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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How does Roald Dahl convey the theme in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

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Roald Dahl conveys the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter" by discussing betrayal as a husband's desire to leave his wife and the wife's retaliation by way of murder. It also touches on a mother's determination to not betray her unborn child.

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In order to answer this question, we first need to establish what the primary theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is, and I would argue that it is betrayal. Patrick betrays his pregnant wife and unborn child by coming home and announcing that he is leaving Mary. Mary, who seems to have been a dutiful housewife up to this point, retaliates with the ultimate betrayal of her own.

By definition, betrayal is a violation of a trust that has existed between people. Mary trusted Patrick to be a loving husband and father. Patrick, to his detriment, trusted his wife not to murder him when she discovered that he was bringing their marriage to an end.

I would argue that, to Mary's way of thinking, it would be a betrayal of her child if he or she was to die because Mary herself was sentenced to death. This is why she thinks so quickly and so cleverly in the aftermath of beating her husband over the head with a leg of lamb. It is her primal need to not betray her child that leads her to place the murder weapon in the oven, head to the store for supplies, feign shock over her husband's death, and feed the murder weapon to the police.

Therefore the theme of betrayal presents itself in three forms: a husband's declaration that he no longer loves his wife, a murder, and a mother's desire to not betray her child.

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One of the major themes of Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” is that appearances can be deceiving. The story opens on what appears to be a scene of domestic bliss. Mary Maloney is six months pregnant and eagerly awaits her husband’s return from work.

"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.”

The appearance of a happy home is utterly shattered, however, when Mary’s husband abruptly announces that he wants a divorce. The reader instantly sympathizes with Mary, who appears to have been too blindly devoted to her Patrick to realize what was coming. Mary’s initial reaction is one of utter shock. Seemingly unable to even process what her husband has told her, she begins preparations for dinner, absentmindedly grabbing a leg of lamb from the freezer. When her husband rudely tells her not to bother with dinner, Mary snaps and clubs him over the head with the frozen leg of lamb.

“At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head."

To her husband, Mary Maloney probably seemed incapable of standing up for herself, and his belief in her devotion and weakness led him to drastically underestimate what she was capable of. Though she initially appears to be the metaphorical “lamb” of the title, she forcefully reverses roles and transforms Patrick into the unsuspecting victim.

The themes of appearance and deception are further explored as Mary attempts to get away with the murder. After quickly realizing that she needs an alibi, she attempts to compose herself before going out.

"Then she washed her hands and ran upstairs to the bedroom. She sat down before the mirror, tidied her hair, touched up her lips and face. She tried a smile. It came out rather peculiar. She tried again."

It’s clear that Mary understands her femininity to be her greatest asset in avoiding suspicion. Though her docile and cheerful disposition seemed to come naturally before, we see her deliberately practice it in the mirror. Her carefully crafted performance is a success and she is able to establish an alibi at the grocery store. She appears to all the world as her normal devoted self, even speaking to a clerk about what she will cook her husband for dinner.

"No, I’ve got meat, thanks. I got a nice leg of lamb, from the freezer." "Oh." "I don’t much like cooking it frozen, Sam, but I’m taking a chance on it this time. You think it’ll be all right?"

This scene is full of dramatic irony as Mary casually discusses cooking what the reader knows to be her murder weapon. Her ability to nonchalantly speak about it further illustrates the depth and skill of her deception. Her crafted persona continues to be of use as she convincingly plays a devastated wife to Patrick’s fellow police officers. The police quickly dismiss her as a suspect, in part because of her alibi and in part because she does not conform to their expectations of a cold-blooded killer. As she fusses over them, they discuss the peculiarities of the case, completely blind to the real identity of the murderer. In fact, their discussion betrays their unconscious assumption of a male suspect and reveals that suspicion of a woman doesn’t come naturally to them.

"It's the old story," he said. "Get the weapon, and you've got the man."

Ultimately, we see that Mary has successfully used her femininity to craft a false narrative. She takes care to present herself as innocent and, thus, is able to deceive everyone. Though it is easy to say that it was Mary’s cunning and deviousness that allowed her to get away with the crime, it’s important to note that she only succeeds because the people around her are so blinded by superficial appearances.

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In "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl, what does Dahl want the reader to think/feel/understand about the story?

I think one thing that Dahl wants us to feel is the emotional shift that the reader goes through.  When the story begins, the reader can't help but love Mary Maloney.  She's pregnant and very much in love with Patrick.  She's the stereotypical doting wife.  Then to have Patrick so coldly dismiss her gives the reader even more reasons to love Mary and side with her, not Patrick.  But then she kills Patrick, which isn't that big of an emotional shift.  What gets me to strongly reconsider my opinions about Mary are her incredibly calm and calculated steps to get away with the murder.  In some ways, she is just as cold as Patrick.  

I also think about justice and injustice when I read this story.  Did Patrick receive justice?  What about Mary?  Surely not.  She got away with murder, but were her actions justified?  Was she even in her right mind when she hit Patrick?  I think those are all questions that Dahl wants readers to wrestle over.  

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