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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Key Characters, Plot Elements, and Structure of "Lamb to the Slaughter"


The main characters in "Lamb to the Slaughter" are Mary and Patrick Maloney. Mary is a pregnant housewife who appears devoted and innocent but snaps and murders Patrick when he announces he is leaving her. Patrick, a police officer, is portrayed as insensitive and dissatisfied, leading to his desire for a divorce. The story highlights their flawed characters and the dramatic shift in Mary's demeanor.

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Who are the main characters in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The two lead characters in the story are Mary and Patrick Maloney, a married couple who are not very high up the social ladder since they are a single income family with Patrick being the breadwinner and Mary a housewife. They probably live in a middle class neighbourhood since, Patrick works for the Metropolitan police, he is entitled to a number of social benefits such as subsidised accommodation, medical benefits and so forth.

The story's primary focus is Mary. Dahl's physical description of her in her pregnant state with the focus on her mouth and her eyes, accentuates how innocent and harmless she appears. It is the type of mouth one would expect to never utter a vindictive or disgusting word, and eyes which convey innocence and trust, like those of a young child: 

Her mouth and her eyes, with their new calm look, seemed larger and darker than before.

There is, however, a slight hint of some malevolence in the description of her eyes as being 'darker than before.' This, up to now, suppressed element of her nature, later shockingly comes to the fore when she murders Patrick, creates an alibi, has the investigators eat the evidence, and then giggles about it.

Mary is clearly a devoted, loving wife, who literally spends more than a fair portion of her day anticipating and preparing for her husband's arrival from work. She obviously dotes on him and has adopted a servile attitude. There is no mention of her having friends or family in the story, so her world naturally revolves around Patrick. He seems to provide meaning to her existence so she most probably is obsessive about him. It is clear that Mary lives quite a mundane life and she has developed an almost monotonous routine in preparing for her husband's daily arrival home. The author makes this quite clear: 

When the clock said ten minutes to five, she began to listen, and a few moments later, punctually as always, she heard the car tires on the stones outside, the car door closing, footsteps passing the window, the key turning in the lock.

For her, this was always a wonderful time of day.

it is pertinently clear that she admired Patrick and had great affection for him and she at pains to ensure that he is satisfied, as Dahl illustrates: 

... she was satisfied to sit quietly, enjoying his company after the long hours alone in the house. She loved the warmth that came out of him when they were alone together. She loved the shape of his mouth, and she especially liked the way he didn't complain about being tired.

Patrick Maloney's insensitive, abrupt and brusque manner towards Mary's kindness immediately makes him an unlikable character. He is a policeman stationed at the local office and he is clearly not in an affable mood. Mary intimates that he is dissatisfied with his current position when she comments: 

"I think it's a shame, ... that when someone's been a policeman as long as you have, he still has to walk around all day long."

Patrick probably sought some kind of promotion which he hasn't received and he has to remain on the beat - a mind-numbing and frustrating position to be in. He is exhausted at the end of the day, for he has had to walk the same area he patrols. He has most probably become exasperated with this routine and the routine at home that he has gone to seek, and found, some excitement.

When Patrick tells Mary about his decision to leave, one assumes that he might have become involved in an extra-marital affair. Mary, like his job, has become too routine, too dull and he wanted out. His offhanded and uncaring manner informs of a cold and heartless individual. 

"And I know it's a tough time to be telling you this, but there simply wasn't any other way. Of course, I'll give you money and see that you're taken care of. But there really shouldn't be any problem. I hope not, in any case. It wouldn't be very good for my job."

Patrick clearly cares more about his mundane job than he does about his wife and unborn child. This makes the reader feel that he deserves his come-uppance when Mary retaliates (probably in a moment of temporary insanity) and kills him.

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Who are the main characters in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

In Lambs to the Slaughter, Mary Maloney is a pregnant housewife. When we first meet her, she is spending her time waiting patiently for her beloved husband to come home. Our first glance of Mary is one of domestic bliss. She seems completely happy in her life. She is thrilled to be pregnant and thinks her husband, Patrick, is as well. However, as we look deeper at her, Mary is the kind of woman who devotes all of her time and attention to her husband. She smothers him with an attempt to show him just how much she loves him. We can see the beginnings of her snapping when Patrick tells her how he feels.

Patrick Maloney is Mary's husband. He is a police officer in the town. When we first meet Patrick, our first thoughts are to dislike him immediately. Patrick tells Mary that he wants a divorce and that is final. We the readers are left with a bad taste in our mouth for Patrick. How could a man leave his pregnant wife with no emotion at all? We begin to see that the years of Mary devoting all of her time to Patrick has made him feel stifled. He turns to alcohol to try to numb his feelings.

Both of the main characters in Lambs to the Slaughter are flawed. Patrick tries to numb his feelings of unhappiness. Mary completely snaps and goes off the deep end and gets away with it. 

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Who are the main characters in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Mary Maloney is the main character of the story, a character that Dahl takes pains to establish carefully at the beginning of this masterful short story. Mary is clearly a devoted wife to her husband, Patrick. Dahl takes time to explain her care and love for her husband - her desire for everything to be ready for Patrick's return, her selflesness (in spite of being pregnant) in waiting on him and so on. What this carefully constructed portrait clearly does not prepare us for is the situational irony that comes when Mary kills her husband, her ability to plan the "perfect murder" and likewise her "giggle" at the end of the story, which rather disturbingly suggests a darker side to human nature that is in us all, even the most "perfect" of people.

Patrick Maloney, Mary's husband, is a character who we are made to feel dislike for. He treats his wife with disregard, and his act of leaving Mary, who we know is devoted to him, definitely does not endear him to the reader, thus the reader "sides" with Mary and secretly is pleased that Mary gets away with her crime at the end of the story.

Other minor characters include the policemen who come to Mary's house to investigate the murder and are easily duped into believing Mary's story and (a classic example of dramatic irony) eating the murder weapon, thus ensuring Mary's freedom.

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Who are the main characters in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The main characters of "Lamb to the Slaughter" are Mary and Patrick Malone. Mary is kind, gentle, and in love with her husband police officer, Patrick. She is six months pregnant when he decides to end their marriage. Mary suffers through stages of shock, anger and rage that leads her to a murderous state.

Patrick uses alcohol to muffle his frustrations. He resents his wife for taking good care of him at home while his job does not seem to be advancing. He is generally discontented, and sees a break with his wife as the change he needs to move forward.

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Who are the main characters in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

There are only two main characters in "Lamb to the Slaughter." They are Mary Maloney and her husband Patrick Maloney. Patrick is a policeman and has been on the force for many years. Mary is a housewife. She is six months pregnant. After she kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb she is the only main character. She is the viewpoint character from beginning to end.

There are a number of policemen investigating the murder, but none of them stands out as an important character. This is interesting. It shows Roald Dahl's thinking. He doesn't want to create a smart detective like Columbo played by Peter Falk on television. Such a detective might see differently, think differently, and ask different questions. Dahl didn't want to have a story which featured a battle of wits between the killer and the cop. The detectives who come to investigate the crime are all of a kind--not very intelligent or imaginative.

Patrick is obvioiusly the strong, silent type. Dahl does not explain why he wants a divorce, but it seems obvious that Mary is driving him nuts with all her attention. These are some of the things she says to him in just a few minutes after he arrives home:

"Tired, darling??"

"I'll get it!" she cried.

"Darling, shall I get your slippers?"

"Darling," she said. "Would you like me to get you some cheese?"

Finally, after having two very strong whiskey highballs, Patrick says:

"Listen, I've got something to tell you."

Dahl is a good writer. He knows it is unnecessary to quote what Patrick tells his wife. It is obvious from his drinking and his body language, as well as from her suffocating attentiveness, that he tells her he wants a divorce and also that he feels especially guilty about announcing it now that she is six months pregnant.

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.

The fact that Patrick is a cop and Mary a cop's wife is important. His murder brings an exceptional number of men to investigate, while, as a cop's wife, Mary knows a lot about establishing an alibi and bringing off a perfect crime. The other cops spend a long time looking for the murder weapon. This makes them tired and hungry, and it gives Mary enough time to turn the frozen leg of lamb into a delicious roast. The other cops would not normally accept a dinner invitation from the wife of a murder victim. It would be strictly against the rules. But since they regard Patrick as "one of us," they also regard Mary as "one of us." So they break the rules and eat the entire leg of lamb.

The most striking feature of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is Mary's abrupt change from a loving, devoted, submissive, attentive wife, not only into a murderess, but into a perpetrator who is clever enough to fool a whole house full of policemen by establishing an alibi, cooking the murder weapon, and feeding it to the very men who are searching for it. It would seem that just as Patrick was building up a loathing for his clinging wife, she was building up a strong unconscious resentment of a man who did not appreciate her love and devotion. Something very similar happens in Dahl's story "The Way Up to Heaven."

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In "Lamb to the Slaughter," who are the central characters?

The central characters of this story are Mary Maloney and her husband, Mr. Maloney. We actually are told far more about Mary Maloney so I will focus on her in this response, as she is by far the more interesting character.

This story is frequently taught in schools as an excellent example of irony, and what is absolutely key to this is how Dahl builds up his picture of her as a loving wife. Consider how she is first introduced:

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 could come. There was a slow smiling air about her, and about everything she did.

Note too how her actions are stereotypical of a loving wife: she greets her husband with a kiss, takes his coat, makes him a drink. Note how Dahl continues to develop this image of her as a loving, perfect wife:

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. She loved him for the way he sat loosely in a chair, for the way he came in a door, or moved slowly across the room with long strides.

This is almost an obsessed kind of love but it serves to set the stage for the situational irony of what is to come. When Patrick Maloney tells her that he is leaving him, she strikes him on the head with a leg of lamb and then shrewdly engineers the removal of the murder weapon and thus all evidence of her crime. Such an act is unexpected and at variance with the image of her that we are led to believe at the beginning of the story, and perhaps suggests the darker message of the story - that love and hate are not so strictly separated after all and that a thin dividing line is all that separates them.

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What are the key plot elements in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” exposition is provided from the story’s opening, with a description of the Maloneys’ living room, through the moment when Patrick Maloney tells his wife, Mary, to sit down. At this moment, Mary becomes frightened. Her fear seems to initiate the rising action, the real beginning of the conflict between the husband and wife.

The rising action continues as Patrick tells Mary something very unpleasant, something that causes her to watch him in a kind of “dazed horror.” Because he promises to give her money and see that she’s “looked after,” it seems as though he tells her that he plans to leave her, though she is six months pregnant with their child. Mary cannot believe her ears. Then, almost mechanically, she stands up to start supper. Ultimately, she murders Patrick with a frozen leg of lamb. She goes to the store to give herself an alibi. When she returns home, she calls the police to report that she’s found her husband, murdered, in their home. They arrive to investigate.

The climax of the story arrives just after the police question Mary. They question the grocer she visited, they ask her about a potential murder weapon, and they search her house for a long time. They sit down to eat the leg of lamb she cooked, at her request, and they comment on how much meat there is and then on how the murderer must have used a really big weapon to kill Patrick. In this climactic moment, it seems that someone might put it together that this leg was, in fact, the murder weapon. However, they do not. In the falling action, they agree that it should be “easy to find,” that the murderer cannot carry a weapon “that big” around, and that it must be “somewhere near the house,” likely even “right under [their] noses”: statements which could not be more true. In the resolution, Mary simply laughs at them for failing to realize how right they are.

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What is the inciting incident in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Your original question had to be edited because it contained multiple questions, which is against enotes regulations. Please make sure that in future you only ask one question at a time.

This is an excellent short story by Roald Dahl that is normally taught to explore how irony operates in literature. However, the inciting incident, which brings about the central murder of Mary Maloney's husband, comes when Mary is told a terrible bit of news by her husband. Note how it is introduced:

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.

We are never told specifically what it is that he tells his pregnant wife, but it is obvious that it is something that means he will be leaving her with her unborn child and moving on to some form of different life, as suggested by the way that "each word" seems to take him away from her. This is what leads to Mary's sudden and surprising act of clubbing her husband on the head with the frozen leg of lamb.

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What is the plot type and predominant element in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

"Lamb to the Slaughter" is one of many stories in the perfect-crime genre (of which Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is an early example); and the predominant element in the plot is the search for the murder weapon. The police are convinced that they can identify the murderer if only they can find the weapon. Furthermore, they believe that the weapon must be somewhere inside the house.

"It's the old story," he said. "Get the weapon, and you've got the man." Later, one of the detectives came up and sat beside her. Did she know, he asked, of anything in the house that could've been used as the weapon? Would she mind having a look around to see if anything was missing--a very big spanner, for example, or a heavy metal vase.

Ironically, they are correct in both their assumptions. If they knew that the murder weapon had been a frozen leg of lamb, they would have deduced that Mary Maloney was the perpetrator. The main point of the story is that the police end up eating the very murder weapon they have been searching for. This is black humor applied to the standard perfect-crime story.

The title "Lamb to the Slaughter" is at least a double entendre. A lamb is used as the murder weapon, and the woman who performs the "slaughter" has the reputation of being as meek and mild as a lamb. It might be said that there is a "triple entendre" to the title, because the husband is a unsuspecting and vulnerable as a lamb being led to the slaughter. The phrase is derived from Isaiah 53.7 in the Old Testament: "He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter."

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