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Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, title significance and literary devices.

In Christianity, lamb means as a helpless victim. The expression ‘lamb to slaughter’ is
found in the Bible in Isaiah 53:7: 'he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter', an image later
applied to Jesus. Also found in Jeremiah 11:19 as ‘… But I was like a gentle lamb led to the
slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me…’ it hints the innocent
of the lamb and it’s naitivity. So, using such a title, the author hints on the woman, who killed
her husband, yet is not suspected in the murder.
Usually, “Lamb to the Slaughter” is an expression meaning that a person doesn’t
“stand a chance” in a given situation. Patrick Maloney didn’t ‘stand a chance’ against an
innocent personality, his six-month pregnant wife.
In literature, Geoffery Chaucer laid the groundwork for the phrase in the Man of Law's
Tale, 1386:
“For as a lamb is brought to slaughter, so
She stands, this innocent, before the king.”
The title of the story carries a deep symbolic meaning and it can be interpreted in
various ways. In the first paragraph, lamb refers to Mary Maloney, the dependent wife and
expectant mother who is supposed to be meek and submissive. She does everything for her
husband. She prepares dinner for him, gets his slippers, and almost slaves over him. However,
the man; instead of expressing his gratitude to her, has his mind set to abandon her. A weak
woman, Mary Maloney, has no say as her life is being torn apart by her husband and he wants
it to be a quiet affair so that his position in work is not affected. Though Mary appears to be
a meek pathetic lamb who will be quietly led to the slaughter, the author surprises us as Mary
fights back and kills her husband. She does not allow him to butcher her. It is the lamb (status)
in the wife that is slaughtered leaving behind a free woman who has the ability to take care
of herself. The lamb may even refer to the husband. He is the follower of the laws and a slave
of his profession. He cares only about his work and image. The irony lies in the fact that the
husband who is the strong, unsuspecting trusting character in the story is ultimately brought
to the slaughter. He thinks he will get away with a simple quiet divorce. But this doesn't
happen. Metaphorically, the investigating officers can be considered lambs. The naive police
officers are led to the slaughter by Mary, first to the scene of crime and then to the dinner
table to consume the evidence, the very weapon of the murder.
The title is appropriate in the sense that the author shows us how a person's weakness
can make a lamb of him, a lamb which will finally be led to the slaughter. While Mary's
strength of will redeems her, Patrick’s attitude leads him to his doom.
The story is rich with literary devices like metaphors, similes, foreshadowing and
According to V. Hontar and O. Veronvkina, paradox (at statement that is seemingly
contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true) is a favourite device of
R.Dahl, though the writer uses it in somewhat different manner. It should be pointed out, that
Roald Dahl’s short stories always have an unexpected paradoxical ending. Dahl’s short stories
like, “Parson’s Pleasure”, “Lamb to the Slaughter”, Dip in the Pool”, “The Way Up to Heaven”,
“Nunc Dimittis”, use paradox to create a satirical effect. In “Lamb to the Slaughter” a
pregnant woman kills her husband with a lamb’s leg for the reason he wanted to leave her.
Then she puts the “evidence” in the oven and goes to the shop. On her coming back she calls
the policemen and treats them with roasted meat, getting rid of the weapon of the murder.
The policemen, looking for the weapon, are eating the lamb and discussing the case.
“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”.
Simile is used to make comparison of one thing to another. Dahl compares presence
of luxurious company of Mary’s husband, with her feeling like a ‘sunbather feels the sun’. Too
much or too less of a sunbath can be unpleasant. In the same way the presence of her
husband was scorching and calming for her. His silence helps her paint a world of fantasy
(based on real feelings that strengthen its foundation) while his harsh and mean comments
hurt her to the point of sun burns.
Author uses visual imagery to describe his characters and setting, throughout the first
four paragraphs of the story. These imageries create an atmosphere of mystery in the reader’s
minds without turning the story explicit. Dahl employs an auditory imagery to describe
Patrick's return from work,’ sound of car tires on the stones’, ‘the car door closing’, and sound
of ‘footsteps outside’ as perceived by Mary Malony.
Suspense buildage and situational suggestions by the practice of foreshadowing are
common among Dahl’s stories. In Lamb to slaughter this literary device is employed to portray
the tension between Mary and Patrick such as ‘a bit of shock to you’ and ‘a nice leg of lamb’
The short story by Roald Dahl makes good use of the literary method of foreshadowing by
building dramatic tension throughout the plot and gradually revealing information to the
reader so they might anticipate what might happen next.
The use of irony within the story has a great impact on the reader by creating strong
emotions which give the opportunity to the reader to know what Patrick's character awaits
and on the other hand understand Mary's intentions. The various types of irony present are
in the story are dramatic, verbal, and situational irony. Storytellers use dramatic irony as a
useful plot device for creating situations in which the audience knows more about the
situations, the causes of conflicts, and their resolutions before the leading characters or
actors. In ‘Lamb to the slaughter’ it is used when the hungry detectives, while eating the lamb
say that the weapon, they are looking for is probably under their noses. Verbal irony occurs
when a speaker speaks something contradictory to what he intends to say or feels. Writers
rely on the audience’s intelligence for discerning the hidden meanings they intend to convey.
“Patrick, how are you doing darling?”, is an example of verbal irony. Mary Maloney calls out
to her husband even after knowing that he is dead. Situational irony, a form of irony in which
something takes place that is different or the opposite of what is expected to happen. When
writers create an ironic situation in a literary work, it allows the reader to understand the
difference between appearance and reality within the confines of the literature. In the story,
the lamb that Mary takes from the freezer to cook and serve as nourishment for her hungry
husband turns out to be the weapon used to kill him.
By the end, the connection between irony and humour is somewhat revealed when
an expected result of an action does not occur but is instead a surprise that startles us into
laughter. The irony is Mary killed her husband with a lamb leg and had the policemen eat the
evidence. The police officers will never find the murder weapon.
So, from star t till the end the short story has a mixed air of black humour minus
explicit stuff. What makes it even more interesting is its use of multiple devices that create
suspense and tension about the characters. Because of much symbolism a lot of underlying
meaning exit in the story which leaves the interpretational choice on the reader.
The Maloney residence is the setting of the story "Lamb to the Slaughter" on the
Thursday night when Patrick tells Mary he is leaving her. The narrative is set in a time when
women's duties were constrained and divorce was not widespread; it was written in 1953.
The story takes place between shortly before five when Patrick arrives home from work and
late at night, after nine, when Mary gives the police who are looking into Patrick's murder the
murder weapon, a leg of lamb. Only when Mary goes to a grocery store to provide her alibi
does the scene change.
Based on the allusion to a "deep freeze," a once-common phrase for a refrigeration
unit, the narrative was most likely set in the 1950s. Mary and Sam's discussion over whether
freezing meat affects its quality implies that the technology was still quite new at the time. As
in the present, patriarchy, a system in which men possess more political, social, and economic
power than women, had a significant impact on life in the 1950s. Women in the 1950s did not
have as many opportunities as their male counterparts did and were expected to remain in
the private sphere of domestic life, taking care of their homes, children, and breadwinning
husbands, despite the fact that (white) women in both the U.S. and Britain gained the right
to vote in the early 20th century.