Lamb to the Slaughter

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Gender and Marriage Theme Analysis

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Role Reversals Theme Icon
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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.

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Gender and Marriage ThemeTracker

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

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

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.

Related Characters: Mary Maloney, Patrick Maloney (the husband)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening scene of the short story, the reader is presented with images of duality and domesticity: in the comfortable living room of the Maloney household, there are two lamps, two chairs, and two glasses. However, the duality and sense of comfort reflected in the story’s setting is betrayed by the loneliness of Mary Maloney, who waits across from an empty chair for her husband to return home. The contrast between the setting and its inhabitants represents the Maloneys’ marriage, in which the only spouse actually “present” is Mary.

The fact that Mary waits home alone while her husband is away at work is typical of gender expectations of the 1950s, in which the story was set and written. Women were expected to remain in the private sphere of domesticity and home life, giving birth, caring for their children, performing domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning, and attending to their husbands. Men, on the other hand, were free to pass between the public sphere (through their occupations and interactions with social, political, and economic institutions) and the private sphere, in which they could enjoy the comforts of home provided by their wives.


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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.

Related Characters: Mary Maloney
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the story, Mary is in domestic bliss. Deeply in love with her husband and heavily pregnant, she fully embraces her role as a traditional, subordinate wife; her objectification is reflected not only in her husband’s treatment of her but also in the narrator’s first description of her.

Using a poetic convention called “blason,” the narrator portrays Mary by describing various body parts one by one. Similar to a slow pan over a woman’s body in film, the blason was often used by Renaissance poets to metaphorically dissect the female body while supposedly praising it. As the narrator switches from a possessive personal pronoun (“her skin”) to definite articles (“the head,” “the mouth,” “the eyes, with their new placid look”), he figuratively distances her from personhood.

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.

Related Characters: Mary Maloney, Patrick Maloney (the husband)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

After Patrick returns home from work and during his post-work ritual, Mary is eager to submit to her husband’s desire for quiet, despite the fact that she has been home alone and has likely had no one to talk to all day. Patrick’s presence is a delight for Mary, both because of her loneliness and because she idolizes her husband’s masculinity. She “luxuriates” in his masculinity, perceiving Patrick’s “warm male glow” to be as powerful as the sun. Mary implicitly perceives herself and her femininity to be as weak and as subordinate as a mere human compared to a sun, emphasizing the one-sidedness of the Maloneys’ marriage.

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.

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.

Related Characters: Mary Maloney
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

After the murder, Mary realizes what she has done and resolves to cover up the crime. However, she does so not for herself but for her child. If Mary were to be discovered, the death sentence would make “no difference to her,” because the life she built around her husband was destroyed even before she killed him. Mary’s decision to survive is significant because it is the first instance in the story where her energy is not entirely focused on her husband, and where she establishes for herself some measure of independence after her husband’s death. Though Mary is still fulfilling the traditionally feminine role of caregiver for her child, she is also stepping into a more traditionally masculine role of protector.

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.

Related Characters: Mary Maloney, Jack Noonan, O’Malley
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Called to investigate the murder, the policemen examine the scene and attend to Mary. Most apparent after their arrival is the stark contrast between Patrick’s treatment of Mary and that of his colleagues. Unlike Patrick, who ignores and rejects Mary, the policemen are “exceptionally nice to her,” emphasizing a shift in Mary’s position within the story.

Jack Noonan’s offer to bring Mary to her sister’s house or to his wife’s demonstrates both his concern for her emotional wellbeing and his assumption that the women will fulfill the expectations of them as caregivers. But it is exactly this assumption that allows Mary to escape suspicion.

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.