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Roald Dahl has published several novels and nearly 50 short stories all of which, without exemption, are fascinating, intriguing and bizarre to say the least. One of Dahl’s more famous stories is “Lamb to the Slaughter”.
This is a twisted, gripping tale of Mary Maloney, who murders her own husband by hitting him with a frozen leg of lamb and then hiding her crime and disposing of the evidence by feeding the lamb to the policemen who come to investigate the murder.
This clever story is crafted down to the smallest detail – every word and expression implies something, often has a second meaning and so manipulates the reader’s opinion. The factor that makes this story even more interesting, is that it is written from the murderer’s point of view, while the opinion of the author is still evident.
Roald Dahl effectively developed the protagonist both directly and indirectly; however
the use of indirect characterisation is more dominant because it reveals and explains Mary Malloney’s actions. In the beginning of the story, Mary Malloney appears to be an ordinary house-wife, awaiting her husband’s return, but already Dahl starts creating the enigmatic atmosphere of the story by describing Mary as “curiously tranquil”.
The choice of adjective “curiously” implies that Mary Malloney is not usually as calm as she is today. Dahl also mentions that Mrs Malloney’s “eyes, with their new placid look, seemed larger, darker, than before. All these things aren’t characteristic of her and Dahl’s uses the word “new” to make the reader realise this and makes the reader expect other unusual things to happen.
The serene atmosphere set in the first paragraphs is creased when Mr Malloney walkes through the front door and is greeted by his wife: “ ‘Hullo darling,’ she said ‘ Hullo’ he answered” from this first word exchange between the couple, the reader realises that Mr and Mrs Maloney’s relationship is not based on equality and that Mrs Malloney appreciates her husband much more than he appreciates her.
The next several paragraphs prove just how much Mary loved her husband and explain why “She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man”. However, the more reasons Mary gives for loving her husband and the more attempts she makes to please him it becomes clearer and clearer that something is wrong – Patrick is avoiding conversation and is becoming increasingly more irritated with Mary for her attempts to please to him. When Mr. Malloney cannot bear another moment of the fuss that has been created around him by his wife, he loses his nerve and tells at Mary to “just for a minute, sit down“. Patrick tells his wife, which by the evidence in the text I assume is, that he is leaving her.
The sentence that led me to the conclusion that Mr Malloney is leaving his wife is “She sat very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word“. Another quote I feel necessary to mention to prove my conclusion of what Patrick said to his wife is “and I know that 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 are looked after” – it is now obvious that Patrick is leaving his wife because otherwise he would not need to see that Mary is looked after or give her money.
Mrs Malloney’s reaction to this news was that “She couldn’t feel anything at all – except a slight nausea and a desire to vomit”. This reaction seems normal and the reader may think that the story has reached its climax. However, what happens next, exceeds all expectations.
Within minutes Mary goes through a metamorphoses, from a content housewife, to a maniac,
possessed woman, murderer.
Almost naturally, without any second thoughts, she kills her husband: “Mary Malloney 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”.
Mary becomes different – no more is she a husband pleasing wife she once was, she is now a self-conscious woman who know exactly what to do as if she has been prepared for months.
The newly widowed Mrs Malloney then completely reveals her duplicity and deceitfulness; “She tried a smile. It came out so peculiar, the voice sounded so peculiar too; she rehearsed it several times more”. Here Mary shows that she couldn’t care less about her husband as long as she gets away with the murder. This contradicts with her words and actions in the beginning of the story and underlines her duplicity to herself and everyone else.
Mary tries to act normal and act out the daily routine and so she goes to the grocer’s, but the reader must have noticed that in her empty conversation with the grocer she seems just like her old self: “I got a nice leg of lamb from the freezer. I don’t much like cooking it frozen, but I am taking a chance on it this time. You think it’ll be all right?” what Mary is really referring to in the phrase “you think it’ll be all right?” is not the lamb, but the murder she has just committed, she reveals her fragile nature and for a moment that Mary isn’t acting.
Mary gets home and after ‘discovering’ Patrick’s corpse, calls the police and we see once again how good an actress she is and how deceiving she can be. Mrs Maloney puts on a magnificent charade; from the hysterical phone call, falling into the policemen’s arms, the anxious story of how Patrick was “so tired he hadn’t wanted to go out for supper”, the offering of the whiskey the insisting that the policemen eat the lamb.
When one of the policemen, Jack Noonan asked if Mary “would rather go somewhere else” and hadn’t she “better lie down on the bed”, it was very clever of her to refuse Noonan’s suggestion and remain in the living room because then she observe what is happening and find out whether she has gotten away with the murder.
In the last paragraphs, the policemen are eating the lamb, which has been used for the murder weapon, while Mary is listening to their conversation outside the kitchen. The irony in this conversation is so strong, it becomes comic and makes Mary (and the reader) giggle. The policemen think that once they find the murder weapon it will be easy to find Patrick’s killer, also they are convinced that the weapon is “right here on the premises” and “right under our very noses” – this is literally true as at that point in time policemen and eating the lamb.
After fully reading the story, the reader sees the title in a different light. “Lamb to the Slaughter” – this is (in tradition of all good titles) full of irony and double meaning – leaving the reader to decide whether it means that the leg of lamb has been taken to the slaughter, or if Patrick is the lamb that has been slaughtered.
I have enjoyed reading “Lamb to the slaughter” it is original, interesting and everything else that you can expect from a story by Roald Dahl, also, i think that Mary is a convincing, dynamic character perfect for this tale of duplicity and evil.
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