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....

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Black Humor
Black humor is the use of the grotesque, morbid, or absurd for darkly comic purposes. Black humor became widespread...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Almost no one who reads this story ever forgets it. The policemen eating the evidence stands out in the mind as fresh as the day it was first...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"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...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Mary Maloney lives in a middleclass household and is slavishly devoted to her husband. When "Lamb to the Slaughter" begins, she is eagerly...

(The entire section is 250 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1950s: Precisely because the traditional social norms had begun to come under the pressures that would lead to change, American...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Examine the elements of the story that make it a black comedy. How does Dahl use irony to bring humor to the plot?

‘‘Lamb to...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Dahl’s first published story, ‘‘Shot Down over Libya,’’ appeared in Saturday Evening Post in August 1942. As Dahl’s...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1994, p. 105.


(The entire section is 138 words.)