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 confirm the worst things that contemporary (especially academic)...
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