Written in the mid-twentieth century, the short story “Lamb to the Slaughter” reflects Roald Dahl’s proclivity for black humor and shocking displays of violence. The narrative is a warped portrait of its time, a dark perversion of post-war life in the suburbs. As World War II drew to a close, the golden age of capitalism began. Defined by unprecedented consumption and economic growth, the United States of the 1950s featured a set of sociocultural values that determined the model version of the modern American family and home. Dahl’s story takes up these values, embodying—then unexpectedly subverting—the contemporary idealization of the housewife and her male breadwinner.
Dahl locates his black humor—a comedic method that trivializes and makes absurd the grotesque or taboo—inside this familiar scene of idealized domesticity. By placing violence and immorality in this comfortable setting, he creates a stark juxtaposition between the grim brutality of the characters’ actions and the idyllic setting they occupy. The domestic suburbanism, its gentle caretaker (the heavily pregnant Mrs. Maloney), and the bizarre murder weapon all project a sense of innocence and homely comfort in which Patrick’s violent demise seems ridiculous rather than horrifying. Readers find Patrick’s betrayal and Mary’s uncharacteristic actions more jarring than the murder itself; their disruption of shared social expectations is a subtler but equally important narrative conflict.
Dahl’s scenario dulls the horror of Mary’s actions, locating them in scenes of suburban bliss and presenting them through an intimate third-person limited point of view. This grants readers insight into the narrator’s interiority and tells the story through the lens of Mary’s subjective perspective and interpretation. Readers experience the shock and despair of Patrick’s decision to leave Mary alongside her, developing a sense of sympathy and pity that almost rationalizes her violent response. They also see Patrick’s death through her eyes; instead of a sensationalized act, it is simply a matter-of-fact choice that lacks guilt and responsibility. Mary chooses to lie and disguise her guilt to protect her child, a decision which seems logical and maternal. This biased presentation manipulates the reader into sympathetic complicity, viewing her actions through a one-sided lens that disguises and explains away the true impact of her choices
This point of view, while biased, grants readers the same knowledge that Mary has. They watch in awe as she swings the leg of lamb in its devastating arc, listen in as she plots her alibi, and wait patiently as she composes herself. They are aware of the truth in ways that the other characters, particularly the investigating officers, are not. This disconnect in knowledge creates a powerful sense of dramatic irony in which the readers know more than the characters. Dahl uses this additional knowledge to build tension and heighten the comedic effect of the story’s resolution, ending with the unnamed officer’s painfully ironic conjecture that the murder weapon must be “right under our very noses.” He also relies on a concise narrative structure that presents the plot without moralizing or philosophizing. This straightforward presentation relays events without commentary and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions based on the facts alone. Mary’s emotions are the sole source of sentimentality or feeling in the narrative; they act as motivating factors that explain her rationale for murdering Patrick and contriving an alibi for the sake of her child.
The story, despite its simplicity, touches on a number of contemporarily relevant issues and pokes fun at the changing state of the postwar United States. The story opens with Mary’s blind adoration for her dismissive husband, willingly contorting herself, her life, and their home to suit his demands. She...
(This entire section contains 1006 words.)
is defined by their relationship, viewed as a wife, homemaker, and mother-to-be rather than an independent individual. It is apparent that her sense of self reflects the demands of her husband and the expectations of a society that expects conformity and perfect domestic performance from its women. The moments when she exerts agency—such as the murder of her husband, the decision to disguise her guilt, or her manipulation of the officers’ expectation of her innocence—reveal individuality and self-determinism that she does not initially seem to have. Her external self is a product of situational necessity, morphing to suit the role expected of her.
Gender performance and social expectation also figure into Dahl’s criticism of contemporary American life in Patrick’s decision to leave Mary. He claims that he would ensure she is supported. Already, he has betrayed her; what would stop him from doing so again? Dahl points out that despite Mary’s perfect portrayal of American expectations for women, her husband has placed in a precarious position. A pregnant divorcee with no prior work experience, she would be hard-pressed to care for herself and her child without his help. Her rage is a reaction to the destruction of her family but also to the social and economic implications of life without him.
Mary evolves from a cookie-cutter caricature of the ideal housewife to a cunning criminal, a character arc that defines Dahl’s commentary on contemporary life. She fools the grocer and the four police officers with practiced ease, presenting herself with an innocence and vulnerability that she loses the instant she murders Patrick. Her ability to transform her external self and morph to suit the expectations of others reveals the importance of conformity, framing people—especially women—as typecast roles rather than individuals. Dahl subverts contemporary tropes through Mary and her successful deception of the other characters, but also through the alteration of mundane objects—a leg of lamb, a spontaneously purchased cheesecake—that he unexpectedly and absurdly transforms into murder weapons and red herrings. Sinister and foreboding, these tokens of domestic American life occupy an unexpected space. They disrupt the uniformity and normalcy of suburban life and distort its most defining themes into a psychological horror that satirizes the conformity of modern American life and its strict social and gender norms.
In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Dahl shows his mastery of short-form psychological horror, in which the very absence of overtly fantastical elements only accentuates the building atmosphere of horror. The entire story takes place within the apartment of one Mary Maloney, pregnant wife of a loutish and incompetent police detective. Hers has been a steadfastly domestic existence, and she has ignored her husband’s misbehavior until one night when he comes home late after yet another round of drinking and informs her that he is going to leave her. Still she clings to her illusion of happy domesticity, telling him she will fix supper.
Only when he sneeringly tells her not to bother with supper does she snap and bludgeon him with the frozen leg of lamb that was to have been their meal. After the initial fit of anger, she comes back to her senses and realizes what she has done. Not wanting to ruin the life of the baby she is expecting, she puts the leg of lamb into the oven and goes to the grocery store to get some vegetables. While there, she makes a point of talking cheerfully with the grocer about fixing her husband’s supper.
Upon returning to their apartment, she screams in horror and makes a great commotion at finding her husband’s body lying on the floor. She then calls the police, and within the hour they are investigating. Agreeing that he was killed by a heavy, blunt object, they begin a search for the murder weapon and are quite puzzled at being unable to find it. After a few hours, Mary comments that she had forgotten to turn the oven off in all the confusion and suggests that the officers might wish to eat the now-cooked leg of lamb. Without a second thought they all set to eating and discussing the case, never realizing that the meat they are avidly devouring is in fact the missing murder weapon. Meanwhile, Mary sits in the living room and giggles softly to herself in amusement at the way in which she has tricked the police.
The ending is particularly striking because it so blatantly violates the expectation of the murder mystery, namely, that the culprit should be caught at the end. Yet at the same time there seems to be a certain justice in Mary’s not being caught, that she was in fact justified in taking the life of a man so loutish as to abandon his wife when in the vulnerable state of pregnancy, thus also abandoning his unborn child.
As befits a story dealing with appearances and reality, much of “Lamb to the Slaughter” is told through details that Dahl carefully selects and arranges into various patterns to cause the reader to go below the surface to find the meanings in the story. Reference is made to Mary’s large, dark, placid eyes early in the story, indicating her harmless, domestic personality; they are referred to again when she persuades Patrick’s friends to eat the leg of lamb, revealing this time how deceptive Mary’s appearance is. Throughout the story, words such as “simple,” “easy,” “normal,” and “natural” acquire an ironic overtone, for the reader perceives the complex, artificial, and abnormal state of the world. Patrick’s announcement of divorce and the police officers’ dismissal of Mary as a likely murder suspect are never actually depicted; the reader is left to deduce these events from snatches of dialogue.
Dahl’s technique reaches a hilarious crescendo in the dinner scene, in which the police officers eat the leg of lamb and discuss the possibility of finding the blunt instrument used to kill Patrick. The officers’ complacence, their belief that as soon as they finish eating they will easily be able to track down the murder weapon, and their actual behavior as unwitting accessories to their friend’s murder reveal the polarities on which the story is built. On the surface, the story depicts a world that is orderly, rational, and easily understood, but beneath this world are strange forces that can invest even the most innocent and everyday scenes with grotesque meaning.
The story of the woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then has the murder weapon eaten by the detectives is one of the most famous examples of the “perfect crime” story. However, this work’s value lies not simply in the originality of the murder method, but in the way that Roald Dahl ties this to larger themes. The use of a leg of lamb as an instrument of death reveals the hidden and sinister meanings that lie in seemingly innocent objects. Dahl, like many modern suspense writers, weaves his stories around trivial, everyday events that suddenly take on frightening aspects revealing the danger and uncertainty that underlies modern life, rather than reviving medieval settings and horrors in the manner of the earlier gothic writers.
Mary Maloney lives the life of a devoted housewife almost until she actually murders her husband. The news of her divorce causes no outward change in her behavior. She goes on, as if pretending that nothing has happened will make it so. The murder seems almost an unconscious and unwilled act. However, after the murder, Mary becomes a deliberate and clear thinker. She now artificially creates her alibi for the murder by consciously returning to her innocent state before Patrick’s death. She practices her lines, voice tone, and facial expressions before she goes to the grocery so that they will appear perfectly natural and arouse no suspicions in the grocer’s mind. When Mary arrives home, her shock at seeing Patrick’s body is so spontaneous that she almost seems to have fooled herself. Mary’s deception grows as she manipulates the police, reaching its peak when Patrick’s friends destroy the evidence of his murder as a favor to his wife, who is his killer.
Dahl creates a series of bizarre metamorphoses in this story. A leg of lamb becomes a murder weapon. Mary Maloney, the victim of her husband’s insensitivity, makes him her victim. Patrick, an investigator of crimes, becomes the subject of a criminal investigation. A dead man’s friends console his murderer. The police destroy the evidence needed to trap the criminal. The best hiding place for the murder weapon turns out to be right under the officers’ noses. Dahl reveals how much of “normal” existence is actually a contrived appearance that can be easily manipulated. Mary moves outside the predictable by turning the lamb into a weapon, then overcomes the police by turning the weapon back into a lamb. Having experienced what lies beneath the surface, she can now arrange appearances to her own advantage.
The Post-War Decade
Dahl began his writing career in 1942 with a story about being shot down while fighting in North Africa. Violence, whether associated with warfare or with crime, continued to fascinate Dahl and figures prominently even in his children’s stories. ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ belongs to the first full decade of Dahl’s writing career and to the first decade of what historians call the post-war period. This period witnessed the sociological and cultural transformation of the Western world and took hold as strongly in the United States, where Dahl had come to live, as in Europe. Among the features of the post-war period may be tallied the growth of cities and the attendant rise in urban tension; the incipient liberation of women, young people, and minorities; the sense that the normative, agriculturally based America that had existed up until the nation’s involvement in World War II was in radical dissolution. It is significant with respect to Dahl’s story that divorce, formerly rare in the statistics of American life, began to rise in the aftermath of the war.
The same decade was also the heyday of popular fiction in the United States, with dozens of weekly and monthly journals featuring short fiction and serialized novels, and with paperback publishing getting under way. Dahl began his career in the ‘‘weeklies’’ before breaking into print in commercial book form. The wave of popular fiction, emphasizing the short story, saw the differentiation of genres. Police and detective fiction, war fiction, science fiction, romance, even the business story, all represent distinct genres which appealed to well-defined groups of readers.
The year of ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’’ 1953, puts the story in the glory days of American television, on which at the time gimmicky dramas of a slightly grotesque character frequently appeared. (Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, which would come along in 1957, represented the zenith of the trend.) With its two-setting structure (the Maloney household and the counter of a grocery store) and its limited dramatis personae, ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ has the feel of a teleplay scenario. The black comedy and the opportunity for potential viewers to be in the know while certain characters (the detectives) remain ignorant of the facts also conform to the nature of the one-act, half-hour TV drama interrupted by commercial messages.
Black humor is the use of the grotesque, morbid, or absurd for darkly comic purposes. Black humor became widespread in popular culture, especially in literature and film, beginning in the 1950s; it remains popular today. Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 (1961) is one of the best-known examples in American fiction. The short stories of James Thurber and the stories and novels of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. also offer examples. The image of the cheerful housewife suddenly smashing her husband’s skull with the frozen joint of meat intended for his dinner is itself blackly humorous for its unexpectedness and the grotesque incongruity of the murder weapon. There is a morbid but funny double meaning, too, in Mary’s response to her grocer’s question about meat: ‘‘I’ve got meat, thanks. I got a nice leg of lamb from the freezer.’’ She did indeed get a leg of lamb from the freezer, and after she used it as a club, she found herself with a rather large portion of dead meat on her living room floor. Also darkly funny is the grocer’s question about what she plans to give her husband ‘‘afterwards,’’ that is, for dessert. From Mary’s point of view, Patrick has already gotten his ‘‘just desserts,’’ and there will be no more ‘‘afterwards’’ for him! The ultimate example of black humor in ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ is, of course, the spectacle of the policemen and detectives sitting around the Maloney kitchen table, speculating about the murder weapon while they unwittingly devour it.
Point of ViewDahl grants the point of view to Mary, the protagonist. Right away, readers see the scene through Mary’s eyes. The warmth and cleanliness, the punctilious orderliness, of the living room where Mary awaits Patrick reflect Mary’s conviction, soon to be shattered, that she has built a comfortable and even beautiful life. In Patrick’s case, Dahl communicates indirectly by gesture. Mary greets Patrick with a ‘‘Hullo, Darling,’’ while Patrick responds with a ‘‘hullo’’ only, omitting the endearment. He drinks his evening scotch and soda more quickly than usual and resists Mary’s efforts to wait on him; he fails to respond to Mary’s conversation. Readers see these things more or less as Mary sees them, although they likely interpret them more quickly than she does as signs of his dissatisfaction with his marriage. After the killing, Mary changes. No longer the ornament of a contented setting, she becomes the calculator of her own survival and that of her unborn child. As Dahl writes, Mary’s mind suddenly clears; she begins to dispose of evidence, and she sits in front of her dresser-mirror rehearsing a normal conversation with her grocer. When she returns home, having founded her alibi, she views the body of her husband as if for the first time, and readers, too, get a newish view of it, described much more grotesquely, with greater and more poignant detail, than previously. In these two contrasting scenes of the death, Dahl completes the transformation of his central character.
The setting is symbolic: its domestic primness implies Mary’s having bought into a rather banal version of middle-class happiness. The frozen leg of lamb is also symbolic and indeed constitutes the central symbol of the story. The piece of meat is already a token of violence: an animal traditionally viewed as meek and gentle slaughtered for carnivorous consumption. The notion of a lamb, moreover, resonates with biblical symbols, such as the scapegoat mentioned in Leviticus, the ram that substitutes for Isaac in the tale of Abraham and Isaac, or Jesus himself, ‘‘the Lamb of God.’’ But Dahl’s story reverses the connotation of these biblical images.
“Lamb to the Slaughter” is a typical Dahl story because it is very succinct and bare of any details that do not contribute directly to the plot. The story does not philosophize; there are no broodings on right and wrong or life and death. Mary’s thoughts are direct and to the point—she must save her baby. The moral implications of murder do not occur to her, nor does the narrative point out the complex feelings one might reasonably expect a woman to feel who has just killed her husband. On the other hand, her feelings about being abandoned by her husband are discussed. She is numbed, shocked, and bewildered. These details are important to know because they motivate the sudden assault on her husband. After his death, the only details of her feelings that are necessary for plot development are her concerns for her unborn child.
“Lamb to the Slaughter” probably captures the imagination of the reader because of the ingenious way Mary solves the problem of hiding the murder weapon. Find the murder weapon, one policeman declares, and you will find the murderer. This little detail is enough to make the story’s ending significant. Critics often compare Dahl to short-story writer O. Henry because of his surprise endings, and having the policemen eat the evidence while discussing how to find the murder weapon is a memorable plot twist.
Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1994, p. 105.
Raphael, Frederic. ‘‘Stories from the Source of Heartlessness.’’ The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4618, October 4, 1991, p. 28. An assessment of Dahl’s career, noting that he was a mass market writer but comparing him to some of the finest prose stylists of the twentieth century. Raphael theorizes that Dahl’s war experiences as a fighter pilot, which he wrote about in the stories collected in Over to You, are responsible for the bitterness and cruelty of much of his later fiction.
Warren, Alan. Roald Dahl. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont, 1988, p. 105. Critical study of Dahl’s fiction, including a chapter on filmed adaptations of his stories.
West, Mark I. Roald Dahl. N.Y.: Twayne, 1992, p. 148. Biographical and critical study, covering Dahl’s life and literary career.