Monday, September 3, 2018

Roald Dahl - Lamb to the Slaughter (Overview)
Some stories you know will be great the minute you read their title. Combine this fact with the name of their author and the result is a fireworks display. 

Roald Dahl has written some of the most memorable stories in the last century because of their quirkiness and deep sense of raw reality disguised in simple, straight-forward prose. And like any good classic short stories, his behave in a way that make readers search for an alternative reality that will explain the whys and wherefores of human behavior.

Patrick Maloney tells his pregnant wife he's leaving her. "What will Mary do about it?" is the question in a reader's mind and how is this tied to the title of the story? As is plain, from the get-go, questions arise that grow in number as the story progresses and leave us either giggling at the end of it alongside Mary or wriggling uneasily in our seats.

Whatever the case may be,  this is a great story to discuss with others, which is why it is a favorite among teachers. The following notes (intended for both teachers and students) are interpolated from time to time with questions that are sure to start class discussions. For literature fans who have come across this story for the first time, these notes should help them ponder on some of the things that make this story such a masterpiece.

Read the story here. (Note: there are quite a few errors in spelling and such throughout it, but unfortunately, this is the best I could find online.)

Roald Dahl – Lamb to the Slaughter


    • 1916-1990, British (born in Wales), of Norwegian parents
    • over 250 million copies of his books sold
    • when he was 3 yrs old, his 7-yr-old sister died of appendicitis; a few weeks later his father died as well
    • served in the RAF during WWII
    • later was sent to the US as air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington DC
    • helped develop Wade-Dahl-Till valve to help his 4-month-old son overcome hydrocephalus after being hit by a cab in NYC
    • supporter of immunization after his 7-year-old daughter died of measles-induced encephalitis
    • best known for his children’s stories (James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda) and macabre adult tales (Tales of the Unexpected)
    • “Lamb to the Slaughter” published in 1953


    • Thursday afternoon (before 5 pm – a little after 9 pm)
    • modern-day, normal neighborhood with a grocery store within walking distance, houses with gardens and garages, Thermos buckets for afternoon drinks, sideboards, cellars with freezers
    • paragraph 1: list of short images creating a cameo of middle-class, cozy, homey normalcy
      • only 2 verbs (2nd one with omission of passive verb ‘to be’) = frugality of words


    • Mary Maloney, 6 months pregnant, waiting for her husband, Patrick Maloney, detective, to return
    • their usual Thursday routine of going out to eat is upset when Patrick announces he is leaving her (this is implied, not stated directly) but will support her financially and hopes she won’t make a fuss because it will be bad for his job
    • she insists they’ll stay in to eat and goes to fetch a leg of lamb from the freezer in the cellar
    • she kills him with it (brings “it down as hard as she could on the back of his head”) then places it in the oven to roast
    • she composes herself and walks over to the grocer’s to buy some potatoes and a can of peas
    • she returns and reports her husband’s death to the police who arrive on the scene
    • detectives check out her alibi and dismiss her as a suspect
    • Mary convinces the remaining detectives and policemen to eat the supper she prepared, disposing of the murder weapon in this way


    • Mary Maloney

      • domesticated & clingy
        • 1st image we have of her = woman waiting for her husband while sewing (passivity, docility)
        • she’s looking forward to seeing her husband, there is a “smiling air about her”
        • hangs coat in closet, makes drinks, wants to get his slippers for him, calls him “darling” in 5 out of the 10 times she speaks to him up until the moment he tells her he’s leaving her
        • sits many hours alone at home
        • follows a prescribed routine (drinks, supper, eating out on Thursdays, listens for his car to pull up 10 minutes before 5 pm, gets up to kiss him)
        • adores Patrick:
          • luxuriates in his presence
          • likens him to the sun
          • loved the way he sat, came in, moved, the look in his eyes

      • notices everything but misreads the signs
        • knows when his car pulls up, when he gets out, he unlocks the front door, how he wants his drinks, how he drinks first before talking to her about his day
        • signs:
          • notices he drinks his first drink too quickly, and his 2nd drink is stronger than usual but continues to talk about insignificant things (instead of asking him outright what’s wrong)
          • notices little muscle moving near corner of his left eye
          • he has an “intent, far look in his eyes”
          • funny shape of his mouth
          • the need to drink his first glass of alcohol quickly to take away the edge
        • deep down she knows the relationship isn’t stable or else she wouldn’t be so eager to please
          • repetition of “darling”
          • she wants to get him a second drink, get his slippers, cheese and crackers, make supper
        • after the news: she is in shock, disbelieves everything
          • her 1st reaction = “not believe any of it, to reject it all”
          • wants to pretend it never happened
          • feels nauseous
          • her actions become mechanical
        • Did she willingly turn a blind eye to how things were between them?
        • Was it her tactic of sweeping everything under the carpet that led to this result?
        • Does her pregnancy account for her frame of mind?

      • change of character
        • she becomes rational, a cold, distant, detached killer
          • “All right, she told herself. So, I’ve killed him.” = turning point in the narrative  for characterization
          • thinks fast about 2 things
            • penalty for murder would be a relief for her
            • safety of her child (even considers laws concerning pregnant murderesses)
        • becomes the sublime actress
          • rehearses her smile, sound of her voice, what she’ll say to the grocer
          • throws herself in her role as grieving wife: imagines how she’ll react to the sight of her dead husband when she returns from the grocery store
          • “It was easy. No acting was necessary.” ⇒ she has disassociated herself from her murderous act completely
          • after the police arrive she plays the victim
            • looks at officers with “large, dark tearful eyes”
            • sobs while they check her story with Sam the grocer
            • doesn’t feel well enough just yet to go lie down in bed
            • asks for a drink (but gets other officers to have one as well, as if to celebrate her victory)
        • from docile to person in charge
          • has the police dispose of the murder weapon
        • Can we say that Mary suffers from dissociative identity disorder / schizophrenia or is her change in character not a change at all?

      • her name
        • title and Mary’s name creates biblical allusion irony
        • Mary as mother of God gave birth to a savior
          • she created life that gave mankind redemption
          • symbol of protective, motherly love and compassion
          • paragon of giving
        • Mary Maloney wields death
          • the blow she gave was so heavy that it is characterized like that made by a sledgehammer = her hatred for him is all-consuming
          • presents contrasting characteristics to those the Virgin Mary stands for: hatred instead of love, taker of life instead of giver of life, destroys rather than creates
          • Dahl’s Mary presents ambivalence not seen in biblical Mary: incorporates both life and death, love and hatred, protection and destruction, innocence and cunning (Dahl here proves there are no clear-cut extremes, just hazy lines between black and white)

    • Patrick Maloney
      • detective, Mary Maloney’s husband
      • seems cold, distant, detached, matter-of-fact from his few lines of dialogue
      • keeps to a routine, likes things done his way
      • worries about his job & professional image
      • downplays the severity of the issue
      • disregards Mary’s feelings and situation (pregnancy) = selfish
        • use of “I”: “…I’ve thought about it a good deal and I’ve decided the only thing to do is … I hope you won’t blame me too much.”
      • has avoided discussing marital problems (sweeps trouble under the carpet like Mary has done): this is proven by the fact that he says “This is going to be a bit of a shock to you, I’m afraid.”
      • realizes that
        • he is to blame (“…I hope you won’t blame me too much.”)
        • this is no time to be leaving his wife
        • she will have no means to support herself and the baby

but decides to drop the bomb on her nonetheless

      • paragon of selfishness

    • Sam
      • grocer
      • provides Mary with an alibi and clears her as a suspect by reporting to the detectives what she said and how she acted

    • Jack Noonan
      • police sergeant
      • on first-name terms with the Maloneys (Mary: “Jack … would you mind giving me a drink?”)
      • asks Mary if she wants to be taken somewhere else, be put up for the night at his home under his wife’s care

    • O’Malley & other police officers
      • stock characters: no details needed to define their character
      • Noonan, O’Malley and others who arrive on the scene are too quick to judge: believe they are intelligent and their conclusions are infallible
      • criticism of men’s inability to judge correctly because of their self-centeredness and sense of importance or criticism of women’s artifice + guile

    • Final comment on all the characters:
      • they are defined by what they do for a living, their characters have been molded by their jobs
        • Mary:
          • dull existence as housewife has made her needy
          • staying at home has made her notice things that others don’t (typical neighbourhood busybody) and therefore become more astute where details are concerned
          • others see her as a housewife (incapable of murder or impulsive behavior)
        • Patrick:
          • his higher rank has made him bossy, expect others to go along with his decisions
          • he doesn’t feel the need to discuss anything with his wife because this is how he acts at work
        • police officers:
          • draw conclusions based on what they have been taught to accept as fact
          • cannot imagine a woman would be capable of killing her husband if she acts normal minutes before or after killing him
      • all the characters in this story cannot imagine what others will do, what their state of mind is, what their breaking point is, how they will react once that breaking point is reached


    • phrase “lamb to the slaughter”
      • refers to an innocent being led to his/her doom unaware of this fact
      • originated from the Bible (allusion to the Old Testament) and foreshadowed the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ
        • customarily, animals were sacrificed to gods (idea of the sacrificial lamb)
          • to offer thanks
          • as an offering in return for sth asked
          • to appease their wrath
        • Isaac/Abraham story (the Binding of Isaac)
          • God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac (his only son from Sarah) as a test of obedience
          • God intervenes, stopping Abraham from sacrificing what was most precious to him
          • in this modern-day story, no god is present; man is left to his own devices, is forced to murder to feel vindicated or keep someone close to them
      • serves as a metaphor (original phrase is often used with the words “like” or “as”) which is what the entire story itself is
        • who is pushed to their slaughter?
          • Patrick for sure, but can he be characterized as a lamb?
          • loving Mary dies as well, becoming a deceitful killer
          • astute readers will also wonder about the fate of the story’s true lamb (the unborn child) and how its innocence will be “slaughtered” by its mother’s upbringing
      • makes connections between innocence (lamb) and destruction (slaughter)
      • foreshadows terrible event (and therefore induces the reader to read on)

    • who is the lamb in this case?
      • belief at the start (up until the murder) that Mary is the lamb = focus is on her eyes described as
        • “… and the eyes, with their new placid look, seemed larger, darker than before.”
        • “Now and again she would glance up at the clock…”
        • “She wasn’t really watching him…”
        • “When he came back she noticed that the new drink was dark amber…”
        • “She watched him as he began to sip the dark yellow drink…”
        • “Her eyes waited on him for an answer, a smile …”
        • “She moved uneasily in her chair, the large eyes still watching his face.”
        • “She lowered herself back slowly into the chair, watching him all the time with those large, bewildered eyes.” like an animal about to be hunted down
        • “It didn’t take long … and she sat very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror …”
      • after the murder, only 2-3 instances mention her noticing something = only direct mention is when she asks officers to eat dinner
        • “When the sergeant came the second time, she looked at him with her large, dark, tearful eyes.”
      • large, dark eyes linked to large, dark eyes of a lamb reversal of roles: Mary is the butcher, not the sacrificial lamb

Point of View

    • third person limited
      • reader sees what Mary’s thinking as an outsider recounts her moves/thoughts/what she hears others say
      • Dahl gradually eases readers into Mary’s mind with only few intermittent references to her inner thoughts which become more evident after Patrick says he’s leaving her
        • 5th sentence: reference to her not being anxious
        • 9th sentence: reference to Patrick’s usual punctual arrival
        • 15th sentence: “blissful time of day”
        • 7th paragraph generally shows her thoughts about Patrick
        • 24th paragraph: “She moved uneasily in her chair…”
        • “It wasn’t until then that she began to get frightened.”
        • “Her first instinct was …”: in this entire paragraph, we clearly are told what she is thinking in an indirect way, as if she has detached herself from who she is and “everything was automatic now”
        • when she thinks about her next move and rehearses in front of the mirror, we are told things only she would be thinking
          • “She tried a smile. It came out rather peculiar.”
          • That was better. Both the smile and the voice were coming out better now.”
      • this type of narrator makes the irony of the story stand out more sharply


    • conjugal relationships / domesticity
      • who has the upper hand? Who decides when a marriage is over?
      • what leads to the deterioration of such ties?
        • routine?
        • clinginess?
        • boredom?
        • middle-age complacency?
        • inability to take on responsibility?
        • fear of becoming domesticated?

    • male-female dynamics
      • story brings out suppositions people make based on preconceived notions of men’s + women’s nature
        • police officers’ politeness towards Mary stems entirely from her behavior towards Sam the grocer and her purchases at the grocery store: she bought nice things for supper, so there must be no problems in the marriage
        • their behavior towards Mary after their suspicions are put to rest are based on preconceptions of a grieving widow, a weak wife in shock
          • they are so blinded by this that any action of hers is seen as normal (would a grieving woman, after coming home from the grocery store and seeing her dead husband’s body ask somebody to eat dinner?)
      • basis for male – female interaction = women’s weakness vs men’s intellectual superiority

    • murder / acts of violence
      • Who kills? Who is capable of it and how can we recognize the signs that would lead to such an act?
      • What makes a bearer of life bring about someone’s death?
      • What pushes people to violence?
      • thin line between love and hatred


    • matter-of-fact
      • description of actions, scene, dialogue without sentiment
      • even thoughts are stated in a matter-of-fact way
      • lack of adverbs to explain or qualify further (for example: ‘“Hullo darling,’ she said” instead of “‘Hullo darling,’ she said tentatively/eagerly” and so on)
      • result: all conclusions are left up to the reader

    • ironic
      • dramatic irony:
        • detectives aren’t aware the murder weapon is right before their eyes
        • all remarks made by the police officers at the very end (“…it ought to be easy to find”, “… it’s right here on the premises”, “… right under our very noses”)

      • situational irony:
        • readers expect poor, innocent Mary to be devastated by Patrick’s news, but she comes out of the story the winner not the victim
        • none of the readers expected the detectives would dispose of the murder weapon by consuming it (it is assumed that, not having found it, they would simply leave the house)


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