Lamb to the Slaughter

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Lamb/Leg of lamb Symbol Analysis

Lamb/Leg of lamb Symbol Icon

Traditionally the lamb is portrayed as a gentle submissive creature, associated with ritual or religious sacrifice (especially in Judeo-Christian tradition). 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 humor 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).

Lamb/Leg of lamb Quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter

The Lamb to the Slaughter quotes below all refer to the symbol of Lamb/Leg of lamb. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Gender and Marriage Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Lamb to the Slaughter published in 1990.
Lamb to the Slaughter Quotes

At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head.
She might just as well have hit him with a steel club.
She stepped back a pace, waiting, and the funny thing was that he remained standing there for at least four or five seconds, gently swaying. Then he crashed to the carpet.

Related Characters: Mary Maloney, Patrick Maloney (the husband)
Related Symbols: Lamb/Leg of lamb
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

After Patrick informs Mary that he is leaving her, she strikes him on the head with a frozen leg of lamb. An example of Dahl’s black humor, the frozen meat is compared to a steel club, anticipating the policemen’s later search for the murder weapon. The narrator, breaking into subjectivity and indulging in black humor, then observes the comic effect of the husband’s corpse swaying in the air before falling down.

Mary responds to Patrick’s betrayal by performing a betrayal of her own—by killing him. Her murder weapon, the leg of lamb, further represents her transformation. Whereas the lamb is often portrayed as a docile, sacrificial creature, now it is used for violence. Similarly, Patrick’s betrayal transforms Mary from a submissive and subordinate housewife to a violent murderer.

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Sometimes Jack Noonan spoke to her gently as he passed by. Her husband, he told her, had been killed by a blow on the back of the head administered with a heavy blunt instrument, almost certainly a large piece of metal. They were looking for the weapon. The murderer may have taken it with him, but on the other hand he may’ve thrown it away or hidden it somewhere on the premises.

“It’s the old story,” he said. “Get the weapon, and you’ve got the man.”

Related Characters: Jack Noonan (speaker), Mary Maloney, Patrick Maloney (the husband)
Related Symbols: Lamb/Leg of lamb
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

While the policemen search for evidence, Jack Noonan explains to Mary that her husband probably died of a blow from a blunt metal instrument. Never considering the possibility that a frozen piece of meat, a symbol of domesticity and innocence (particularly because of the symbolic associations of the lamb), could be the murder weapon, Noonan makes another false assumption when he describes the murderer as a man. Using masculine pronouns such as “him” and “he,” Noonan relies on “the old story” — one in which only men are capable of violence or physical strength. The irony of his claim, “Get the weapon, and you’ve got the man,” is the central irony of the story: the police indeed “get the weapon” — by eating it — but fail to catch the woman.

“Here you all are, and good friends of dear Patrick’s too, and helping to catch the man who killed him. You must be terribly hungry by now because it’s long past your supper time, and I know Patrick would never forgive me, God bless his soul, if I allowed you to remain in his house without offering you decent hospitality. Why don’t you eat up that lamb that’s in the oven? It’ll be cooked just right by now.”

Related Characters: Mary Maloney (speaker), Patrick Maloney (the husband), Jack Noonan, O’Malley
Related Symbols: Lamb/Leg of lamb
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

After hours of searching for the murder weapon, the policemen are persuaded by Mary to rest and eat the leg of lamb, which by now has finished cooking. Mary again plays the role of homemaker and caregiver by offering the men food—but unbeknownst to them, it is not for their sakes that she does so, as it once was for Patrick’s, but rather for the sake of herself and her child. Mary’s deceit invites the men to betray both Patrick and their profession, turning the policemen into her unwitting accomplices. Invoking her husband’s name, she is able to persuade them to eat the lamb, destroying the weapon she used to kill their former friend and colleague.

The woman stayed where she was, listening to them through the open door, and she could hear them speaking among themselves, their voices thick and sloppy because their mouths were full of meat.

“That’s the hell of a big club the guy must’ve used to hit poor Patrick,” one of them was saying. “The doc says his skull was smashed all to pieces just like from a sledge-hammer.”

“Personally, I think it’s 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.

Related Characters: Mary Maloney, Patrick Maloney (the husband), Jack Noonan
Related Symbols: Lamb/Leg of lamb
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrator becomes more distant from the protagonist, Mary is eavesdropping on the men’s conversation while they finish off the lamb. The men’s speculation that the murder weapon is “under [their] very noses” is another example of Dahl’s black humor and irony. As the men eat their supper, the lamb functions as a weapon against themselves and their job, and as a betrayal of Patrick. Not only do the men fail to detect the murderer and even destroy evidence, but they also engage in (possible) cannibalism, wolfing down the material transferred from Patrick’s body to the leg of lamb. In doing so, they become Mary’s accomplices and allow the emergence of another irony in the story; whereas before Patrick had been consumed with his work, now he is consumed by his work.

Once Patrick leaves Mary, the narrator associates her womanhood with coldness by having Mary feed the murder weapon to her victim’s friends and laugh as they wonder where it might be. Dahl’s portrayal of “the woman” (no longer named as Mary) as either warm and submissive in marriage or murderous and deceitful without marriage, is arguably a stereotypical representation of women as dependent on men for moral and social stability.

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Lamb/Leg of lamb Symbol Timeline in Lamb to the Slaughter

The timeline below shows where the symbol Lamb/Leg of lamb appears in Lamb to the Slaughter. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lamb to the Slaughter
Gender and Marriage Theme Icon
Food/Consumption Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
...has happened. Absently, she goes down to the cellar and grabs a frozen leg of lamb for dinner. When she returns, her husband tells her not to bother, as he is... (full context)
Role Reversals Theme Icon
Food/Consumption Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
...to her husband and bashes the back of his head with the frozen leg of lamb, which the narrator notes is as effective as a steel club. The husband’s body sways... (full context)
Food/Consumption Theme Icon
To do so, Mary puts the murder weapon, the leg of lamb, into the oven and lets it cook. She then washes her hands, fixes her appearance,... (full context)
Gender and Marriage Theme Icon
Role Reversals Theme Icon
Food/Consumption Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
Sergeant Noonan notices that the lamb is still in the oven and offers to turn it off for her. Mary then... (full context)
Gender and Marriage Theme Icon
Role Reversals Theme Icon
Food/Consumption Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
...the narrator calls her, stays in the other room, listening to the men eat the lamb and talk about the murder weapon. When the men speculate that it is “right here... (full context)