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 is the main message of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

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One main message in "Lamb to the Slaughter" is not to underestimate the power of a determined woman. Another message examines the boundaries of behaviors we classify as good and bad, blurring the lines between how we ultimately classify people.

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Because the character development is so wonderfully complex in "Lamb to the Slaughter," there are several messages which readers can take away from this story. The message that seems most significant to an individual reader will depend on the background and personal experiences that they bring to the reading experience. The following are a couple of messages that are central to the conflict.

Never underestimate the power of a determined woman. Mary Maloney doesn't present initially as a woman capable of murder. She is a doting wife who anxiously looks forward to her husband's return home and lovingly takes care of the details of his life, from hanging his coat to knowing exactly how to make his drink. She is presented as a meek character, but she quickly finds strength when Patrick callously dismisses her. After killing him, she immediately launches into a plan to develop an alibi, and she orchestrates the details of this plan with ease, seamlessly engaging in conversations so that people can attest to her absence from home during the time of Patrick's "mysterious" murder there. In order to cover her crime, she feeds the leg of lamb to the detectives, who are men her husband knows well. Mary is fueled by the sudden need to protect her unborn child, and this gives her the resolve she needs to accomplish a seemingly impossible task.

Sometimes the lines between good and bad are blurred. Mary Maloney is a murderess, after all, and she evades the efforts of the police to determine who has killed her husband. She giggles in the final scene, knowing that she's gotten away with murder and finding humor in their comments. Yet it's hard not to root for Mary after Patrick has seemingly told her that he plans to leave her and instructs her not to make a "fuss" about things because he doesn't want her reaction to negatively impact his job. Even as Mary insists on cooking his dinner, he dismisses her and notes that he is going "out," presumably to meet his mistress. While we can condemn Mary's actions, it's also hard not to place ultimate blame on Patrick, who is not a good husband and who is planning to abandon his unborn child. He's no saint, and it's hard to classify him as a good man. Did he deserve death? No—but there is a bit of satisfaction in the karma which solves Mary's conflict.

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What is the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Lamb to the Slaughter” has several themes, but perhaps the most prominent and compelling is jealousy or, more precisely, the speed and intensity with which love can turn to hatred. Mary Maloney idolizes her husband. When he comes home, she waits on him devotedly and feels a sense of bliss merely because he is close to her:

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.

When he tells her that he has decided to leave, however, Mary first experiences a sudden numbness. She feels nothing at all except a slight nausea. Then, equally suddenly, she walks up behind him and smashes a frozen leg of lamb as hard as she can against the back of his head. Her feelings as she does this are not described, and she does not seem to think about it until after she has done it. It is an automatic animal reaction of fury and jealousy at the knowledge that she is about to lose her husband to another woman.

After the murder, Mary becomes cool and logical. All the sentimentality has drained out of her. Love died with her husband’s betrayal, but jealousy, at least, has been satisfied.

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What is the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

"Lamb to the Slaughter" is just a humorous perfect-crime story with an unusual twist. Mary Maloney has to have a strong motive for killing her husband, but the best part of the story is how she kills him and how she gets away with it. Mary has to be known as a loving, devoted wife because this shields her from suspicion as the perpetrator. How could such a quiet, patient, domestic woman kill her husband? The investigating cops don't spend any time checking up on her—but they wouldn't have found anything incriminating if they had. The story might be compared (in some respects) to another famous perfect-crime story, "The Cask of Amontillado." Montresor takes such pains to make everybody think that he and Fortunato are very good friends that he can't help referring to him repeatedly as "my friend," "my good friend," "my poor friend," etc., while he is leading him to his death. When the investigation of Fortunato's disappearance gets underway, no one will consider Montresor a possible suspect because he was such a good friend of the missing man. The same applies to Mary Maloney. Spouses are always prime suspects in murder cases—but how could anyone imagine that Mary Maloney would kill the husband she adored?

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What is the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The primary theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl is the unjust expectations and treatment of women by society.

This short story had the unique quality of having a pregnant, happy married woman waiting for her husband in a typical afternoon waiting for his arrival from work.

In typical Roald Dahl style, the outcome is surprising. The man nonchalantly tells his wife that it is over, and that he can help her out monetarily if she wishes to.

These topics could seem natural to a modern reader, but in Roald Dahl's time, it would have been highly controversial to see a man abandon his pregnant wife in such a chauvinistic way.

Yet, there is more at stake when the woman does not only snap, but also serves her murder weapon as a dinner entree to her husband's fellow police officers who are investigating the scene.

Sheer class!

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What is the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

There are many themes, but to me, the most important theme is that people do not know what they are capable of until they are put to the test.

At the beginning of the story, would you ever have thought that Mary Maloney would be able to kill her husband and then cold-bloodedly make sure that she had a good alibi?  Would you have thought she would be able to feed the policemen the murder weapon?  Not me.  She seemed so meek and passive.

That is why I think this is the theme of the story.  When put to the test, Mary is able to do something that would have been completely unthinkable, even to her, a moment before.

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What is the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

One main theme in this story is betrayal.  You have a housewife who is betrayed by her husband, who says that he is leaving her.  She thinks that everything is okay; she is pregnant, glowing, happy.  She makes meals for him, and doesn't have any reason to suspect that he is unhappy.  Then, he drops the bomb that he is leaving and to try no to make "any fuss...it wouldn't be very good for my job."  This is an awful betrayal for her.  Ironically, she betrays his friends later, through her covering up of the crime.

There is also a theme of identity, of us not really knowing ourselves very well.  I bet if Mary had asked herself that day "Am I capable of murdering my husband in cold blood, even if he did something awful to me?" the answer would have been a definite no.  But, in the moment, she behaves much differently.  And then, even more surprising is her cool cover-up, her quick thinking, and how she got away with the crime.  Such duplicity was probably as much of a shock to herself as to anyone else.  So don't think you know yourself for sure, until you've been in the situation.

There are other possible themes to this story; I've provided a link below to a more thorough discussion of themes.

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What is the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Betrayal is the ultimate theme of the story: Patrick Maloney’s inexplicable decision to leave his pregnant wife is a violation of the marriage-vows; however, it  is not the only betrayal. Obviously “Mary’s killing of her husband is perhaps the ultimate betrayal.” She continues to perpetrate the ultimate betrayal as she weaves a more and more elaborate web of lies and deceit to develop an airtight alibi of convincing lies. There are several other themes within the story that help to make it a superior work of fictionIdentity, Love and Passion, Passivity, and Justice and Injustice.  For more in depth information on the themes of “Lamb to the Slaughter” go the link below.

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What is the theme of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

There are various themes to the story "lamb to the slaughter" but the one that i think is the most prevelant is the theme of Betrayal. Patrick betrays his wife, his marriage vows, and himself by choosing to leave his wife. Mary betrays her marriage vows and certainly her husband and common rule of law by killing her husband. I think the lamb that she kills him with symbolizes herself. She is a meek thing, fetching her husband whatever he wants, until he decides he is leaving her, suddenly she is overcome and kills him with the lamb, in the process killing her old meek self as well

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What are the themes of the short story "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

"Lamb to the Slaughter" is essentially a perfect-crime murder story told with a touch of humor. There are two major kinds of perfect-crime murder stories: those in which the the murderer thinks he has planned the perfect crime but gets caught because of something he overlooked, and those in which the murderer actually gets away with it. Edgar Allan Poe may have invented both of these genres. Examples of the former are "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat." Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado" is an example of a crime in which the perpetrator gets away with it completely.

Mary Maloney commits the perfect crime, but she doesn't plan it ahead of time. She acts spontaneously, using the weapon which happens to be in her hand, a frozen leg of lamb. It is significant that she is a cop's wife, because she has learned a lot about police work from listening to her husband and his friends. She sets up an alibi by going to the grocers and letting it appear that her husband was killed by an intruder in her absence. Before leaving the house she turns the oven up as high as it will go and puts the frozen leg of lamb inside.The reader might wonder how long it will take to cook the lamb, so Dahl answers this question by having Mary discuss it with Sam the grocer.

"No, I've got meat, thanks. I got a nice leg of lamb, from the freezer. . . . I don't much like cooking it frozen, Sam, but I'm taking a chance on it this time. You think it'll be all right?"

"Personally," the grocer said, "I don't believe it makes any difference."

The prolonged conversation with the grocer strengthens Mary's alibi by extending her absence from home.

The facts that there are so many policemen assigned to the investigation and that they stay so late searching the premises for the murder weapon, provides Mary with an excuse to invite them to have dinner. If they weren't well acquainted with Mary and her husband, they wouldn't violate protocol by accepting her invitation; but since her husband was "one of us," they regard Mary as "one of us" as well.  This is a ticklish plot problem--how to get the cops to eat the evidence.

There was a great deal of hesitating among the four policemen, but they were clearly hungry, and in the end they were persuaded to go into the kitchen and help themselves.

Because her husband was a cop, the other detectives and uniformed officers spend an unusually long time on the investigation, thus giving the lamb enough time to thaw and cook. Time was another plot problem for Dahl to solve. All he had was the idea of a wife killing her husband with a frozen leg of lamb--but then he had to give her enough time to cook it in order to commit the perfect crime by disposing of the murder weapon. A big piece of meat frozen solid obviously takes a long time to cook. Normally, she probably would have let it thaw out overnight and cooked it the next day, but under the circumstances she had to speed up the whole process and have the lamb ready for the hungry men within about four hours. Patrick came home right at five o'clock, and it was a little after nine when she felt safe about serving dinner.

The search went on. . . . It began to get late, nearly nine she noticed by the clock on the mantle.

eNotes Study Guide for "Lamb to the Slaughter" discusses five other themes. These are Betrayal, Identity, Love and Passion, Passivity, and Justice and Injustice. See reference link below.

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What are the themes of the story "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl?

Your question was edited to reflect only one request as per Enotes standards.

Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" most noteworthy themes reflect the conflict between fantasy and reality that the character of Mary Malone displays throughout the story.The fantasy lies on Mary's acquired identity of wife, future mother, and happy homemaker. She has made of her home a middle class utopia. Yet, the reader (and apparently Mary) does not know what is really happening within the marriage. Has Patrick been displaying obvious signs of dissatisfaction that Mary has chosen to ignore? Is this an actually happy marriage? Is abuse being atoned for with superficial bliss? Hence, fantasy versus reality is the theme that serves as the background to other conflicting sub-themes.

Another of those themes is love versus submissiveness. Mary Malone's passivity and willingness to please are synonymous with the ideal middle class life; a wife stays home, serves the husband, and tends to the house. Her reward would be her husband's utter satisfaction, as well as his income, as he is the sole provider and head of household.

However, in Mary's passivity seems to coincide with a secretly non-altruistic desire of being validated with praise or demonstrations of love. Judging by the behavior of Patrick Maloney, Mary is likely to lack that validation.

A second thematic conflict is loyalty versus betrayal. In Patrick's actions we see coldness of heart as well as of character; how can a man leave his wife when she is six months pregnant with his own first child? When he perpetrates his betrayal, her loyalty seems amplified; Mary even insists on getting dinner ready as usual. Yet, it is here when she snaps, kills him, and then has to figure out how to cover her actions.

One last theme is justice versus injustice: A man has been murdered by his wife, seemingly in a moment of insanity, and because of what he does to her. Is it fair that Mary should be home free just because she knew how to make the weapon disappear? Is it fair that she was left by her husband? Is it fair to put her in jail with no previous record and a six month pregnancy? All these conflicting questions are part of the theme, and the answers only come to the reader depending on their own schema and opinion of Mary and Patrick.

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Identify the theme of the story "Lamb to the Slaughter." 

One of the themes of this story is the notion of gender roles and roles in a bourgeois, 1950s heterosexual marriage. These roles usually include a man who goes out and makes money while the meek woman stays at home to clean and care for the children. There is nothing inherently wrong with these roles; the problem is that they've been used to suggest that women should not work and/or should "serve" their husbands. During the time this story was written, those roles were overly and overtly romanticized as the ideal roles in a marriage. 

When Patrick Maloney reveals to his pregnant wife Mary that he's leaving her, she is shocked, but he does not stop her from getting dinner at this time. Up to this point, the narrator has painted the pictured of that romanticized, bourgeois marriage. Patrick is the domineering, working head of the household and Mary is the subjected, meek woman at home who does not live for herself because that is not her role. She has lived vicariously through 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. 

Patrick is dismissive and condescending in revealing the news that he's leaving her because he thinks that is his role. His coldness reveals the lack of compassion he has for Mary's feelings. He yells at her when she continues to make dinner, saying that he is going out, presumably without her. This is the moment when Mary snaps out of her expected role and becomes the dominant one. Not only does she take control of the situation, but she manages to conceive of a foolproof plan to get away with it by having the policemen eat the evidence. She has shifted roles: from meek to strong and in control. 

Another theme is betrayal. Patrick betrayed her with cold indifference. He betrays her in abandoning her, for whatever reason we can only assume. She betrayed him, in a sense, by killing him. They are both clearly at fault, but what is interesting is that although Mary's crime is worse, it is easy to sympathize with her; she had been living in a supposedly ideal marriage but it was a relationship in which she was clearly treated like a servant to her husband. 

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