The scene is warm and cozy. There are two lamps, two chairs, and two glasses on the table, and drinks and fresh ice ready to be mixed. Mary Maloney is at home alone, sitting across from an empty chair and waiting for her husband to return from work.
Six months pregnant and happy with her life, Mary works on her sewing and eagerly awaits her husband’s arrival. She is described in bodily terms — in terms of her body: the position of her head is “curiously tranquil,” her skin translucent, her mouth soft, her eyes placid, large, and dark.
Mary’s pregnancy and sewing are examples of her domesticity, epitomizing the traditional roles of women as child-bearers and domestic servants. The narrator emphasizes her objectification by emulating a poetic convention called “blason,” in which a poet describes a woman by targeting various body parts.
When her husband arrives home, Mary greets him with a kiss and an endearment, hangs his coat up for him, and prepares drinks for them both, a strong one for him and a weaker one for herself, before returning to her sewing as he sits down with his whiskey.
Mary fulfills the roles of caregiver and domestic servant through these loving gestures. The fact that Patrick does not reciprocate them highlights the power imbalance of their relationship, which also manifests in the way she prepares their drinks.
For Mary, this post-work ritual is “blissful,” despite her husband’s silence, which she accommodates and mirrors. She has been home alone all day and 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.”
As a housewife, Mary is expected to stay in the private sphere of domesticity while her husband goes to work; she has been home alone all day, with no one to talk to. Yet when her husband comes home, Mary is quick to accommodate her husband’s desire for silence. The power imbalance between Mary and her husband is further skewed by her view of him as almost godlike. While her husband’s masculinity is compared to the sun, Mary is a mere “sunbather,” sustained only by her relationship to her husband.
Contrary to their usual ritual, the husband downs half his glass in one swallow and goes to get more, ordering Mary to sit down when she tries to help him. When he returns, his glass has even more whiskey than before. Mary tries to sympathize with the difficulty of his job as a detective, but he ignores her.
The husband’s breaking of their usual routine and decision to drink more than usual suggests that something is wrong. The husband reinforces his patriarchal power by giving Mary orders and refusing to acknowledge her efforts as his emotional caregiver.
Mary repeatedly asks her husband if he would like something to eat, offering suggestions and insisting that he eat. He refuses every time, telling her again to sit down when she gets up to fetch the food. While he stares down at his now empty glass, Mary waits nervously and scrutinizes him as he prepares to tell her something.
Mary’s attempt to get her husband to eat something is yet another example of her wifely duties as caregiver. Her husband’s rejection of her food is also a rejection of her role within the marriage. As he mentally prepares himself, he looks down as if ashamed, while Mary’s focus is entirely on him, as it has been for their entire marriage.
The narrator leaves out the details of the conversation, but allows the reader to discern that Mary’s husband is leaving her. The husband acknowledges that “it’s kind of a bad time,” promising to provide for her financially, but asks her not to make any “fuss,” as it would be bad for his job.
Mary’s husband’s mention that “it’s kind of a bad time” refers to the fact that he is abandoning not only Mary but also their unborn child. In his promise to send her money and in his dismissal of her potential emotions and reactions as “fuss,” he implicitly dismisses the idea that his wife is a thinking and feeling human being.
Mary, shocked and unwilling to believe what her husband has told her, decides to act as if nothing has happened. Absently, she goes down to the cellar and grabs a frozen leg of lamb for dinner. When she returns, her husband tells her not to bother, as he is leaving.
Unwilling to believe her husband’s rejection, Mary clings to her marriage by performing her usual duty of preparing dinner. Her husband, however, rejects both her meal and her.
Without warning, Mary walks up to her husband and bashes the back of his head with the frozen leg of lamb, which the narrator notes is as effective as a steel club. The husband’s body sways in the air for a few seconds before crashing to the floor.
Mary carries out her own sudden betrayal by killing her husband here. The murder weapon (a frozen leg of lamb) and the narrator’s description of the body comically swaying in the air are examples of Dahl’s black humor. The narrator’s comparison of the lamb to a steel club anticipates the policemen’s search for the murder weapon later in the story.
The noise brings Mary out of shock as she recognizes that her husband is dead. She quickly realizes that she would get the death penalty if discovered, and thinks that this would be a “relief” if not for her unborn child. Unsure of the consequences for her baby, she resolves to cover up the crime.
To do so, Mary puts the murder weapon, the leg of lamb, into the oven and lets it cook. She then washes her hands, fixes her appearance, and practices speaking to and smiling at an imaginary Sam (the local grocer), trying to appear as normal as possible.
By cooking the leg of lamb for supper, Mary destroys the evidence of her crime. Unlike the murder, which she commits without fully realizing her actions, the cover-up is clearly premeditated.
After she has rehearsed enough, Mary goes outside to a grocery shop and chats briefly and casually with Sam, the grocer, pretending that she is gathering food for her husband’s dinner and speaking about Patrick (her husband) as if he is still alive. On her way back home, Mary decides to act as if everything is normal, rehearsing her actions and reactions in her mind, telling herself to “keep things absolutely natural and there’ll be no need for any acting at all.” When she gets back, she does exactly that, calling for her husband, becoming shocked at his dead body, crying, and calling for the police.
Mary establishes her alibi by deceiving Sam, claiming that she is cooking dinner in order to maintain a façade of domestic happiness. She also refers to her husband by name for the first time in the story. Whereas prior to his death, Patrick Maloney was unnamed and idolized for his masculinity and power, the narrator’s and Mary’s naming of him after the murder suggests the dispossession of his masculine power. In order to maintain her façade, Mary engages in a sort of “doublethink,” deceiving herself into behaving a certain way while simultaneously remaining aware of that deception.
Two policemen, Jack Noonan and O’Malley, both former colleagues and friends of Patrick, arrive. Still crying, Mary tells them that she went out to the grocer and came back to find him dead. More policemen, a doctor, a photographer, and a fingerprint expert arrive, asking Mary questions but also treating her kindly. Mary recounts her story but mentions more detail, such as Patrick’s tiredness, her sewing, how the meat is in the oven, and which grocer she talked to. One of the detectives goes out and confirms her story with Sam.
Cleverly incorporating kernels of truth into her story, Mary is able to deceive the police, who fail to suspect her as the real culprit. Unlike Patrick, who ignores and does not reciprocate his wife’s love, the various men who investigate Patrick’s murder treat Mary with kindness (if also condescension, at times), signaling a change in her traditionally subordinate gender role.
After Patrick’s body is removed and the doctor, photographer, and fingerprint expert leave, the policemen, still “exceptionally nice to her,” try to make Mary more comfortable by offering her the company of her sister or Noonan’s wife. Mary refuses, and the policemen allow her to stay while they search for more evidence.
Whereas Mary had put so much energy into pleasing her husband, only to be rejected, now it is Mary who is refusing the efforts of the policemen who attempt to comfort her. The policemen’s offer to send her to her sister or Noonan’s wife carries with it the assumption that women (and thus Mary) are caregivers by nature and incapable of violence, again allowing Mary to escape suspicion.
Jack Noonan occasionally speaks to Mary, explaining how Patrick was killed. He says that the murder weapon was probably a heavy piece of metal, and they are still searching for the weapon, which is crucial to catching the murderer: “Get the weapon, and you’ve got the man.” Later, another detective asks Mary about potential weapons, and she suggests they look in the garage.
Noonan reinforces this gender stereotype by assuming that the murderer is a man. Describing the weapon as a blunt metal object, Noonan confirms the narrator’s previous comparison of the leg of lamb to a steel club, and unwittingly gives Mary enough information for her to point the police in the wrong direction.
After nearly three hours of searching, the four remaining policemen have had no success finding the weapon. It is late, and they are now tired, frustrated, and hungry. Mary asks Sergeant Jack Noonan for a drink, and he complies, pouring her a glass of whiskey. Mary insists that he also have some whiskey, and he agrees, but acknowledges that it’s against the rules. The rest of the men are also persuaded to have a drink, and though they are uncomfortable, they try to console Mary.
Mary’s interactions with the policemen highlight her sudden (and perhaps unrealistic) transformation from a submissive housewife to an intelligent and subtly dominant killer. Whereas during her marriage, Mary had to fetch drinks for her husband, now the policemen fetch drinks for her. Whereas Mary had attempted to provide emotional support for Patrick, with no success or reciprocation, now it is the policemen who attempt the same for her. Mary utilizes this new power by persuading the men to drink on the job, subtly undermining their credibility and objectivity.
Sergeant Noonan notices that the lamb is still in the oven and offers to turn it off for her. Mary then asks him and the others for a “small favour” — that they eat the lamb as a reward for being friends of Patrick and for helping to catch his killer. After some hesitation, the men agree and go into the kitchen to eat the lamb.
Mary exercises her power by asking a favor of the men. However, contrary to her claims, the lamb is not a reward for their friendship with Patrick, but rather a betrayal of both Patrick and their profession, leading to the ironic twist of the story. By eating the lamb, the men destroy the evidence of the murder.
“The woman,” as the narrator calls her, stays in the other room, listening to the men eat the lamb and talk about the murder weapon. When the men speculate that it is “right here on the premises,” “right under our very noses,” Mary giggles to herself.
The description of Mary as “the woman” signals a greater narratorial distance from the story’s main character, indicating the extent of her transformation. The irony of the men’s speculation of the murder weapon’s location as “under [their] very noses” is another example of Dahl’s black humor.