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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Mary's motivations, actions, and justifications for killing her husband in "Lamb to the Slaughter"

Summary:

Mary's motivations in "Lamb to the Slaughter" are driven by her desire to be a loving wife and mother. When her husband, Patrick, asks for a divorce, she kills him with a frozen leg of lamb. To protect her unborn child and avoid arrest, she creates an alibi by going to the grocery store and later serves the murder weapon to the investigating officers, ensuring they consume the evidence.

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What is Mary's conflict in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Mary Maloney faces two major conflicts in Roald Dahl's story “Lamb to the Slaughter.” The day has been a perfectly normal one, and as the story opens, Mary is waiting for her husband, Patrick, a police detective, to return home. Mary clearly loves her husband deeply, and she is expecting their child.

But Patrick is acting rather strange that afternoon, and Mary cannot figure it out. Finally, Patrick drops the bomb, so to speak, and initiates a major conflict. He tells Mary that he wants a divorce. He will make sure she is taken care of, but he wants no fuss. Mary feels as though she is in a dream. Her mind cannot fully process what her husband has just told her. She does the only thing she can think to do; she gets up and goes to make supper. She gets a leg of lamb out of the freezer in the basement and walks back upstairs. Her husband tells her not to make supper, for he is going out ... without her.

This comment is the last straw for Mary's stunned psyche. She hits Patrick in the head with the frozen meat, and he falls to the floor dead. The conflict of the divorce has thereby been resolved, but Mary has just murdered her husband and initiated a brand new conflict. She must somehow hide the fact that she is the murderer. Mary's concern is not so much for herself as for her unborn child. She does not know if the child will die, too, if she receives the death penalty, but she cannot take the chance.

Mary calmly proceeds to put the meat in the oven and go to the grocery store to get potatoes and vegetables. She manages to act as though nothing were wrong, and the grocer notices nothing unusual. When she gets home, she calls the police, but before she does, she cries over her husband. She really does love him, and she seems to regret what she has done, but she must consider the child.

Mary manages to act the part of the grieving wife, telling her story consistently and accepting the sympathy and care of the police officers who arrive to investigate. Mary does nothing at all to make them suspicious of her, and her plans are working out smoothly. She even gets rid of the murder weapon. She invites the officers to eat it, and they finish up every last bit, unaware that they are enjoying the very object that killed Patrick Maloney. The story ends with the second conflict apparently resolved.

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What is Mary's conflict in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Mary's great desire, which she believes she is realizing, is to be a loving wife to her husband and mother to their unborn child. She is heavily pregnant and very devoted to her husband. A core conflict arises as her husband tells her he is getting a divorce from her. He states this as a fait accompli and says that he expects her to go along with it quietly so as not to hurt his career as a police officer.

Mary is conflicted because she does not want this divorce. To solve this problem, she hits her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb and kills him. Her second conflict is to avoid getting caught. At first, she thinks she will simply allow herself to be arrested but then decides she wants to take care of and protect her unborn child. To avoid being caught, she goes to the grocery store to establish an alibi that she was out of the house when the murder occurred. When she gets home, she calls the police to tell them she found her husband dead. When they come over, she serves them the murder weapon, the leg of lamb, for dinner, getting rid of the evidence.

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What is Mary's conflict in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Mary faces two conflicts in "Lamb to the Slaughter." The first occurs early in the story when Patrick tells her that he wants a divorce. This news shocks Mary to her core because she loves Patrick and does not want him to leave her. Thus, she responds by hitting Patrick over the head with a frozen leg of lamb. Patrick's death resolves this conflict because she no longer has to worry about getting a divorce since she makes herself a widow.

Mary's second conflict occurs after the murder when she is considering what to do next. As the wife of a police detective, Mary knows that many murderers are executed and she is worried that her unborn child might also be killed:

"What were the laws about murderers with unborn children? Did they kill them both—mother and child?"

Not wanting to take the risk, Mary resolves this conflict by covering up her crime. She develops an alibi (by visiting the grocery store) and feeds the murder weapon to the police detectives who visit her home.

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What is Mary's conflict in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Mary's conflict is to protect her unborn child no matter what. She is surprised at her ability to despatch her husband so swiftly, but it is the though of the child within her which focuses her attention on covering up the crime. She first begins to consider the future for them both-

It was extraordinary, now, how clear her mind became all of a sudden.  She began thinking very fast.  As the wife of a detective, she knew quite well what the penalty would be.  That was fine.  It made no difference to her.  In fact, it would be a relief.  On the other hand, what about the child?  What were the laws about murderers with unborn children?  Did they kill then 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.


It is this primitive urge to protect which enables placid, devoted Mary Maloney to ensure that her husband's murder becomes the perfect crime.

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What prompts Mary to kill her husband in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

In the short story "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl, pregnant Mary Maloney waits at home for her husband, Patrick, to finish a day's work. It's clear Mary loves her husband, as "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." However, on this particular day, Mary's husband tells her he is leaving her, which ultimately motivates Mary to kill him.

When Patrick comes home, it's clear he's had a rough day. Mary offers him a drink and offers to make dinner if he's too tired to go out for their usual Thursday meal. He focuses on drinking and keeps his answers short.

Finally, Patrick says they need to talk, but the reader is not privy to the full conversation. We hear the end of it, where Patrick tells her, "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 continuously tells Mary he knows it's bad timing—because of her pregnancy, we can assume—but with these lines, he implies it's time for their marriage to end. Mary, in shock, heads off to start cooking dinner for the two of them anyway. When she returns with a leg of lamb, Patrick snaps at her, which triggers the blow to the head that takes his life.

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How does "Lamb to the Slaughter" show Mary's love for her husband?

There are at least two ways to tell that Mary loved her husband up to the time he told her he was leaving. For one thing, the author Roald Dahl devotes a long early paragraph to describing how much she loved Patrick and for what reasons. Dahl wants to highlight his theme that love can turn to hatred, which is what the story is really all about.

For her, this was always a blissful time of day....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. She loved the intent, far look in his eyes when they rested on her, the funny shape of the mouth, and especially the way he remained silent about his tiredness....

So Dahl tells us how Mary thinks and feels. And then the author shows how much she adores her husband by describing the slavish way in which she dotes on him. For example:

"Darling," she said. "Would you like me to get you some cheese? I haven't made any supper because it's Thursday."

"If you're too tired to eat out," she went on, "it's still not too late. There's plenty of meat and stuff in the freezer, and you can have it right here and not even move out of the chair."

Her eyes waited on him for an answer, a smile, a little nod, but he made no sign.

"Anyway," she went on, "I'll get you some cheese and crackers first."

She moved uneasily in her chair, the large eyes still watching his face. "But you must eat! I'll fix it anyway, and then you can have it or not, as you like."

Dahl never tells the reader exactly why Patrick is tired of his wife and why he wants out of their marriage. But it should be abundantly clear to the reader that she is smothering him with her affection, attention, and devotion. We can see that he is not the type of man who likes such endless and monotonous domestic felicity. He is a tough cop. He is a man of action. That is obvious. He has put up with Mary's "mothering" for as long as he can stand it. But now that she is going to have a baby, he can see that his imprisonment in their claustrophobic little house is going to get even harder to bear. 

Ironically, it is Mary's too-strong adoration that is the cause of Patrick's discontent. And it is her overpowering need for his love and constant attention that finally leads to his death. This is one example of what can go wrong in a marriage. The problem with love is beautifully expressed by Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.  (4.7)

Patrick must have loved Mary--or thought he loved her--at one time. But now his love is very obviously dead. And it is dead at a time when it ought to be even stronger. She is going to have his baby. It is a further irony that Mary's love for Patrick dies at the moment she realizes he no longer loves her. This "epiphany" occurs at a time when she happens to be holding a frozen leg of lamb. 

What is "love," anyway? Many popular songs are cranked out every year about how much somebody loves somebody, and many songs are written about how somebody is mourning the loss of a loving relationship. The former are called love songs; the latter are called torch songs. One of the oldies is titled "What Is This Thing Called Love?"

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How does "Lamb to the Slaughter" show Mary's love for her husband?

When Mary is alone, waiting for her husband to come home, she constantly glances at the clock. Each passing minute assures her that her beloved husband will soon be in her presence once more. There's a "slow, smiling" air about Mary and everything she does, which indicates clearly the immense satisfaction she gains from being a loyal and loving companion to her husband.

We see this when Patrick comes home. For Mary, this is always the most blissful time of day. As her husband enters the house, Mary always takes off his coat and then fixes him a drink. Once she's got a drink for herself she just sits down by her sewing machine, content to sit quietly in the company of the man that she loves. She's like a sunbather luxuriating in the warm glow of the sun.

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How would you describe Mary's decision to kill her husband in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

In Roald Dahl's short story "Lamb to the Slaughter," Mary Maloney's decision to kill her husband is impulsive and reactionary. Mary Maloney is depicted as a passive, expecting mother who is deeply in love with her husband. At the beginning of the story, Roald Dahl illustrates Mary's love and reverence towards her husband through her patience and willingness to please him. When Patrick Maloney returns home from work, Dahl elaborates on Mary's affinity and admiration towards her husband by writing:

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. She loved the intent, far look in his eyes when they rested in her.

After drinking multiple glasses of whiskey, Patrick suddenly tells Mary that he is leaving her. Mary is completely stunned by Patrick's comment and experiences slight nausea as she walks down to the cellar to grab a heavy leg of lamb out of the freezer. When Mary returns, and Patrick tells her not to cook for him and that he is "going out," she abruptly swings the leg of lamb at her husband's head. The blunt force trauma kills Patrick, and Mary stands still for a moment before her senses return. Mary's decision to kill Patrick was certainly not premeditated and seems almost like an unwilled act. She was simply acting out of passion and put no thought into murdering Patrick. Mary's inexplicable violence shocks the audience, and Mary also seems surprised by her crime. Following the murder, Mary quickly transforms into a calculated thinker and cleverly forms an alibi to cover her role.

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Is Mary justified in killing her husband in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

It sort of depends on what you mean by "appropriate." It is illegal. It is risky because of the danger of getting caught and sent to prison. It is cruel and animalistic behavior. It is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not kill," and so it is sinful. Roald Dahl often wrote tongue-in-cheek stories. He didn't intend them to be taken too seriously. This story is especially funny because Mary kills Patrick with a frozen leg of lamb and then gets the policemen to eat up all the evidence.  If she killed her husband with a hammer, for instance, we would have far less sympathy for her and less enjoyment of the story. 

The only way in which Mary's action seems "appropriate" is in its being thoroughly understandable. She is six-months pregnant. She adores her husband. She works like a slave for him. And he comes home and tells her he wants a divorce! She happens to have a frozen leg of lamb in her hand, and she succumbs to a sudden impulse and bashes him over the head with it.

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.

We can't condone it but we can understand it, and that was probably all the author really wanted to achieve. Naturally she doesn't want to get caught. What's done is done. She has to worry about herself and her unborn baby. We can also understand her subsequent behavior. She puts the lamb in the oven at high-heat, establishes an alibi by going to the grocery store, and gets all the cops to devour the murder weapon they have been searching for. All of this has logical continuity, and we are sympathetic to Mary because of her strong motives and because we are held firmly in her point of view from beginning to end.

An author can get a reader to identify with almost any character--even a murderer--if he stays in that character's point of view and give that character a motive with which the reader can relate. With Mary, the motive we can relate to is "self-preservation." We all have that. Thus we are made accomplices, so to speak. We are the only ones besides Mary who know what she did. And we--or most of us, anyway--want to see her get away with it.

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When does Mary decide to kill her husband in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

I do not think that it ever becomes obvious to a reader that Mary is going to kill her husband, Patrick. The first time that I read the story I was shocked and surprised that Mary killed Patrick.  My students are always shocked by the event as well.  I don't believe that Dahl gives any strong indication that Mary is thinking about killing her husband.  In fact, I don't think Dahl gives readers any indication that Mary is even capable of killing Patrick.  I believe that Dahl intended for that moment in the story to be completely shocking.  The beginning of the story paints Mary as the perfect doting wife that lives to be in the glorious presence of her husband. 

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.

Readers are shown Mary being a person that simply can't function or live without Patrick.  The thought that she would kill him is unbelievable.  I can picture Mary grovelling at Patrick's feet and begging him to change his mind.  I can picture her going into a catatonic state too.  Those would be obvious reactions for Mary.  I do not believe that Mary's intention to kill Patrick is ever obvious, and if I'm honest, I don't think that Mary ever intended to kill Patrick either.  I think that she wanted to physically hurt him, and that is why she swung the leg of lamb at him.  Unfortunately, Patrick dies.  That forces Mary to make an intentional decision to get away with it.  

As the wife of a detective, she knew quite well what the penalty would be. That was fine. It made no difference to her. In fact, it would be a relief. On the other hand, what about the child? What were the laws about murderers with unborn children? Did they kill then 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.

It's at that moment that readers can be quite certain that Mary is going to try and cover up her involvement with Patrick's death.  

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