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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Discussion Topic

The role of dark humor in "Lamb to the Slaughter" and its impact on the themes


Dark humor in "Lamb to the Slaughter" serves to highlight themes of betrayal and justice. It creates a stark contrast between the shocking violence and the mundane domestic setting, emphasizing the absurdity of the situation. This juxtaposition underscores the unpredictability of human behavior and critiques societal norms regarding gender roles and expectations.

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What is the humor in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The principal source of humor in Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" is irony. The policemen search in vain for the murder weapon, which they describe as something roughly the size and shape of a leg of lamb (though they think it is made of metal). Then they eat the lamb and one of them, his mouth still full of murder-weapon, declares that what they're looking for is probably right under their noses—this is a statement of such perfectly literal truth that the murderess and the reader join in laughing at it as the story ends.

This irony is reflected in the story's title, as we expect the "lamb" to be the victim, not the weapon. The humor of the story makes the reader complicit in the crime, as we laugh at Mary Maloney getting away with murder.

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How does dark humor enhance the themes in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

I think that the use of dark humor helps to enhance some of the basic themes that connect to Mary in Dahl's story.  Part of the reason for this is that the examples of black humor used are reflective of Mary as a general part of her being even in the most unthinkable of conditions.  Consider the way in which she kills her husband.  She uses a frozen leg of lamb.  There is a black humor element in Mary going to the freezer, presumably getting dinner and then using said dinner to bludgeon her husband to death.  The passivity that Mary strives for in her being in the world is reflective of how she kills her husband. Her predictability is enhanced with the trip to the grocery store.  She picks up potatoes and peas for her husband and then when confronted with the grocer's question, figures that cheesecake would be good to bring home.  In this, the black humor is effective in enhancing the predictable and passive nature of Mary's being.  She has killed her husband and she is embodying the condition that worries about potatoes and cheesecake.

One final example of black humor can be used to enhance the theme of justice and injustice in the story.  As Mary prepares dinner for the police officers, she listens in on their discussions about the crime and the murder weapon.  She overhears one of them suggest that the murder weapon is ‘‘right under our very noses.’’  Indeed, as they eat the lamb that Mary prepares, the officer is right.  The black humor here of the officers literally sitting with the murder weapon right under their nose, on their plate, and eventually in their digestive systems enhances the idea that justice might not be served.  The murder weapon is being appropriated by the police officers meant to find it, while the murderer is preparing desert.  Black humor helps to enhance the theme in this instant as the passive and controlled life of the 1950s domestic realm collides with the world of murder and deception.

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