Lamb to the Slaughter Questions and Answers

Roald Dahl

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Lamb to the Slaughter questions.

When was Lamb to the Slaughter published?

Roald Dahl's suspenseful short fiction "Lamb to the Slaughter" was published in 1953.

Why does the author omit Patrick Maloney's actual announcement?

Many readers have asked questions about what Patrick Maloney told his wife during the "four or five minutes" it took to explain that he wanted a divorce.

"This is going to be a bit of a shock to you, I'm afraid," he said. "But I've thought about it a good deal and I've decided the only thing to do is tell you right away. I hope you won't blame me too much." And he told her. It didn't take long, four or five minutes at 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."So there it is," he added. "And I know it's kind of a bad time to be telling you, but there simply wasn't any other way. Of course I'll give you money and see you're looked after. But there needn't really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn't be very good for my job."

Roald Dahl probably decided not to quote Patrick directly in so many words. One reason the author may have decided against doing so must have been that he didn't want any back-and-forth dialogue between Patrick and Mary. Dahl wanted to establish that by the end of Patrick's four- or five-minute speech there was no possibility whatsoever that the situation could be mended. Mary was fully convinced that the marriage was over. There was nothing she could say that would make her husband change his mind. If he had given her some of his reasons for wanting a divorce, she could have argued with him. She could have promised to change. One of his reasons must have been that he felt she was too clinging, too dependent, too attentive, too suffocating with all her mothering. If he had said so, she might have said, "I understand. I'm sorry. I'll stop doing it. I'll do anything if you'll only stay." By handling that part of the story the way he did, the author leaves both Mary and the reader with the impression that every door is shut and bolted. There is no hope for saving this marriage, and Mary knows it. Patrick will soon be gone from her life forever. That is why she kills him. His cold, utterly unforeseen rejection of both herself and their unborn child makes her snap. 

Dahl must have felt it was unnecessary to quote exactly what Patrick told her. It was pretty obvious that Patrick was tired of their claustrophobic existence. It is obvious from his cold tone that he feels no affection for Mary anymore. He talks to her almost as if she were a stranger. The marriage is over, and there is no way to put it back together.

Why is Mary Maloney's transformation surprising?

Perhaps the most prominent theme in Roald Dahl's story "Lamb to the Slaughter" has to do with the sudden and surprising change that comes over Mary Maloney when her husband tells her he wants a divorce. She was herself literally a "lamb" up to that point, but she changes into a murderess and kills her husband with one blow in a violent outburst of rage. The theme has been a common saying for centuries. 

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

It was originally derived from William Congreve's play The Mourning Bride (1697), in which the character Zara says:

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. Act 3, Scene 7

A good example of love to hatred turned can also be found in Medea (431 B.C.) by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 B.C.). But many examples can be observed in our everyday modern life, or read about in the newspapers. 

The most striking thing about "Lamb to the Slaughter" is not that Mary Maloney gets away with her crime, nor that she has the investigating policemen eat up the murder weapon, but it is the totally surprising change in her meek, loving character which motivates her to kill her husband with a single, violent blow to the head with a frozen leg of lamb.

How does Dahl use contrast?

Roald Dahl uses one of the oldest literary and artistic devices in "Lamb to the Slaughter." This is the device of contrast, which is to be found in almost any good work of art. When the story opens, Mary is waiting for her husband to return from his job. She is six months pregnant, and this condition makes her feel happy and peaceful. Here is Roald Dahl's description of her mental and emotional state:

Now and again she would glance up at the clock, but without anxiety, merely to please herself with the thought that each minute gone by made it nearer the time when he would come. There was a slow smiling air about her, and about everything she did. The drop of a head as she bent over her sewing was curiously tranquil. Her skin—for this was her sixth month with child—had acquired a wonderful translucent quality, the mouth was soft, and the eyes, with their new placid look, seemed larger and darker than before. 

Mary loves her husband, and she believes he loves her. She is looking forward to having their baby, and she believes he is looking forward to it, too. But her husband Patrick is in an entirely different mood. He has been brooding over his feelings about their relationship for a long time, and now he is ready to drop the bomb.

Mary's change of mood from a loving wife and blissfully expectant mother to an enraged murderess is all the more understandable—and effective—because her mood had been so utterly beatific before Patrick's announcement. It was this sudden betrayal and denial of everything she wanted and treasured that shocked her out of her dreamworld into the world of reality and prompted her to take such a drastic action. We can believe in Mary's transformation because we identified and sympathized with her when she was still in a state of blissful ignorance.

What are the similarities between Dahl and Poe?

There is a striking similarity between Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter." In Poe's short story the brilliant amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin states a truth which applies to "Lamb to the Slaughter" as well as to "The Purloined Letter."

“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”

In both stories the police are exhaustively searching for a item which they fail to see because it is right under their noses, "hiding in plain sight." In Poe's story the police are searching for a letter which has been "purloined" from an important person. It turns out that the letter, rather than having been concealed, had been slightly changed in appearance and placed in plain view in a card-rack. In "Lamb to the Slaughter" the police never think of the leg of lamb as a possible murder weapon because it is so obvious. Mary Maloney is cooking it in the oven and the tantalizing aroma permeates the entire house. In the end she actually succeeds in getting the hungry policemen to eat the murder weapon they have been looking for. If C. Auguste Dupin had been involved in the story "Lamb to the Slaughter," no doubt he would have deduced that Mary Maloney killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. The police are put off in both cases because of their predetermined conviction that the item they are searching for must have been very carefully hidden. 

What is Patrick and Mary's marriage like?

"Lamb to the Slaughter" can be read as a portrayal of the love-hate relationship that exists in many marriages. George Meredith wrote about this painful kind of relationship in his long series of sonnets titled Modern Love. The first lines of the first sonnet in the series show the tension that exists in the marriage Meredith is chronicling (undoubtedly his own).

By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand's light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed
Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
And strangely mute, like little gasping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him.

In "Lamb to the Slaughter" Patrick Maloney is withdrawing from his wife. He no longer wants to be with her. The more he withdraws, the more attention she gives him. Is it really love on her part, or just dependence? The more attentive she becomes, the more her husband withdraws. The marriage is dying. It would have died "of natural causes," so to speak, if she hadn't ended it so finally and dramatically with a frozen leg of lamb. She seems to become a "liberated woman" with that fatal blow. It is as if a different person concealed inside her is released from captivity and servitude.

How does the story show that love can turn to hatred?

William Congreve in his play The Mourning Bride (1697) has one of his female characters make the following statement, the last part of which has been quoted and misquoted countless times ever since.

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." 

In "Lamb to the Slaughter," the author Roald Dahl intentionally emphasizes how strongly Mary Maloney loves her husband. She dotes on him. She adores him. She admires everything about him. Then when he rejects her, she reacts with a burst of rage. Her action is all the more shocking to the reader because her feelings turn from loving to violent in minutes.

Is this credible? Congreve would probably say yes. Mary has several reasons for changing so drastically. For one thing, she is six months pregnant and her husband is walking out on her. She never would have expected that of the man she adored. For another thing, she not only realizes that Patrick does not love her, but she sees that he is not the same man she always thought he was.