Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

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 childrens’ 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.

Popular Fiction
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 welldefined groups of readers.

Television Culture
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 entire section is 2,137 words.)