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 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.
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.
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.