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 tone of "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Quick answer:

The tone of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is unsympathetic, though nonjudgmental, as well as matter-of-fact. Dahl's narrator presents Mrs. Mary Maloney's murderous behavior in such a benign way, as though it is common or coolly inevitable, and he avoids opportunities to encourage us to sympathize with either her or her dead husband. This tone makes Mrs. Maloney's behavior seem all the more chilling.

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Tone refers to the author's attitude toward the text's subject. In this particular text, we have a wife who receives some distressing news from her husband, a police detective, though the narrator of the story does not allow us to hear what the news is. Mrs. Maloney, the protagonist, is six months pregnant, and it sounds as though her husband is planning to leave her, because he says that he will be sure to "give [her] money and see that [she's] taken care of." We aren't privy to the details, and those details might have made us feel more sympathetically toward Mrs. Maloney. She seems like a relatively peaceful person, and her mouth and eyes were, early on, describe has having a "new calm look." Therefore, it is all the more surprising when "without any pause," she cracks her husband on the back of the head with a frozen leg of lamb. Afterwards, she tells herself,

All right ... So I've killed him.

Dahl seems nonjudgmental of as well as unsympathetic toward her, as he does not encourage our sympathy, but he also presents her thoughts and actions in a matter-of-fact way, as though they are what one might expect in this situation. Mrs. Maloney's behavior is so strange, so odd, and yet Dahl offers no real commentary on it via the narrator. In the end, she laughs when she hears the officers who are eating the murder weapon talk about how it is "probably right under [their] noses." Thus, the story ends with irony.

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In "Lamb to the Slaughter," Mary Maloney kills her husband by striking him across the head with a frozen leg of lamb. She then proceeds to cook the lamb in the oven while the police are in her house, investigating the death. She even manages, at the end of the story, to get the police officers to eat the lamb, and in eating the lamb the police officers destroy the evidence that they are supposed to be finding. This simple outline of the plot suggests a story which is a little bit surreal, and this plot in itself influences the tone of the story. Because the plot is so strange, it is difficult as a reader to read it in anything other than a slightly, darkly comic tone.

At the end of the story the police officers, while eating the cooked leg of lamb, talk about where the murder weapon might be. One of the officers says, "I think it's right here on the premises," and the other officer replies, "Probably right under our very noses." The dramatic irony here is so extreme that it's difficult as a reader not to laugh and thus not to read the ending in anything other than a comic tone. The comedy is of course of the dark variety as we are ultimately laughing along with a woman who has murdered her husband.

The tone of the story, as well as being comic, is also sometimes rather sinister. For example, when Mrs. Maloney arrives home with her groceries, she calls out for her husband. She calls his name and then says, "How are you, darling?" At this point of course Mary knows that her husband is dead. The tone of the story at this moment, therefore, becomes rather sinister. We wonder how Mary Maloney can behave in such a calm way, as if nothing has happened, given that she has not long since murdered her husband.

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What is the mood in Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The title of Roald Dahl's story is a humorous allusion to the Bible, in which there are many places in which a man who is going to be killed is being led quietly and passively "like a lamb to the slaughter." The most frequently quoted is in Isaiah 53.7:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
King James Bible "Authorized Version"

The allusion is humorous, but it can be considered appropriate in several ways. Obviously, Patrick Maloney has no idea what is going to happen to him, any more than a sacrificial lamb being led to the slaughter. Also, obviously, he is killed with a frozen leg of lamb. How could anyone anticipate that? Then there is the fact that Patrick speaks very little. He is the strong, silent type. When he does speak to Mary at length about wanting a divorce, most of what he says is not directly quoted but only inferred from the effect it has on his wife. So it would not be inappropriate to say of Patrick that he "opened not his mouth." It is especially true of him that he "opened not his mouth" about his growing dissatisfaction with his marriage and the plans he was making to obtain a divorce. It is to Mary's advantage that Patrick "opened not his mouth" to discuss his marriage with any of his colleagues on the force. None of the policemen have the slightest idea that Patrick and Mary are not happily married. Consequently, there is no cause to suspect her of killing him. The title is also appropriate because the whole story is based on the bizarre idea of using a frozen leg of lamb as a murder weapon and then serving it cooked to the detectives investigating the case. Many lambs are slaughtered by men, but this is a unique situation in which a man is slaughtered by a lamb. Mary herself has been a "lamb" all her life until her understandable reaction to her husband's cold-hearted rejection when she is six months pregnant.

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What is the mood in Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The story opens with a very tranquil scene. We see a woman, who is six months pregnant, waiting in anticipation for her husband to come home. She deeply loves her husband and when he arrives she is excited to see him. She rushes around, happy to fix him a drink, and tells him if he too tired she will just cook dinner for him at home instead of going out. The mood then shifts drastically when her husband, Patrick, a police detective, tells her some shocking news. We the reader are not privy to what he has to tell her, but by her reaction we know it is bad news for her. She is in shock and almost goes into a trance, and then decides to cook dinner. She goes and gets a leg of lamb from the freezer, and uses that to kill her husband, then cooks the lamb.

We see that there are many moods in the short story: first we see a happy mood, then it shifts to a mysterious mood. As the other police officers come to investigate the murder, the mood shifts again, to a mood of being almost sadistic. As the police officers are eating the leg of lamb, they are talking about trying to find the murder weapon, while the whole time, they are eating the murder weapon. The story shifts to the wife, in the other room, listening to the police, and she starts to laugh to herself. 

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What is the mood in Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

The mood of Lamb to the Slaughter changes quite dramatically as the story progresses. The peaceful, middle class domestic scene at the start of the story creates a mood of calm and tranquility. However, the suspense builds as we sense the husband Patrick's innate hostility to his wife. Later in the story the mood is particularly suspenseful as the police investigate Patrick's murder and we wonder if the calculating housewife Mary will be able to conceal the truth.

By the resolution of the story the mood becomes almost comical as the protagonist delights in the fact she has deceived the police into consuming the evidence, "She wants us to eat it. She said we ought to eat it up......And in the other room Mary Maloney began to laugh" (p. 4).

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What is the mood and atmosphere of the story "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

To start, it should be said that despite the innocence of many of his successful children's works, Roald Dahl is notorious for crafting creepy, even horrifying short stories. As other Educators have pointed out, as the story contains dynamic characters and events, the overall mood changes several times. However, if there were a term to identify the overall mood of the story as a whole, it would probably be ominous or foreboding.

At the very beginning of the story, we see a woman waiting innocently for her husband to return from work. Yet even at this early stage, Dahl drops hints to the reader that something is amiss. Mary Maloney is not simply "peaceful," but "curiously peaceful." Already Dahl casts doubts about her true state, implying that we should be suspicious, "curious" about her seemingly calm disposition. Also, "Her mouth and her eyes, with their new calm look, seemed larger and darker than before." This depicts a rather unsettling change. Dahl chooses "larger" and "darker" to portray her features, as though her eyes have become like holes. 

When Mary Maloney's husband does come home, the narrator describes the reasons she adores her husband, one of which is that he doesn't complain about being tired. Then, immediately, her husband states: "Yes," he sighed. "I'm thoroughly exhausted." Again, something is not right here. The husband's actions stand in an unsettling contrast to the wife's dreamy, hazy thoughts. 

All these ominous clues in the text lead up to Mary Maloney's confrontation with her husband. Evidently, he tells her he is leaving her (rather callously), and she becomes shell-shocked at the news, moving about numbly. Then, brandishing a frozen leg of lamb, she murders him. Immediately afterward,

The violence of the crash, the noise, the small table overturning, helped to bring her out of the shock. She came out slowly, feeling cold and surprised, and she stood for a few minutes, looking at the body, still holding the piece of meat tightly with both hands.

Yet the creepiness, the tension is still not fully released. We wonder, what will she do? How will she cover it up? What will become of her unborn child?

Mary Maloney pulls herself together, attempting to cover up her grisly action with a veneer of cheer. She practices in the mirror: "That was better. Both the smile and the voice sounded better now." She then proceeds to have a perfectly pleasant and mundane conversation with a shopkeeper while her husband lays murdered by her own hand. The juxtaposition of the friendly chat and the murder is sinister.

Tension continues to build and release a bit, build and release a bit, as Mary "discovers" her dead husband, the police arrive, and the reader realizes the weapon is currently cooking in the oven when Jack Noonan says "Get the weapon, and you've got the murderer." We continue to have apprehension about exactly how this whole drama will play out. 

The unanswered questions and dramatic irony contribute to the foreboding atmosphere of the story right up until the end, when "in the other room, Mary Maloney began to laugh."

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What is the mood and atmosphere of the story "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

Prescribing one mood and atmosphere to the story "Lamb to the Slaughter" is tough.  It's tough, because the piece goes through several different moods.  

When the story begins, I would describe the mood as calm, peaceful, warm, and welcoming.  Mary Maloney is patiently sitting at home.  She is counting the minutes until her beloved husband comes home.  

The room was warm and clean, the curtains drawn, the two table lamps alight-hers and the one by the empty chair opposite. . . 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 would come.

Mary is the quintessential doting wife.  Additionally, she is pregnant, and the text says that she was practically glowing with pregnant beauty.  When Patrick gets home, Mary gets up from her sewing to greet him, and then she gets him a drink.  That's a great welcome home for Patrick.  It really is a beautiful scene.  

Then Patrick has to go and ruin it all.  As he begins talking to Mary, the mood of the story shifts.  The mood weaves a line through cold, confused, numb, and heartbroken.  Patrick coldly tells Mary that he is leaving her and then announces that he will not be staying for dinner.  Mary is at first confused by his words.  

And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at most, and she say 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.

After Patrick is finished talking, Mary is so stunned that she operates in an unfeeling (numb) daze.  

When she walked across the room she couldn’t feel her feet touching the floor. 90 She couldn’t feel anything at all- except a slight nausea and a desire to vomit. Everything was automatic now-down the steps to the cellar, the light switch, the deep freeze, the hand inside the cabinet taking hold of the first object it met.

That mood continues until Mary clubs Patrick over the head with the leg of lamb.  At that moment, the mood of the story switches again.  The mood becomes tense, cold and calculating.  Mary takes on an extremely cool and calm demeanor as she rehearses her alibi and goes about getting rid of the murder weapon.  

It was extraordinary, now, how clear her mind became all of a sudden. She began thinking very fast.

Once the police show up, the mood is quite tense.  The reader is kept on the edge of his seat, because it it unclear whether or not Mary is actually going to get away with killing her husband.  

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What is the tone in the story "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

This is actually a very interesting question regarding this story because it is a question that is not asked very often about the story. More often than not, the question asks about mood rather than tone. Mood and tone are not the same thing, and it is unfortunate that they are often thought to be the same thing. Mood refers to the feelings that are created in a reader, and tone refers to the attitude of the narrator, writer, and sometimes the character.

While I do think Mary's tone at the beginning is loving, and Patrick's tone is cold, the question asks what the tone of the story is as a whole; therefore, I think the question is asking about the narrator's attitude about the entire Mary and Patrick sequence of events. In my opinion, the tone is forthright, direct, informative, pragmatic, restrained, and so on. Readers have their emotions pulled all over the place while reading this story. We are shocked and in horror at parts. We feel sympathy for Mary and anger toward Patrick, but the narrator remains incredibly factual. I've often imagined the story as essentially an article in a newspaper in which the writer is simply trying to give the facts to the reader. Certain sentences definitely help convey this tone. Dahl makes repeated use of sentences that are short, direct, and to the point.

It was easy. No acting was necessary.

[...]

She knew them both. She knew nearly all the men at the police station. She fell into Jack Noonan's arms, crying uncontrollably. He put her gently into a chair.

[...]

He hurried to the phone.

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

If I were to summarize the mood of "Lamb to the Slaughter," I would have to say that it is very dark.

Mary Maloney is married to a police officer who is abusive. The story opens as Mary's husband returns from work one night. Assuming that the abuse she has suffered at his hands has been going on for some time, when he makes a comment (that seems to infer that he is leaving her), she snaps, hits him with a frozen leg of lamb that she has taken out to prepare for dinner, and proceeds to cook dinner, while preparing the perfect alibi and disposing of the "weapon" at the same time.

In that there is abuse and evil at the hands of her husband, violent crime in his murder, and a skewed sense of justice at the end, I would have to say that the mood of the story is very dark.

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

Allow me to digress slightly and refer to a central aspect of this story, which is intimately related to your question. This excellent short story is usually used by teachers to demonstrate irony. Of course, as you know, there are three types of irony - verbal, situational and dramatic. The answer to your question is related to the dramatic irony, which is defined as  when the reader and some of the characters involved in a play or text know something important that some or all of the characters do not know. What is darkly comic about the ending is the dramatic irony that we as readers are privileged to know. Mary Maloney has just killed her husband, then has calculatedly managed to give herself an alibi and then get rid of the murder weapon. Of course, the policemen unwittingly help Mary get away with it:

"Personally, I think [the murder weapon] is right here on the premises."

"Probably right under our very noses. What you think, Jack?"

And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.

The murder weapon was indeed "right under their very noses", but they were just enjoying the meal. Given the emphasis that is placed on finding the murder weapon, ("It's the old story. Get the weapon and you've got the man"), the fact that Mary manages to trick the policemen into eating it, thereby ensuring herself her "innocence", ends this brilliant tale and confirms the mood as being blackly humorous.

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