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 create an ironic tone in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

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Roald Dahl's classic short story "Lamb to the Slaughter", opens with an idyllic setting in which an expectant mother, Mary Maloney, waits in the comfort of her home for her husband, Patrick, to return from work. Roald's description of such marital bliss serves as the antecedent to the ensuing tragedy. This is basically the beginning of a tale rampant with irony.

The room was warm and clean, the curtains drawn, the two table lamps alight-hers and the one by the empty chair opposite. On the sideboard behind her, two tall glasses, soda water, whiskey. Fresh ice cubes in the Thermos bucket. Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come from work.

It is hard not to engage in the feeling of comfort and peace that the scene evokes. One can almost connect to the character of Mary, especially every time that her emotions are put forward. She is clearly in love with her husband, happy with her pregnancy, and feels safer than ever. After all, her husband is a police officer as well!

However, this opening scenario slowly begins to fall apart. Roald Dahl uses suspense and inference to explain how Patrick Maloney comes home basically to disclose to his wife that their idyllic life is over: He has decided to leave her.

“So there it is,” he added.  “And I know it’s kind of a bad time to be telling you, bet 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.”

Patrick's callousness is ironic when it is contrasted with Mary's good nature. It is more ironic still, because to this moment we, as readers, come to understand that Mary's blissful life may have been a sham all along.

Shortly thereafter we encounter the biggest irony of the story: Mary snaps, hits Patrick with a frozen leg of lamb and the combination of the hit and his fall kill him in the act.

It is ironic how Mary collects herself enough to create an alibi (going to the grocers to get vegetables and to "lay out" that Patrick is at home waiting for their meal. Then, she calls the police station to say that she found Patrick dead after coming from the grocers.Then she places the leg of lamb in the oven: She begins to cook up the evidence.

After the officers come to investigate, she cleverly uses her pregnant state to sit and play the hostess by offering the men some whisky....and a delicious leg of lamb that had been intended for Patrick. All this irony creates a tone of irony, of dark humor, and even of morbidity in the story.

Finally, when the mean have "their mouths full of meat", the most frightful, witty and yet oddest of all ironies develops when the men discuss finding the evidence:

One of them belched.


“Personally, I think it’s right here on the premises.”


“Probably right under our very noses.  What you think, Jack?”


And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.

The scene is shocking: Mary giggling after killing her husband and getting away from it. The same Mary which, hours before, waited dutifully for her husband. The tone here is disbelief, shock, and terror to a point. Anyone is capable of anything.

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