Lamb to the Slaughter

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Gender and Marriage Theme Icon
Role Reversals Theme Icon
Food/Consumption Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
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Betrayal Theme Icon

Patrick’s betrayal of his marriage drives the rest of the story’s plot, leading to both his wife’s betrayal and that of his colleagues. When he leaves his wife, Patrick betrays not only the love Mary has for him but also the unborn child she is carrying and their private domestic life together. At the sudden breakdown of her marriage and the world she built around Patrick, Mary commits her own betrayal by killing her husband. Covering up the murder primarily for the sake of her child, Mary calls the police, maintaining a façade of innocence and manipulating the policemen to inadvertently commit a betrayal of their own. As they investigate the murder, the policemen unknowingly betray both their former colleague and their profession by drinking whiskey on the job and by eating the evidence, ironically speculating in another example of Dahl’s black humor that the murder weapon is “right under our very noses.” Through this succession of betrayals, Dahl seems to be suggesting that betrayal begets betrayal, that disloyalty and deception will only lead to more treachery.

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Betrayal ThemeTracker

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Betrayal Quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter

Below you will find the important quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter related to the theme of Betrayal.
Lamb to the Slaughter Quotes

And I know it’s kind of a bad time to be telling you, but there simply wasn’t any other way. Of course I’ll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn’t be very good for my job.

Related Characters: Patrick Maloney (the husband) (speaker), Mary Maloney
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Breaking his post-work routine, Patrick tells Mary that he is abandoning her and their unborn child, and he does so in a very condescending, patriarchal manner. He claims that Mary will be “looked after,” assuming that she is little more than a financially dependent creature, and he minimizes her emotions as “fuss.” Though Patrick does not altogether renounce his responsibility as breadwinner, he betrays Mary by rejecting her role as his wife, further skewing the power imbalance of their relationship. Patrick’s hope that Mary will not make a “fuss” for the sake of his job as a detective shows that he privileges the public sphere and work over the private domestic life and relationship Mary has built around him.


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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.

“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.