illustrated tablesetting with a plate containing a large lamb-leg roast resting on a puddle of blood

Lamb to the Slaughter

by Roald Dahl

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What is the direct and indirect characterization of the woman in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

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The protagonist Mary Maloney in Roald Dahl’s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter” at first seems to be a stereotypical 1950s wife: faithful, obedient, and happily fulfilling the expected role of a domestic female.

Dahl uses both direct and indirect characterization to show readers that Mary is more complex than that. Direct characterization includes concrete, straightforward details about a character as well as what the author tells readers to think about a character. For example, direct characterization of Mary includes her physical details (she’s six months pregnant and has glowing skin and large, dark eyes) as well as internal details, like “She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man... she loved him... she loved the intent, far look in his eyes when they rested in her.” Dahl essentially tells readers that she is an entranced wife under the spell of her husband with no agency of her own.

Indirect characterization is what the author reveals about the character through the character’s actions and speech. Dahl illustrates Mary’s contentment with domesticity and her submissive nature through her manner of behavior while awaiting her husband’s return home. She has a “slow smiling air about her,” sits in a peaceful and innocent posture while sewing, and greets her husband with a kiss. Additional actions—like mixing him a drink, patiently sitting by him while hanging on his words, jumping up to refill his drink, and insisting that he eat—reinforce her characterization as an obedient wife. Mary displays child-like meekness and deference to her husband when he commands her to listen, watching him uneasily with “large, bewildered eyes.” Even after he tells her that he is leaving her, she knows nothing else but to follow the expected role of a housewife and prepare dinner.

The character of Mary takes an unexpected turn, however, after she kills her husband. Her actions reveal a shocked but eerily calm interior; she simply observes the situation—her husband’s body on the floor, the frozen lamb leg still clutched in her hand—acknowledges, “All right... So I've killed him." Her thoughts then reveal a compassionate yet proactive nature. After pondering future consequences for herself and her unborn child (“Mary Maloney didn't know. And she certainly wasn't prepared to take a chance"), she immediately plots in a clear-headed manner the next steps for covering up her husband’s murder.

Dahl uses indirect characterization to illustrate her strategic cleverness. Her actions reveal advanced premeditation and higher-order thinking skills. Mary plans and rehearses what she’ll say to Sam, the grocer, about her husband’s dinner; she practices her speech, behavior, and timing all in order to portray herself as a loving wife, establish Sam as a witness, and create an alibi (the shopping trip).

Dahl switches back to direct characterization to show her genuine feelings for her husband. Upon returning from the store, Mary realizes what she has done. "All the old love and longing for him welled up inside her... she began to cry her heart out. It was easy." When she calls the police, "no acting was necessary."

Finally, Mary’s characterization as a clever, anti–1950s housewife is complete with her destruction of the murder weapon (by cooking and serving it to the hungry investigating policemen) and final statement ("It'd be a favor to me if you'd eat it up”).

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Direct characterization consists on detailing the physical traits of a character in order to describe them as clearly as possible to the reader. It is the depiction of the character at face value.

Mary Malone, the young wife of a police officer, is currently pregnant. As part of her direct characterization, Roald Dahl conveys that Mary had a "slow smiling air about her", which means that Mary's face looked quite content overall. She is also directly characterized when the story reads,

Her skin [...] had acquired a wonderful translucent quality, the mouth was soft, and the eyes, with their new placid look, seemed larger darker than before.

All of these traits denote a woman that, as her indirect characterization will later show, is living at the height of her comfort zone; a niche in which she is happy and feels safe.

Indirect characterization is the extrapolation of traits as they can be inferred from circumstances. The way in which the character interacts with the environment and with other characters leads the reader to infer what are the inner traits that are not directly explained.

In Mary's case, the reader can infer from the way in which she tends to her husband so subserviently that she is what appears to be a submissive wife who believes in supporting and obeying her husband. She is obviously in love, and happy to be in the state that she is (pregnant). In Mary's mind, her husband is the center of her universe.

She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man, and to feel-almost as a sunbather feels the sun-that warm male glow that came out of him to her when they were alone together.

However, after the incident occurs where she is told in the most nonchalant way that her husband is leaving her just like that, Mary loses it, snaps, and kills her husband by hitting his head with a frozen leg of lamb.

A lot of conclusions as far as Mary's character can be drawn, not only from this act alone, but from the fact that she went out of her way to quickly conceal any evidence. Even more so, Mary also mocks the fact that she got away with it by feeding that same murder weapon to the other police officers who went to her house to investigate the scene of the crime. The fact that she is giggling on the other side of the wall while the men ate the one piece of evidence that could have taken her straight to jail, tells that Mary could very well have gone through a psychotic episode in which she lost contact with reality and, scared about completely losing her life, she adhered to anything within her reach to save herself and her child.

What this means is that Mary is far from being merely a quiet and submissive wife: she is also a quick-thinking, witty, smart, and wiser than perhaps what her own husband would have cared to admit. Moreover, we can infer from that alone that perhaps Mary's complaisance with being a wife and mother may have been her only choice. The historical context of the story places the Malone in the early 1950's. This is a time period where the husband and wife roles were defined much differently than in modern times: this means that a natural tendency for Mary would have been to give up her own wants and interests and invest them into the marriage; she may have very well changed, from being smart and witty, to submissive and shy.

All of these are ways to characterize Mary Malone to the point where the reader can see who she is both physically and psychologically.

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