Lamb to the Slaughter Themes
The main themes in “Lamb to the Slaughter” are gender, identity, and justice and complicity.
- Femininity and gender performance: Roald Dahl satirizes mid-century American gender norms, with Mary Maloney performing stereotypical femininity in order to disguise her murder of her husband.
- Identity reconstruction: Mary’s identity as a housewife is shattered first by Patrick’s revelation that he is leaving her and second by her murder of Patrick with a leg of lamb.
- Justice and complicity: Dahl makes readers morally complicit in Mary’s unjust actions by generating dislike for Patrick and sympathy for Mary.
Femininity and Gender Performance
Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter,” first published in 1953, satirizes post-war Americana. A dark comedy, the story pokes fun at the middle-class, suburban demography that arose in the economic boom following World War II. The Maloneys are the quintessential American couple: a single-income household led by a male breadwinner and maintained by a housewife devoted to her home and husband. Dahl’s description is rooted in the milieu of the time, a product of the social relationships by which he was surrounded. He caricatures the conventional gender norms of the time, relying on coded images of suburban domesticity to build a sense of expectation in readers and the characters themselves. Dahl frames domesticity as a product of reaffirmed gender performance. Throughout the story, Mary’s self-presentation relies on the expectations of others—a grieving, pregnant housewife incapable of committing murder—in order to disguise the truth.
Immediately following the death of her husband, Mary begins the process of securing her innocence. She decides to visit the grocer’s for vegetables. Before she leaves the house, Dahl describes her efforts to appear normal: “She sat down before the mirror, tidied her face, touched up her lips and face. . . . Both the smile and the voice were coming out better now. She rehearsed it several more times.” Readers see, then, that to appear normal in this context is to appear physically composed, pleasant, and feminine. It works—Sam, the grocer, takes in her carefully constructed appearance, bright “Hullo,” and casual smile with ease. Playing to his expectation of a lovely young housewife shopping for dinner, Mary manipulates and obscures the situation to her advantage. She is well put-together, and the nonchalant small talk they exchange suits a housewife: domestic and conversational. No one would ever suspect anything of her; it is, as Sam tells the detectives, “impossible that she” could be in any way responsible for the murder.
Readers see Mary exploit the expectations of her position, playing at pitiful helplessness as she manipulates the clueless officers into consuming the leg of lamb: “she looked at him with her large, dark, tearful eyes.” The direct gaze, tear-filled lashes, and wide, desperate eyes are a double-edged ploy, evoking sympathy and performing a convincing pseudo-seduction. Shortly after, she frames this request as “hospitality,” and the officers begrudgingly comply. Her hyper-feminine performance, paired with this token of 1950s domesticity, convinces them. She is what she appears to be; to propose otherwise would be ridiculous. Dahl characterizes the Maloneys as painful caricatures of post-war domestic life. Mary’s reaffirmation of these expectations and their accompanying meanings permits her success in the wake of her violent actions.
At the beginning of “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Mary Maloney appears to readers as a figure motivated entirely by her position as a homemaker. Her daily life centers on fulfilling the desires of her husband and the expectations for a good housewife. She seems unbothered by this and appears to revel in the life she and her husband, Patrick, have built for themselves. When all that has come to define her sense of self—her home, expanding family, and husband—shatters with the revelation that Patrick is leaving her, Mary loses all sense of personal identity, retreating into the familiar haze of domestic performance. As she goes to cook dinner, she enters a state of “dazed horror”; the man she loves has destroyed the mores that define her sense of self and give her life meaning. Patrick begins a process of identity destruction that Mary completes for herself. When she hits Patrick with the leg of lamb, she casts aside the familiar tokens of domestic...
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self-identity in favor of unthinking rage. The image that readers have of her and that she has of herself is no longer compatible with reality. As the leg of lamb connects with its target, it both kills her husband and erases her sense of domestic identity.
Despite its violent, whirlwind demise—initiated by Patrick’s unexpected admission and finalized by Mary’s abrupt, destructive response—Mary must reconstruct this sense of feminine, domestic identity as a protective effort. Readers watch as she reassembles herself physically, mentally, and emotionally, donning a performative mask that successfully replicates who she was before the events of the story. Her reconfiguration of self fools the grocer and the police officers crowding her home; though readers know her hospitality and concern are a well-performed act, the characters are entirely unaware. By disguising the truth behind this veil of reconstituted feminine domesticity, Dahl suggests that identity is malleable and vulnerable, a shifting product of self-knowledge as it fits into the outside world. Indeed, the story indicates that identity, or its external presentation, can be donned at will and morphed to suit situational necessity.
Injustice and Complicity
The story features several injustices to which other characters—and even the reader—are made complicit. Patrick’s callous disregard for his wife’s feelings in the cold, one-sided conversation in which he reveals that he plans to leave her turns readers against him. The early scenes cement him as rude and horribly ungrateful, a poor excuse for a husband and soon-to-be father. This characterization is intentional; Dahl makes Patrick unlikable to gain the backing of readers. Given insight into Mary’s consciousness, readers follow her shock and sorrow, invited into her interiority and grieving alongside her. Patrick’s unjust treatment crashes violently through her, a painful process that Dahl purposefully describes in depth. Building sympathy and outrage at this injustice, it is easier for readers to absorb Patrick’s death. Indeed, his death invokes a sense of justice: he chooses to betray the couple’s vows and violate their marriage, so he dies for it. Readers might feel vindicated by Mary’s deadly break from her once-characteristic passivity, cheering her on and reveling in the vigilantism of her actions.
Yet this sympathy is burdened by complicity. Context aside, she is now guilty of murder. Life has been lost, swiftly and brutally stolen by a blow from behind. There is nothing fair or just in this vengeance. Readers—and Mary herself—diminish the deed: “All right, she told herself. So I’ve killed him.” Rather than a devastating moral lapse or condemnable act, she frames Patrick’s death simply and matter-of-factly. She does not deny her fault, but neither does she bemoan it. He is dead, and she has killed him. Dahl tells the story in a limited third-person point of view that grants readers insight into Mary’s thoughts. As such, the assumptions, biases, and emotions that inform her perspective directly influence the conclusions readers draw. By diminishing the weight of her actions and emphasizing her rightful anger, the narrative draws readers into collusion, making them complicit in Mary’s crime.
While readers are made morally complicit, Mary makes the investigating officers physically complicit. At her invitation, they consume the leg of lamb and destroy the evidence that would implicate Mary. Their actions not only mold them into unknowing co-conspirators, but also reinforce the injustice of Patrick’s murder. He was brutally killed, attacked from behind unexpectedly; now, there is no hope of correcting this injustice. Even in death, the unjust end to his life remains unresolved. The story ends as Mary giggles; she has successfully gotten away with murder. In this story, there is no justice to be had, as readers and characters alike carry the burden of Mary’s actions.