By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is a 1953 short story by Roald Dahl (1916-90), which was initially rejected for publication but was later adapted for television on several occasions. Included in Dahl’s collections Someone Like You (1953) and Tales of the Unexpected (1979), the story is about a wife who murders her unfaithful husband with a frozen leg of lamb before hatching a plan to ensure she isn’t caught for her crime.
Before we offer an analysis of ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, it might be worth recapping the plot of Dahl’s story.
‘Lamb to the Slaughter’: plot summary
Mary Maloney is waiting at home for her husband, Patrick, to get home from work. He is a detective. She is six months pregnant with their child. When he gets home, she pours them both a drink and notices that Patrick has drained his glass more swiftly than he usually does. He pours himself another whisky before revealing to his wife that he plans to leave her.
Mary is stunned by this revelation, and initially wants to act as though it hasn’t happened. She decides to go and get some food from the freezer that she can cook for their dinner. She finds a leg of lamb in the freezer, and when her husband announces he’s going out, she strikes him on the back of the head with the lamb leg, killing him.
Immediately she starts to think about how to cover her tracks so she won’t be caught. She puts the meat in the oven to cook. After rehearsing what she will say to the nearby grocer, she goes out to his shop and buys some potatoes and peas to go with the roast lamb. When talking to the grocer, Sam, she acts as though everything is all right and her husband is waiting for her back home.
When she returns home, she talks herself into believing her husband is still alive, so she is genuinely shocked when she sees his body lying on the floor. She phones the police to report that he has been murdered, and a group of detectives – who knew Patrick from work – show up to investigate his death.
The detectives make a thorough search of the house, believing that Patrick was murdered by a heavy metal implement. So they search for something that could have been used as the murder weapon. They remain in the house for so long that Mary offers them all a drink. They reluctantly accept and, when she is reminded of the lamb cooking in the oven, she suggests that they eat it since they must be hungry.
Again, they agree, and as they sit around the table eating the leg of lamb which killed their former colleague, they remain oblivious to the fact that they are, in fact, destroying the evidence themselves. In the next room, Mary giggles.
‘Lamb to the Slaughter’: analysis
Dahl’s story was suggested by his friend Ian Fleming, who created James Bond. Dahl adapted Fleming’s Bond novel You Only Live Twice for the big screen; he also co-wrote the screenplay for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was also based on a Fleming novel. And it was Fleming who suggested the idea for ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, telling his friend that he should write a story about a woman who murders her wife with a leg of mutton (not lamb) which she then serves to the investigating officers.
‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ can be categorised as a horror story (although given the lack of any supernatural element, ‘thriller’ is perhaps a more apposite label), although we should also pay attention to the darkly humorous elements of the tale: features in keeping with Dahl’s writing as a whole.
The story reflects – but then subverts – a common trope of the early 1950s: namely, the wife as the faithful homemaker while the husband goes out to work. At the beginning of ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, Mary Maloney cannot do enough for her husband, waiting patiently and eagerly for him to arrive home, fetching his drink, asking him about his day. But when the stability of her world crumbles in a few minutes, when Patrick tells her that he is leaving her (although it isn’t mentioned, we assume he has met someone else), she changes very quickly – and easily – from dutiful wife to cold-blooded murderer.
In other words, once the role she has settled into over the years, that of being ‘Mrs Patrick Maloney’, is taken away from her, she finds herself able to switch in and out of that role with ease. After a brief rehearsal at home, she is able to convince the grocer that she is still the dutiful wife once again: an act she performs again for the policemen.
Dahl makes it clear that she doesn’t murder her husband out of fear of being penniless without the money from him, the breadwinner of the family: he makes it clear he will continue to provide for her financially. Instead, her motive is more complex. Does she kill him out of jealousy or spite, or resentment at having conceived the child of a man who doesn’t even intend to hang around long enough to see it born?
Dahl leaves these questions open for us to discuss. Note how, in the moments preceding that decisive moment when she strikes her husband with the leg of lamb, her movements become automatic, as if she is being guided by some other force. Her unconscious? The concentrated righteous anger of ‘a woman scorned’? Dahl tells us that she ‘simply’ walked up to her husband and struck him with the lamb. It is as if she is performing some perfunctory task, almost as though the mundane and automatic business of housework has been extrapolated to incorporate the business of murder. She doesn’t appear to lash out in a moment of fury, cold or otherwise. It is almost as if she feels she has no other choice.
There is obviously a grim irony in the method she uses to dispatch her husband. The roast joint cooking in the oven is the symbol par excellence of the good 1950s housewife, feeding her husband after a long day at work. There is also symbolism in the fact that this food, meant to be an offering from wife to husband, is used instead to kill the husband, with the deadly weapon being given instead to a host of other men (who, as policemen, are also stand-ins for the dead husband in some respects).
In the last analysis, then, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is a short story about how easily the meek and loving housewife can transform into a cold and calculating killer. It is Mary’s sudden change that makes the story so unsettling, and the lack of remorse she shows for her crime; but her choice of murder weapon and method of disposing of the evidence make this story as much black comedy as out-and-out horror tale.