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 did Patrick tell Mary in Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter"? Why was it a bad time? Where is Mary's pregnancy mentioned?

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In Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter," Patrick tells Mary that he is leaving her. These details must be inferred and are not directly stated. Mary is pregnant, revealed by a comment made early in the story that she is "in her sixth month with child."

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Patrick Maloney's exact words are never revealed in the story, which is important in building the sense of confusion that Mary Maloney feels upon hearing his words. Although she is a doting wife, her husband's actions are peculiar when he comes home from work on this day. It seems that they have a ritual upon his arrival home; Mary is expected to serve him and remain quiet, which she faithfully does. Yet Patrick's behavior is odd, even for him, and the text notes that he does "an unusual thing":

He lifted his glass and drained it in one swallow although there was still half of it, at least half of it left.

These are the actions of a man trying to steady his nerves. He then begins refusing every effort Mary makes to serve him. Patrick declines wanting his slippers or a snack and sits fairly resolutely before his wife.

Patrick then tells Mary that he has something to tell her, and Mary becomes frightened by his words. This section of the story is rushed:

“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.

Patrick's reasoning isn't provided, because his reasons don't ultimately matter. He has decided to leave his wife, as demonstrated by her reacting with a "dazed horror" and retreating within herself at this news. It's quite possible that Patrick has been having an affair based on a comment he makes as a follow-up to this initial news:

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 is worried about his reputation, which hints at the fact that he is leaving for some reason that might bring him additional shame. The fact that he immediately offers to pay Mary to see she's "looked after" conveys a sense of guilt in the situation, which is likely an affair.

This is a particularly cruel time to leave Mary, because she is pregnant. That detail is found in the beginning of the story:

Her skin—for this was her sixth month with child—had acquired a wonderful translucent quality.

After she kills Patrick, Mary is ultimately not concerned for herself but for her unborn child:

What about the child? What were the laws about murderers with unborn children? Did they kill them both—mother and child? Or did they wait until the tenth month? What did they do?

Mary Maloney didn’t know. And she certainly wasn’t prepared to take a chance.

Mary thus develops a quick and successful alibi to clear herself from suspicion in her husband's death in an effort to protect her unborn child.

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Roald Dahl describes Mary Maloney in the first paragraph when she is waiting for her husband.

There was a slow smiling air about her, and about everything she did. The drop of the 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, darker than before.

Why does Roald Dahl specify she is six months pregnant? This is an intricately plotted story in which every detail has a purpose. At six months she would be visibly pregnant but not physically handicapped. She would be able to act quickly and accurately when she swung the leg of lamb. Her pregnancy would gain her sympathy from all the policemen. It would also add to the picture of a happily married couple and detract from any possible suspicion that Mary could have killed her husband. If she hated him she wouldn't be having his child. She was dependent on him for financial support and would be more so with a baby.

What Patrick Maloney tells his wife is not revealed in the story. The reader is expected to deduce from the fact that he is drinking unusually heavily that  it is hard for him to tell his wife what is on his mind. This suggests, for one thing, that Patrick hasn't talked to anyone else about it. He is a strong, silent type. It is better for Mary if no one else knows Patrick wanted to leave her. Even the reader is only given suggestions of what he says to her.

"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.

"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."

He knows it is a bad time to be announcing that he wants a divorce. She is six months pregnant and the news is devastating. It is important to the perfect-crime plot that no one should have any cause to suspect that Mary had any grievance against Patrick. From his dialogue the reader can see that he is not a cruel man, although he may be cold and selfish. He is not a heavy drinker, which is shown by the fact that Mary is surprised to see him having two strong highballs  before breaking the bad news. He comes home regularly at five o'clock, so he does not appear to be having an affair with another woman. If the police start asking questions about the marital relationship, they will be told by everyone that Mary is a devoted wife and that Patrick is a conservative homebody who always treats his wife with consideration.

The reader may wonder why Patrick wants to leave his wife. The most probable cause is to be found in Mary's own behavior. She is too needy, too clinging, too possessive. He must feel suffocated with so much affection and attention. Her behavioir brings to mind John Collier's story "The Chaser," in which the old shopkeeper who sells love potions and undetectable poisons warns his young customer:

"She will want to know all you do. . . . All that has happened to you during the day. Every word of it. She will want to know what you are thinking about, why you smile suddenly, why you are looking sad. . . .How carefully she willl look after you!"


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