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.
Food/Consumption Quotes in Lamb to the Slaughter
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.
“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.