Throughout the short story, Mary Maloney is firmly situated in a patriarchal society—that is, a system in which men hold more power than women politically, socially, and economically. Historically, women have been often consigned to the private sphere of domestic life, as they were deemed by men to be intellectually and emotionally unfit for the public sphere outside of family and home life. Men, on the other hand, were able to move through both spheres, enjoying the comforts of domestic life provided by wives and mothers while interacting with the political and economic institutions of the public arena.
Mary’s marriage is a perfect example of gendered hierarchy, as her entire life revolves around that of her husband. While Patrick works in the public sphere as a detective, Mary stays at home in the private domestic sphere, working on her sewing and eagerly awaiting his return “after the long hours alone in the house.” Once her husband arrives, all of her energy is devoted to anticipating his needs. Fulfilling the duties of a stereotypical housewife, Mary, demonstrates her affectionate submission by performing various domestic tasks for her husband — for example, hanging up his coat, making him drinks, offering to fetch his slippers and make supper — despite the fact that she is six months pregnant and Patrick barely acknowledges her efforts.
Like the society in which the story is set, Mary’s marriage is heavily influenced by male or masculine dominance. The narrator explicitly describes Mary’s love for her husband as an idolization of or subservience to masculinity. Patrick’s return home is “blissful” for Mary not only because she has been isolated in the house all day but also because 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.” Mary’s comparison of masculinity to the sun, to a powerful celestial force indifferent to yet shining upon mere humans, reinforces a gender hierarchy in which men are associated with strength and perfection, and women with weakness and inferiority.
This male dominance also manifests in the lack of reciprocity in the Maloneys’ marriage. Despite Mary’s repeated endearments of “Darling” and attempts to make her husband more comfortable, Patrick responds brusquely, without reciprocating her affection or acknowledging the effort it must take her, as a heavily pregnant woman, to care for him and the house. Furthermore, when Mary attempts to engage him in conversation or requests that he eat something, Patrick ignores her, but when he wishes to speak to her, he orders her to “Sit down,” expecting her to submit as a dog would to its master. Whereas Mary attends to both his physical and emotional needs (preparing him drinks, offering him food, sympathizing with him about his job), Patrick assumes that his wife is little more than a creature to be “looked after” financially when he leaves her. After breaking the news of his imminent departure, he dismisses his wife’s potential reactions and emotions as “fuss,” coldly asserting that it would be bad for his job. Patrick’s privileging of his work over Mary stands in stark contrast to the life she has built around him.
After Mary murders her husband, then, she is able to escape suspicion partly because of her cleverness and partly because the policemen hold traditional, patriarchal views of women as caregivers incapable of violence or deceit. When Jack Noonan, a detective and friend of Patrick, asks Mary is she would prefer the company of her sister or of his own wife, he reinforces the stereotype of women, and thus of Mary, as caregivers. When he explains to Mary what happened to Patrick, he implicitly assumes the culprit is male, using masculine pronouns such as “him” and “he” to describe the murderer. The detectives consider “impossible” the idea that Mary has deceived them all as well as Sam, the grocer who unwittingly becomes her alibi.
Gender and Marriage ThemeTracker
Gender and Marriage Quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter
The room was warm and clean, the curtains drawn, the two table lamps alight—hers and the one by the empty chair opposite. On the sideboard behind her, two tall glasses, soda water, whisky. Fresh ice cubes in the Thermos bucket.
Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home from work.
There was a slow smiling air about her, and about everything she did. The drop of the 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 knew he didn’t want to speak much until the first drink was finished, and 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.
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.
It was extraordinary, now, how clear her mind became all of a sudden. She began thinking very fast. As the wife of a detective, she knew quite well what the penalty would be. That was fine. It made no difference to her. In fact, it would be a relief. On the other hand, what about the child? What were the laws about murderers with unborn children? Did they kill them both—mother and child? Or did they wait until the tenth month? What did they do?
Mary Maloney didn’t know. And she certainly wasn’t prepared to take a chance.
The two detectives remained, and so did the two policemen. They were exceptionally nice to her, and Jack Noonan asked if she wouldn't rather go somewhere else, to her sister’s house perhaps, or to his own wife who would take care of her and put her up for the night.
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.”
“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.”
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.