Lamb to the Slaughter


Roald Dahl(1916-1919) was a British novelist, short story writer and poet. His first published work A Piece of Cake, in the Saturday evening post was an account of the incident when he was at the Royal Air force.

Short Summary of Lamb to the Slaughter

This darkly humorous story is a modern, yet classic tale of irony and suspense. Mary Maloney eagerly awaits her husband Patrick’s arrival home from work. When he finally arrives, it is obvious that something is wrong. He tells his wife that that he is leaving her. Shocked beyond reply, Mary begins cooking dinner. She grabs a large leg of lamb from the freezer. She walks up behind her husband and hits him on the head with the frozen meat, killing him. Then she places the leg of lamb into the hot oven. To establish an alibi, she goes out to the market and calmly asks the shopkeeper for potatoes and peas for her husband’s dinner. When she returns home, she calls the police, pretending to have just discovered her husband’s body.

Hours later, as the police search for the murder weapon, Mary begs them all to eat the leg of lamb she has cooked so that it won’t go to waste. The story ends with a final ironic twist as the police officers consume the leg of lamb, all while discussing the mysterious disappearance of the murder weapon.

Title of Lamb to a slaughter

Lamb to a slaughter is a phrase from the Bible that means in an unconcerned manner. The allusion refers to the helplessness of the innocent lambs that are being led to the slaughter.

The lambs are oblivious of the imminent catastrophe that awaits them, lambs are also supposed to be helpless. In this story, the figure of the lamb takes on two roles: as both a victim and a source of violence or sacrifice. Both Mary and her husband Patrick take on the roles of figurative lambs as they sacrifice each other. However, while Patrick sacrifices Mary’s role as his wife by leaving the marriage, Mary sacrifices Patrick’s life, killing him with a frozen leg of lamb. The transformation of the lamb from an object of sacrifice to a tool of violence signals Mary’s transformation from submissive housewife to violent killer, and resonates in the double meaning and black humour of the story’s title: whereas the Maloneys are both lambs to be slaughtered figuratively or literally, the lamb, or rather the frozen leg of lamb, is also used as an instrument of slaughter. Once the policemen are called to investigate Patrick’s murder, then, the lamb comes to represent both a sacrifice for the detectives (as food) and a weapon against them (as that sacrifice as food entails the destruction of evidence).

Questions and Answers

1. Why does Mrs Maloney go to the store to purchase groceries?

A. She needs an alibi to prove that she was not at home.

2 . What was Mr Maloney?

A. Mr Maloney was a detective

3 . What was Mrs Maloney’s intention in getting the lamb from the freezer?

A. She thinks that if she goes back to her business then things would turn normal

4.Who is Jack Noonan?

A. Jack Noonan is a policeman

II.Answer the following questions in a sentence or two each

1. What might be the probable reasons for Patrick to leave his wife?

The probable reasons are Patrick might have fallen in love with another woman or may be blackmailed or might be chased by enemies.

2 . Pick out the evidence from the story to show that Patrick is uneasy about revealing to his wife that he is leaving her?

Ans. Patrick was uneasy as he did an unusual thing. He lifted his glass and drained it in one swallow although there was still half of it. Whenever Mrs Maloney asked about the fetching the food or slippers he just told her to sit down. Before he disclosed about his intention to leave her, he kept his head down and was nervous. He knew very well that it would be a shock for her. He told her that he thought about it a good deal and has decided to tell her right away.

3 .“It wasn’t till then that she began to get frightened “what finally frightened Mrs Maloney?

Ans. When Mrs Maloney offered to cook something for Patrick and got up to go to the kitchen, he asked her to sit down. When she repeatedly insisted that she would get something for him, he asked her to sit down at least for a minute. This showed that he wanted to tell something to her . It was then that she began to get frightened.

4 . How did Mary react to Patrick’s news?
Ans. When Mary heard the news her first instinct was not to believe any of it, to reject it all. It occurred to her that perhaps he hadn’t even spoken, that she herself had imagined the whole thing.

She thought that if she went about her business and acted as though she hadn’t been listening then she might find none of it had ever happened.

5. Do you think that the murder of Mr Maloney is a planned murder? Why? Why not?

Ans. No, the murder of Mr Maloney cannot be considered as a planned murder. It was due to a sudden fit of the moment that she killed him. When he told her that he was going out, she might have got the hint that he was leaving her. The thought of killing her husband might not have occurred to her until she took the lamb. Mary simply walked up behind him and without any pause strikes him with the leg of the lamb.

6 . How do you know that police have not ruled Mrs Maloney as a probable suspect?

Ans. The police have not ruled Mrs Maloney out as a probable suspect because one of the policemen says to Jack Noonan that the murder weapon is right there on the premises right under their noses.

7 .“It would be a favour to me if you eat it up.” How would it be a favour to Mary?

Ans. It would be a favour because by eating the lamb they are actually destroying the evidence of the murder and Mrs Maloney would be saved.

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8 . Who according to you are/is the lamb/s is the story? Who or what is being slaughtered?

Ans. In this story, the figure of the lamb takes on two roles: as both a victim and a source of violence or sacrifice. Both Mary and her husband Patrick take on the roles of figurative lambs as they sacrifice each other. However, while Patrick sacrifices Mary’s role as his wife by leaving the marriage, Mary sacrifices Patrick’s life, killing him with a frozen leg of lamb. By eating the lamb the policemen are slaughtering the evidence of the murder.

II Answer the following questions in a paragraph

1. Do you think Mary really loved her husband? Support your answer by quoting from the text.

Ans. Mary lovedher husband because she would patiently wait for his return after work glancing at the clock every now and then. She used to kiss him as he came in. she enjoyed the company of her husband after the long hours of loneliness in the house. She loved to luxuriate in the presence of him and felt his presence as a sunbather feels the sun. She loved the way he sat in the chair. The way he came in a door and his mouth, eyes and every movement and keeps calm until he finishes the drink. She is very kind and considerate and tries to satisfy his needs in all the possible way. She repeatedly insists that she would prepare food for him as she cannot bear the thought of letting him hungry. When she returned back from the grocers and sees the dead body of her husband, she couldn’t control her tears. It was not a pretention. This shows that her love was genuine.

2 The author does not reveal what Patrick’s reasons were, for leaving his wife. Why do you think the author does so?

Ans. The author doesn’t reveal the reasons for Patrick’s leaving of his wife because he allows the readers to use their imagination thereby participating in the story.

Guided Questions

1 Read the opening paragraphs. What are your first impressions of the main character, Mary Maloney? Think about the room she is in and its atmosphere, her mood, and her attitude towards her husband.

Ans. Mary appears to be a serene, caring, attentive wife, who prepares carefully and lovingly for her husband’s return from work. The room is warm and clean, there are drinks ready, and she sews as she waits. She knows exactly when he will be back, and looks forward to the ritual of his homecoming. She seems content and happy in her domestic role, since she smiles to herself, and is described as “tranquil”. She is also six months pregnant, which makes her look particularly serene and feminine. She appears to be a conventional “feminine ideal” or stereotype.

2 What is the first sign of conflict between Mary Maloney and her husband? How does Mary respond? Quote from the text.

Ans. The first sign of conflict is when Mary’s husband refuses supper, and this makes Mary feel “uneasy” because he is disrupting a well-established ritual. When he tells her tersely to “sit down”, she begins to be frightened. “She lowered herself back slowly into the chair, watching him all the time with those large, bewildered eyes.”

3 Can you guess what Mr Maloney says to his wife? Does it matter? Why or why not?

Ans. We are not told what Patrick says to Mary, although we suspect it must be something that completely disrupts her sense of security and serenity. It is not what is said that is important, but the impact it has on Mary: how it completely changes her view of her safe little world, and ultimately her behaviour.

4. At the climax of the story, Mary kills her husband with a most surprising murder weapon. What is it?

Ans. Mary kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb.

5. Why are we so surprised and shocked when Mary kills her husband? Did you suspect what would happen? Why or why not?

Ans. We are shocked by the murder because of our first impressions of Mary as a serene, tranquil and passive wife and mother-to-be. There is nothing in the story to warn us of what Mary is about to do: when she gets the leg of lamb from the deep freeze, we believe she is going to make supper. Because Mary is initially a stereotype of a “perfect” wife and housewife, we cannot foresee that she will murder her husband.

6. In most murder mysteries, the murders are carefully planned beforehand. Here, all the planning happens afterwards. Why does Mary go shopping after killing Patrick?

Ans. She goes to the grocer so that she may calmly pretend to be shopping for her husband’s supper, thus allowing an “intruder” to enter the house and commit the murder while she is out. Mary goes shopping to establish an alibi.

7. What kind of murder weapon do the police look for?

Ans. The police look for a blunt instrument.

8. What makes this the perfect murder?

Ans. This is a perfect murder because Mary can transform the murder weapon from a lethal leg of frozen meat into a delectable supper. Also, the policemen end up eating the murder weapon, unwittingly destroying the evidence.

9. Do you think the title of the story works well? (Think about its different possible meanings.)

Ans. The title works very well because it contains different possible meanings. Firstly, it refers to the leg of lamb that Mary uses to murder her husband and then roasts to destroy the evidence. Secondly, it uses a well-known proverb to refer to Patrick, who is compared to an innocent lamb led to slaughter. (It might in fact also refer to Mary – initially as innocent as a lamb – who is “led to slaughter” her husband).

10. What does Patrick Maloney say to Mary that causes her to snap, bring the frozen leg of lamb down on the back of his head?

Ans. Patrick tells his wife that he will be leaving her.

11. Is Mary Maloney’s murder of her husband premeditated or spontaneous? Explain your answer.

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Ans. Mary’s murder of her husband is not premeditated because it was not a thought out, developed plan. Upon hearing the news from her husband, “…everything was automatic now…” She was in a state of shock when she swung the leg of lamb over her husband’s head.

12. What is Mary Maloney’s motive for trying to get away with murder?

Ans. After murdering her husband, Mary accepts her actions. However, once she starts thinking about it, she does not know what would happen to her child. Would it be taken? Killed? Jailed with her?

13. Why does Mary Maloney go to the grocery to shop for a meal she does not plan to serve?

Ans. She goes to the store so that she can have an alibi for the murder of her husband.

14. How can you account for Mary Maloney’s shock and grief when she returns home to find Patrick’s body on the floor?

Ans. She believed that she was serving dinner when she came home, so when she saw her husband lying on the floor, she was in shock and emotionally responded by bawling and hysterically crying.

Hint: Before answering, #13 CONNECT: Is it easy to believe something that turns your world upside down – a shocking new reality that replaces the world as you knew it? Does it seem like a dream at first? If you’ve had an experience like this, give an example.

15. How does Mary Maloney get the police to help her dispose of the murder weapon?

Ans. She serves them the leg of lamb for dinner, thus disposing of any evidence that the police could connect to the murder.

16. How is being a detective’s wife a help to Mary Maloney?

Ans. She knows how crimes are treated/investigated; she is able to identify the loopholes in the system.

17. How does the fact that the detectives knew both Patrick and Mary Maloney affect their investigation?

Ans. They were “kind” to her the entire time during the investigation. They might not be able to look at the investigation objectively.

18. Roald Dahl means for his readers to identify with Mary Maloney, to be on her side, and to giggle with her while the investigators munch on the murder weapon. List strategies Dahl uses to make Mary Maloney a sympathetic character (and Patrick Maloney an unsympathetic one)?


i. Mary is pregnant and her husband is leaving her.

ii. She is a loving, dedicated, and devoted wife; while her husband is portrayed as cold-hearted, unkind, and uncaring.

iii. She is portrayed as the victim the entire time.

Text-Based Questions

Q. At the beginning of the text, how does Dahl describe Mary’s characteristics? What textual evidence does the author use to describe Mary and her house in order to achieve this effect?

Ans. Mary is described as a neat and seemingly content housewife. She has a calm demeanour and is almost saint-like. Dahl writes, “There was a slow smiling air about her and about everything she did. The drop of a head as she bent over her sewing was curiously tranquil. Her skin -for this was her sixth month with child-had acquired a wonderful translucent quality, the mouth was soft, and the eyes, with their new placid look, seemed larger darker than before.” She is the one taking care of her husband making him drinks and taking care of his every need. Mary’s seeming contentment is shown in the following passage: “She, on her side, was content to sit quietly, enjoying his company after the long hours alone in the house. 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. She loved him for the way he sat loosely in a chair, for the way he came in a door or moved slowly across the room with long strides. She loved the intent, far look in his eyes when they rested in her, the funny shape of the mouth, and especially the way he remained silent about his tiredness.”

Q. Describe Patrick’s characteristics. What textual evidence does the author use to describe him in order to achieve this effect?

Ans. When the reader first sees Patrick, he might be described as in control, emotionally detached and self-centred. Although he enters the house “punctually” as always, his behaviour shows that he is a bit nervous and something is different this evening. He plays with his glass filled with ice, “holding the tall glass with both hands, rocking it so the ice cubes tinkled against the side.” Dahl’s continued use of the verb “said” to describe Patrick’s dialogue rather than using adjectives which convey emotion can add to the sense of detachment and also provide a sense of ambiguity about his motives. As he prepares to give Mary the news, Dahl writes, “He had now become absolutely motionless, and he kept his head down so that the light from the lamp beside him fell across the upper part of his face, leaving the chin and mouth in shadow. She [Mary] noticed there was a little muscle moving near the corner of his left eye.” The image from the light begins to paint him as negative, in the dark. The little muscle movement could show a little loss of control but still overwhelmingly emotionless. He asked not to be blamed, but as he gives her the news, Mary watches him “with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word.” During this time, the author gives no indication of the motivation for leaving, adding to the sense of ambiguity of the situation. Finally, although he admits it is a “bad time” for the news (she is pregnant), he hopes that there will be no “fuss” because it would not be “very good” for his job. After he tells her this, he does not turn around to face or address her even when she approaches him from behind with the leg of lamb.

Q. Dahl describes the husband’s glass of whisky and ice several times. How is it described? Why do you think he focuses on this object? Cite textual evidence to support your analysis.
Ans. The ice in the glass is described at various times as tinkling “against the side” and “falling against the bottom of the empty glass.” Also, “She [Mary] hears the ice cubes clinking against the side of the glass.” (318) Dahl focuses on the sound of the ice cubes to give readers an understanding of the atmosphere, tension, and the almost deadly silence in the room.

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Q. Describe the ways that Patrick’s demeanour and comments change Mary. Why does Mary undergo these changes? Use textual evidence to prove the effect Patrick’s comments have on Mary’s actions.

Ans. Patrick treats her very brusquely telling her to sit down. After he has a second drink and refuses dinner for a second time, he tells her to “sit down…just for a minute, sit down.” This is the first direct order he has given her, a break from the placid personality she has come to expect. He then tells matter-of-fact that he is leaving her. Her actions show her changing from adoring to horrified to robotic (see examples above).

Q. How does Mary’s behaviour at the grocery shop contradict what has happened earlier in the story?
Ans. Before going out, she rehearses her smile and greeting, so that she will be able to smile “brightly” at the man behind the counter and have a conversation about needing potatoes and vegetables for the dinner she wants the clerk to think she is making since her husband has said he was “tired and doesn’t want to eat out tonight.” She is able to provide a believable alibi for her time. Although before she was “horrified” regarding the events of the night, now she is in control planning her alibi.

Q. Reread the paragraph that begins with “And now, she told herself as she hurried back…” This paragraph starts off with a long sentence. How does the structure of the sentence reflect her thinking at that moment?
Ans. This is where either she becomes a very calculating murderer, planning the steps to her alibi and the way she will be able to get away with the murder, or the point where she breaks totally with reality. The semicolons link like ideas so that all of the sections of this passage are equal in value. Using the conjunction “and” seven times in the passage adds to the layering of pieces of her story. She is trying to explain the events as logically as she could. The length of the sentence also indicates a sense of rambling which may be caused by Mary’s nervousness. Her mind seems to be racing and she is frantic while trying to keep her body as calm as can be.

Q. The police officers do not suspect Mary for the murder. How does her behaviour play a role in assuring this didn’t happen?
Ans. She played the role of a distraught wife. For example, she wept hysterically when the officers first came and later continued to sob as she told her story of discovery. The officers did not suspect she was the murderer, they treated her kindly but they only quickly (back in fifteen minutes) checked out her alibi. After it was verified, they seem to have lost interest in her as a suspect. She continued to act innocent as she felt she couldn’t move and didn’t feel too good while the investigation was happening. Finally, she could not “touch a thing” of the meal she had prepared once it was cooked.

Q. What happens to the murder weapon? How does Dahl assure his readers understand the irony of this event? Cite the evidence from the story that foreshadows this event.
Ans. The police eat the lamb in the end when Mary offers to feed them. It is literally “under their nose” when that statement is made. Dahl foreshadows this event from the point when Mary takes the leg of lamb, “placed it in a pan, turned the oven on high and shoved it inside.” The cooking meat is again referred to during her trip to the store as she admits to “cooking it frozen” and “taking a chance on it this time.” The grocer becomes an accomplice when he lets her know he doesn’t “believe it makes any difference” when, in fact, cooking does make a difference to her getting away with the crime. Just as the detectives’ voices were “think and sloppy because their mouths were full of meat,” their investigation was sloppy as well. Finally, they admit that she wanted them to finish it as they would be doing her a favour. While they believe that favour was born from hospitality, when, in fact, they did her the favor by destroying the evidence.

Q. Notice how the lighting changes during the course of the text. Cite evidence to show how the lighting has changed. How does this change in imagery reflect the changing character of Mary? Cite textual evidence to support your opinion.
Ans. At the beginning of the short text, both lamps are “alight” in the room. At the grocery store, the lights are still on. When the officers appear to investigate, it is dark outside, and Mary notices “ the flash of a torch through a chink in the curtain.”

Mary’s character mirrors the light. She seems content and happy at the beginning symbolized by the lamps being alight. Her soul begins to get dark after she kills her husband and the final darkening of her soul is when she has the officers eat the murder weapon.

Q. Read the Quick Write regarding the allusion to the phrase “going like a lamb to the slaughter.” Why does Dahl title this story “Lamb to the Slaughter?” Who is the “lamb” in the story? Who, or what is being “slaughtered”?

Ans. “Like lamb to slaughter” is a biblical allusion, usually referring to the sacrifice of an innocent, but here it could have many interpretations:

Mary the innocent lamb being slaughtered by her husband’s words and actions.

• The irony of Mary (the lamb), killing her husband.

• The weapon, a leg of lamb, being cooked and eaten (slaughtered) by the officers.

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