on their arrival, feigning the distressed survivor, mocking herself up as the discoverer of a grisly crime perpetrated by an unknown assailant. Now if, in the unrecorded blank of his speech, Patrick said to Mary, I’ve taken up with someone else more helpful to me in my career, younger and more beautiful, so I’m abandoning you, one might say that Mary was, indeed, primitively justified. But of course Patrick might just as well have said, I’ve discovered that the child is not mine and that you are not what you seem, in which case the reader’s sympathy with Mary would be considerably undermined. A purely speculative interpretation which insisted on this could point to Mary’s adeptness at manipulation and deception, her acquaintance with ‘‘nearly all the men at the precinct,’’ as clues that she might be capable of such duplicity. The point is that Dahl leaves us entirely without knowledge. And it is therefore without knowledge of Patrick’s motive that readers must assess Mary’s act.

Of course, ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ belongs to the genre of comedy, as well as to the genre of crime fiction. Dahl exaggerates everything, selects morbid details, transforms mere domestic facts, like the existence of a meat-freezer in the basement, into the occasion for criminal enormity. Mary hefting the lamb-joint is a moment of dark comedy as well as a nasty little scene. Even the title, with its multiple if rather simple ironies, contributes to the comedy. For who exactly is the lamb on the way to the slaughter? At first it is Mary, about to be rejected by her husband, then her husband, fatally stunned with a leg of lamb, and then the police investigators, tricked fiendishly by Mary into consuming the very murder weapon which would enable them to solve the case. In this last detail, one might even sense a hint of ritual cannibalism, since in eating the lamb the men are participating, unwittingly of course, in the immolation of Patrick. At one point, one of the men belches. Seen this way, the placid little postmortem meal takes on a higher degree of morbidity. But it also points to the ‘‘moral,’’ so to speak, of Dahl’s amoral tale.

Civilization calls on its members to renounce primitive justification in favor of rational justice; it requires them to renounce personal vengeance, that is, in favor of established institutions which depersonalize the assignment of guilt and the administration of punishment. Even though it feels slightly absurd to invoke ideas like due process and the assumption of innocence in the case of a story which probably does not take itself altogether seriously, emphasizing these philosophical points is nevertheless imperative.

Modern middle class domesticity, represented by the living room where Dahl first reveals Mary in the story’s opening paragraphs, is an instance of civilization. Taken for granted and even reviled, such homely banality nevertheless amounts to the culmination of an age-old battle by human beings against their base nature, their tendency to act out of selfish motives without regard for others. For one thing, domesticity has a wider context beyond itself, the public order of which the policeman are the putative caretakers. Dahl shows us that the caretakers of order are always less than perfect, but that is merely to underline the fragility of the achievement. Not a material, but a spiritual achievement, the triumph of trust and cooperation over selfishness, as in marriage, requires continuous maintenance. The parties must cherish one another and hold vigil each over himself. When one party breaks the trust, or breaks the law, or otherwise disrupts the peace, the almost inevitable natural reaction of others is to reply in kind, or to escalate their response above kind. The whole fabric of trust now verges on unraveling. Dahl shows us, in sardonic fashion, just this unraveling, and in transforming the sweetly pregnant wife into the calculating killer, he reminds his audience that angelhood is a rare achievement and that revenge, especially, is an appetite which only faith and morality enable us to suppress.

In Mary’s concluding ‘‘giggle,’’ then, the comedy ends and the serious discussion must begin. Readers caught up in the fantasy of vengeance, made palatable by the comedic elements in Dahl’s story, will be sorely tempted to chuckle quietly along with the clever killer, but this temptation reveals something about the primitive being in every reader. To be sure, that primitive lurks in every individual, and seeks any justification, any chink in the moral framework, to manifest itself. The lamb of our best nature must always keep a wary eye on the slaughtering beast.

Source: Thomas Bertonneau, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Bertonneau holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from UCLA and has published over thirty scholarly articles on aspects of modern literature.

The Irony Behind the Title of Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter

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Last Updated on April 5, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1507

‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ is representative of Dahl’s economical style and dry, dark sense of humor. Like all of his short fiction, the narrative in this story is driven by plot, not by character or mood. Readers find themselves dropped into the middle of the action with no knowledge of the background or history of the characters to establish tone or motive. Starting with the double meaning of its title, however, ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ offers readers a number of opportunities to explore the complexities and possibilities beneath the taut and matter-of-fact surface of the story. Alert and curious readers will find themselves opening narrative trap doors and rummaging through Mary’s psyche in search of reasons why an ordinary evening ended in murder.

The expression ‘‘lamb to the slaughter’’ is used to describe an innocent or naive person being led into danger or failure. Unprepared political candidates, or woefully outmatched sports teams are often described as lambs being led to the slaughter. Dahl’s use of the expression is surprising and effective for two reasons. First, it reminds us that the slaughter that the lamb is led to is a real, not a metaphorical, killing. Second, in this story, readers discover later, the lamb is not the victim of the slaughter, but the instrument. When we first encounter meek Mary Maloney, bent over her sewing and awaiting her husband’s arrival, we think she will be the lamb. As it turns out, her husband Patrick is literally the lamb led to slaughter, Mary brings her little leg of lamb to the slaughter as weapon, and in the metaphorical sense of the expression, the investigating officers are lambs, that is, naive followers, led to the slaughter, first to the scene of the crime, and second to the dinner table to consume the evidence. When readers last see Mary Maloney she is giggling to herself at the unwitting joke one of the officers makes when he claims that the weapon is ‘‘probably right under our very noses.’’

Mary Maloney is hardly the lamb she seems to be. As critic Mark West has noted, seemingly ordinary and respectable characters who ‘‘are confronted with peculiar problems or opportunities and respond by committing, or at least contemplating, cruel or self-destructive acts,’’ are a feature of Dahl’s stories of this period. Unlike the characters in the war stories, however, characters like Mary ‘‘do not behave nobly under pressure.’’ When they find themselves in extreme circumstances they ‘‘lose their moral bearings.’’ In ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ Mary, in West’s words, ‘‘so easily makes the transition from housewife to murderer that one wonders about her mental state prior to the day she killed her husband.’’ A close reading of the story suggests that she may have possessed the traits of a killer all along, and by extension, so do we all.

Upon re-reading, ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ offers some provocative insights into Mary’s character and her relationship to her husband. Because on the first reading we are predisposed to think of her as the ‘‘lamb,’’ the innocent who is about to get hurt, we do not notice how her composure that evening seems put on, or at least strained. Dahl describes her as having a ‘‘slow smiling air about her.’’ She is ‘‘curiously tranquil’’ as she waits for the clock to tick off the minutes until her husband comes home. When he finally does come home, he becomes the center of her universe, the ‘‘sun’’ around which her world revolves. Her desire to please him seems edgy and frantic, more an act of control than affection.

Patrick’s news that he is leaving her threatens the control she has over him, and thus over her own impulses. She seems to make a last-ditch effort to remain in his orbit by insisting that he let her make him supper. Patrick does not respond when she whispers ‘‘I’ll get the supper,’’ after hearing his devastating announcement, and she takes that as acceptance of her offer. As it turns out, though, he simply is not listening to her and lashes out when she enters the room with the frozen leg of lamb: ‘‘For God’s sake . . . Don’t make supper for me. I’m going out.’’ When her offer of service is rebuffed, Mary perceives it as a loss of control and literally hits her husband over the head with the meal he rejected. Readers are left with several questions. At what point does Mary decide that she’ll use the meal first figuratively and then literally as a weapon? If she has no intention of attacking him why does she unwrap and inspect the meat in the cellar? If she were really planning to make supper then surely she would have selected something smaller, like the lamb chops she has suggested earlier. A whole frozen leg of lamb will—and does—take hours to cook. And why does she grasp it like a weapon rather than a piece of food, ‘‘holding the thin boneend of it with both hands’’? What seems most calculated about her behavior is the fact that after he rebuffs her final offer she comes up behind him ‘‘without any pause,’’ as if to get a running start.

After she brings lamb to the slaughter of her husband, Mary sets about gathering the rest of the lambs into her circle of influence. Mary’s behavior after she kills Patrick asks readers to consider some difficult questions about her true nature. This is unnerving because, as West points out, Dahl asks that readers see something of themselves in the apparently ordinary Mary who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances: pregnant and facing the death penalty for killing her husband. Her deliberate behavior to cover her guilt is explainable as the natural instincts for a woman trying to protect her unborn child. But the explanation is less than convincing, however, since the welfare of the child occurs to her almost as an afterthought, ‘‘on the other hand, what about the child,’’ never to be mentioned again. Furthermore, Mary seems much more calculating than instinctive in the hours that follow her husband’s murder.

Mary’s actions immediately after the murder are a chilling mirror image of her behavior in the first scene of the story. Earlier that evening she had carefully set the ideal domestic scene while she waited for Patrick to come home, arranging their two chairs and the ‘‘two tall glasses, soda water, whiskey.’’ After the murder Mary puts the lamb in the oven and then ‘‘sat down before the mirror, tidied her hair, touched up her lips and face.’’ Then she begins to rehearse the appropriate emotional reactions to the situation. First, she feigns nonchalance for her visit to the store that will establish her alibi. Later on her way back from the store she practices how she will be overcome with shock and grief at discovering her murdered husband’s body. Mary’s performance is so convincing that she quickly diverts attention from herself as a suspect. While she sits quietly playing the distraught widow the officers scour the house and grounds looking for the weapon.

Mary ultimately uses the same means of control over the investigating officers that she had used with Patrick: food, drink, and the illusion of uncomprehending innocence. It is because Patrick finally rejected her offers that he ended up dead. Because the officers can only perceive her as a helpless victim, they cannot see how they are being led astray. First she tempts them with a little whiskey. Then finally, using Patrick’s sense of duty and their loyalty to him as reasons, she convinces them to abandon the trail of the murderer and sit down to eat the weapon that she used to kill her husband and their colleague.

‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ is unusual for a Dahl story in that the murderer seems to face no consequences for her actions. But by drawing readers into Mary Maloney’s psyche, Dahl demands that readers ask themselves some difficult moral questions. Seen as a crime of passion, an emotionally distraught woman’s single impulsive act that ends in tragedy, Mary’s crime does not seem to require punishment other than her own lifelong remorse and knowledge that she has caused her child to be fatherless. But a woman in the throes of passion and jealous rage could not have behaved with the forethought and self-control that Mary displays in the hours following the murder. Her orchestration of the investigation goes far beyond the knowledge she would have gained as ‘‘the detective’s wife.’’ She appears to be a master manipulator who killed her husband because he was no longer willing to submit to her control. Dahl’s chilling conclusion seems to be that as long as there are lambs, people willing to manipulated, there will be slaughters.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Piedmont-Marton is the coordinator of the undergraduate writing center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Roald Dahl: Nasty, Nasty

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1342

Roald Dahl is a short story writer of highly unusual gifts whose specialty is what the French term contes cruel, but minus the bloodshed. He is one horror writer who rarely spills blood. His short stories have earned him great distinction not only in the field of horror, but among the great short story writers of the twentieth century, an assemblage that includes James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, John Collier, Saki, Katherine Mansfield, John Cheever, and Ernest Hemingway (who was a personal friend of Dahl’s and whose advice on storytelling and the value of economy Dahl took to heart).

Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, in 1916. His parents were Norwegian. After education at Repton School he went to work for Shell Oil Company and was sent to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, East Africa. The next year, with the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the R.A.F. at Nairobi. He was severely wounded in the Libyan desert, but later served as a fighter pilot in Syria and Greece and became wing commander, but recurrent headaches made him unable to fly. He was invalided back to England, then sent to Washington, D.C. as assistant air attache in January 1942. At this point he still had no thought of becoming a writer.

While stationed in Washington he made the acquaintance of a small man with steel-rimmed spectacles who was looking for an account of flying with the R.A.F. This man turned out to be C. S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower adventures. Dahl wrote up his experiences and sent them on to Forester, who, bowled over by Dahl’s natural writing ability, sold it to the Saturday Evening Post without Dahl’s knowledge. The Post paid Dahl nine hundred dollars, which he promptly lost playing poker with Harry S. Truman. They also asked for more pieces by the same writer. Dahl wrote a second, fictional, piece. That too was accepted for publication. Dahl continued writing, and in 1945 these pieces were issued together in a slim volume entitled Over To You. All on flying themes, these are unlike Dahl’s later work though they are just as vivid and economical. (One amusing incident occurred when Hemingway borrowed the volume: he returned it after two days, and when Dahl asked how he’d liked the stories, Hemingway, striding off along the corridor, replied: ‘‘I didn’t understand them.’’)

The short stories for which Dahl is best known and most highly regarded began to appear in The New Yorker and other publications in 1948. They were collected in three volumes, Someone Like You, published in 1953, Kiss Kiss, in 1959, and Switch Bitch, in 1974.

Dahl married actress Patricia Neal in 1953, and in between writing short stories became a bestselling children’s author. Among his more popular children’s books are Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The Enormous Crocodile. He has also written The Gremlins, a children’s book, Sometime Never, a novel, and several screenplays, including You Only Live Twice, a James Bond film, and The Night Digger, a suspense thriller. He also found time to host two television series featuring adaptations of his works, Way Out in 1961, and Tales of the Unexpected in the late seventies. His more recent books include The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More, his first collection of stories designed for both juvenile and adult readers, and My Uncle Oswald, a novel featuring more overtly sexual themes than he’d previously dealt with.

It is, however, as a short story writer that Dahl is most renowned. His stories are not horrific in the usual sense. They have been likened to those of Saki, John Collier and James Thurber, and to the whimsically macabre cartoons of Charles Addams. The comparison is judicious. Praised for the ‘‘grinning skull’’ quality of the narration, and the technical excellence of their construction, his short stories have been well received by critics, though they disagree on whether Dahl is, at heart, a moralist. Although his evildoers are usually punished, the form that retribution takes is usually so outlandishly unexpected that opinions differ. Naomi Lewis of New Statesman believes ‘‘these really are moral tales. Go wrong and you get some very peculiar desserts.’’ Whether there is an unsuspected vein of profundity in Dahl’s work, or whether Dahl is simply an entertainer ‘‘a master of horror—an intellectual Hitchcock of the writing world,’’ says a reviewer for Books and Bookmen who writes supremely well, one can hardly fault the originality of his plots, the economy of his storytelling, or his craftsmanship.

Dahl himself, in interviews, has stressed the importance of plot above all else, not only in his own work but in that of his contemporaries. ‘‘After having done my twenty-five years of short stories,’’ he told Lisa Tuttle in a Twilight Zone interview,

I think I probably ran out of plots, and that’s the hardest thing in the world. If you write the sort of short stories I write, which are real short stories, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, instead of the modern trend, which is mood pieces . . . found about thirty-five plots, and then I probably ran out of them. I don’t know many now. I don’t know any, I don’t think. I couldn’t sit down and write a short story now—it’s very hard. And these people who are writing them now, they don’t have any plots, they don’t bloody well have them. Maupassant had them. Salinger had them. That’s why they were so sparing. Salinger found eleven. . . .

‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ is one of Dahl’s most memorable tales, frequently anthologized and dramatized on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as were several of Dahl’s stories. As directed by Hitchcock himself, it remains probably the most famous of the halfhour segments. The plot concerns a policeman’s wife who, upon learning her husband is leaving her, hits him over the head with an enormous leg of lamb, killing him, then serves the lamb up to the investigating policemen who sit around eating it while complaining they cannot lay their hands on the murder weapon. This is typical of Dahl in its mixing of humor and horror. The plot is just outrageous enough to be plausible, and his deadpan style sustains it to the last line. As always with Dahl, one is conscious of a master stylist at work, polishing every line, every phrase. This impression is not mistaken: Dahl estimates it took him six hundred hours over five months to complete his story, ‘‘Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat.’’ . . .

Some of Dahl’s other stories are less horrific and more like well-told jokes, elaborate leg-pulls by an amused, self-assured, sardonic and somewhat sadistic storyteller. ‘‘Vengeance Is Mine, Inc.’’ concerns two entrepreneurs who set up a service that offers punching the nose, or blacking the eye, of a prominent vitriolic newspaper columnist. Their charges: five hundred dollars for the first, six hundred for the second, or one thousand dollars for both. . . .

Roald Dahl’s position in the field of horror is difficult to judge, for he has always stood apart from other practitioners of the genre. One reason for this is the slimness of the volume of his published work. A contemporary of Dahl’s, Robert Bloch, has for example published some five hundred stories over fifty years. Dahl, although he got a later start as a writer, has published perhaps one tenth as many. While it is arguably easier to produce first-rate work if you publish only two stories a year, as Dahl was doing in the late forties and early fifties, the consistent excellence of his work would not be possible otherwise. It is hardly fair to fault Dahl for remaining true to his ideal and never sacrificing quality for quantity. More horror writers, as well as ‘‘mainstream’’ short story writers, should follow his example. . . .

Source: Alan Warren, ‘‘Roald Dahl: Nasty, Nasty,’’ in Discovering Modern Horror Fiction, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, Starmont House, 1985, pp. 120–28.

With Waves of Tension

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695

At disconcertingly long intervals, the compleat shortstory writer comes along who knows exactly how to blend and season four notable talents: an antic imagination, an eye for the anecdotal predicament with a twist at the end, a savage sense of humor suitable for stabbing or cutting, and an economical, precise writing style. No worshiper of Chekhov, he. You’ll find him marching with solid plotters like Saki and O. Henry, Maupassant and Maugham. He doesn’t really like people, but he is interested in them (to paraphrase the author of ‘‘Cakes and Ale’’); the reader looking for sweetness, light and subtle characterization will have to try another address. Tension is his business; give him a surprise denouement and he’ll give you a story leading up to it. His name in this instance is Roald Dahl, here represented by Someone Like You (a collection of eighteen short stories, quite a few of which have appeared in The New Yorker and other magazines); and a more imperturbable young Englishman would be hard to find.

Mr. Dahl must bring off a tour de force every time out, since credibility seldom plays much part in the situations that interest him. His stories are like a fast game of badminton in which there’s never a positive answer to the big question: Where’s the bird? Honed dialogue, a masterful hand with nuance and an ability to keep the reader off balance through sheer astonishment are usually enough to see him through. Not always, though. For some observers (including this one) the spell will not extend to four or five of the stories where the humor is too ghoulish and the originality too intrusive. But it is safe to predict that anybody who responds to one entry will respond to all; Mr. Dahl is never, never dull.

For satirical burlesque, not many recent stories coming from either side of the Atlantic can compete with the outrageous ‘‘Nunc Dimittis,’’ an intricate tale of a man of culture and his resourceful revenge upon a young woman who had indiscreetly allowed her full-length portrait to be painted from the skin out. In a similar vein, ‘‘ The Great Automatic Grammatisator’’ gravely explains what happens when an electronic genius named Adolph Knipe (who wants to be a man of letters) converts an electronic computing machine into a device for writing short stories and novels. The idea, of course, is to buy up all practicing writers and produce the world’s creative output by Knipe’s Grammatisator, which, Mr. Dahl estimates, must already be responsible for at least half the novels and stories published in the English language during the past year.

A short one—maybe the best one—called ‘‘Taste’’ captures the high drama and gourmet flavor of a dinner party where an expert winebibber backs his judgment of breed and vintage with a fraudulent bet and almost gets away with it. There’s a story about a dubious host and hostess who put a microphone in the guest room and open up new horizons on cheating at bridge; another concerns a man who invents a sound machine which picks up cries of anguish from flowers and trees.

There’s a wonderfully underplayed murder story in which the murderess gets off scotfree, thanks to a truly perfect crime. There’s a pure horror story with muted sadism at its heart—and a last line guaranteed to raise most readers’ hackles. There’s one about a genteel commuter who mistakes his companion for a boyhood bully and falls into a ‘‘Stalky and Co.’’ reverie. For many readers the final scarifying story about greyhound racing and the cheating men and willing dogs who share it will live as long as any in the book.

Someone Like You was made to be read—but tough-minded people who don’t care which way the cat jumps will probably get the most fun out of it. Mr. Dahl could be a cult without half trying, and he deserves the warm welcome he’ll get. No electronic machine will ever turn out his stuff.

Source: James Kelly, ‘‘With Waves of Tension,’’ in The New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1953, p. 5.


Critical Overview