Lamb to the Slaughter

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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.
Role Reversals Theme Icon

Dahl subjects his characters to various reversals in their traditional roles. Most prominent of these role reversals is that of Mary Maloney, whose act of murder defies the policemen’s assumptions about her and about the culprit. By physically attacking her husband, with a club-like weapon no less, Mary subverts gender stereotypes and takes on the traditionally male role of violent attacker and murderer. Her quick thinking and ability to deceive others causes the policemen to sympathize with (and to some extent infantilize) her as if she were a victim, despite the fact that she is actually the murderer.

Mary’s weapon of choice, a leg of lamb, is also subject to role reversal in the story and symbolizes her transformation. The lamb, often portrayed as a gentle, sacrificial creature, is literally sacrificed as food, with its leg frozen in the Maloneys’ cellar, waiting to be eaten. However, once Patrick Maloney decides to leave his marriage, the lamb then becomes a tool for violence, rather than a recipient of violence. This is can also be seen in the ironic wordplay of the story’s title, “Lamb to the Slaughter”: Mary’s sudden violence renders Patrick the figurative “lamb” to be slaughtered, while the frozen leg of lamb is literally the instrument of slaughter.

Patrick Maloney’s role reversals are two-fold. First, in contrast to the story’s early account of Mary’s infatuation with his masculinity and power, Patrick is now “feminized” as the power in his marriage shifts to his wife when she attacks and kills him. Second, his death then undermines his role as a detective. Whereas previously his duties as a detective would have entailed preventing the crime in the first place or bringing the culprit to justice, now he unable to do so as he must fulfill the role of murder victim.

Like Patrick, the other detectives in the story also switch roles, not by becoming Mary’s victims but by serving as her unwitting accomplices. After hours of unsuccessfully searching for the murder weapon, the policemen are persuaded by Mary to eat the leg of lamb, unaware that they are assisting a murderer by destroying the evidence.

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Role Reversals ThemeTracker

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Role Reversals Quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter

Below you will find the important quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter related to the theme of Role Reversals.
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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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.

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.