Lamb to the Slaughter

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Food/Consumption Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Gender and Marriage Theme Icon
Role Reversals Theme Icon
Food/Consumption Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Lamb to the Slaughter, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Food/Consumption Theme Icon

Much of “Lamb to the Slaughter” is occupied with eating and food. At the beginning of the story, food is closely linked to domesticity and marriage. Mary’s repeated attempts to feed Patrick demonstrate not only her affection for her husband but also the role she plays as homemaker and housewife. Similarly, Patrick’s refusal to eat Mary’s food is a rejection of that affection and foreshadows his rejection of the domestic life Mary has built around him. Even after Patrick’s death, food still is (or appears to be) associated with marriage, as Mary attempts to maintain the façade of domestic bliss by establishing her alibi of buying Patrick’s food from Sam, the local grocer.

After Patrick tells Mary he is leaving her, food becomes a literal and figurative weapon. In the literal sense, food is weaponized when Mary kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which is said by the narrator to be as effective as a “steel club.” Metaphorically, food also works against the other policemen, as they never suspect that Mary’s frozen meat could be used as a weapon, and they begin to eat the evidence for which they have been searching all night.

Just as the weaponization of food is both literal and metaphorical, so too is the motif of consumption. Mary, a happy housewife, is consumed with her marriage and her husband’s masculinity, and thus her role within a male-dominated culture. Obsessed with domestic bliss, her entire life revolves around her husband. Patrick, on the other hand, is consumed with his work. Though he is always tired because of his work as a detective, he values his job more than he does his wife. After Patrick’s death, this consumption becomes literal and possibly cannibalistic for the detectives, who eat the murder weapon. As the detectives’ “thick and sloppy” mouths wolf down the leg of lamb, the men fail to realize that it had been bashed into Patrick’s skull and may even contain his blood. Whereas Patrick Maloney was once consumed with his work, now he is consumed by his work, or rather by his former friends and colleagues on the police force. Like the men’s suspicion that the weapon is “right under our very noses,” this is another example of the story’s ironic black humor.

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Food/Consumption ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Food/Consumption appears in each chapter of Lamb to the Slaughter. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Food/Consumption Quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter

Below you will find the important quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter related to the theme of Food/Consumption.
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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“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.