::Literate Blather::
Monday, October 30, 2006
Literary Criticism: Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”
Summary: Mary Mahoney, six months pregnant, knits in her parlor waiting for her husband, Patrick, to get home from work. Patrick, a dour, unfriendly police detective, returns in a foul mood. After drinking glasses of whiskey, Patrick tells Mary he is leaving her. Shocked, Mary prepares dinner – fetching a frozen leg of lamb from the freezer. When her husband tells her not to bother, she crushes the back of his skull with the lamb. Mary proceeds to get her alibi prepared by putting the lamb in the oven and then heading to the butcher’s. Returning, she puts the lamb in the oven and pretends to have discovered her murdered husband. She calls the police and her husband’s colleague come in investigate. In the end, she offers them the leg of lamb and they eat the murder weapon.

Analysis: Roald Dahl may have one of the most unusual writing careers in history. He’s famous for authoring some of the most beloved children’s novels of all time – “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Matilda.”

But Dahl had a dark side. He was a combat veteran of World War II, flying for the British Royal Air Force, and later in life became an admitted anti-Semite. This must have been the part of his personality that fueled his parallel career of writing macabre adult fiction, mostly short stories.

“Lamb to the Slaughter” is an example of the dark humor Dahl incorporated in his adult work. The story, first published in 1953, starts as a pleasant tale of domestic bliss, but quickly descends into a tale of domestic violence and murder. Despite the dark subject matter, the tone of the story is written with a sly smile and a wink, wink, nudge, nudge approach. The reader is kept slightly off-balance by it all -- is this a murder story or a dark comedy?

Turns out, it's both.

Mary Mahoney, ripe with child, knits in her parlor as she patiently awaits for her husband’s return from work. The reader learns later that she is deeply delusional about her relationship with Patrick Mahoney, a police detective of few words and a sour, even cruel, disposition:

“Now and again she would glance up at the clock, but without anxiety, merely to
please herself with the thought that each minute gone by made it nearer the time
when he would come.”

When Patrick does get home, he is sullen and anti-social. He begins to drink several glasses of whiskey. Mary tries to pacify him, by doting, but he rebuffs her efforts to fetch is slippers and fix him a pre-dinner snack. Th reader begins to realize that Mary isn't all that bright -- and in deep denial. Patrick orders his wife to sit and then breaks the news to her that he’s seeing another woman.

“`So there it is,’ he added. `And I know 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’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any
fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn’t be very good for my job.’”

Patrick is a heartless bastard. Mary, in a kind of shock, goes to prepare dinner and when she can’t take his platitudes anymore, she uses a frozen leg of lamb to cave in the back of his skull. According to legend, Dahl came up with the murder weapon during dinner with author Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond). The two British writers were discussing what object in Dahl’s newly acquired freezer would make the best murder weapon.

Mary may be delusional about her relationship with her husband, but being married to a cop makes her smart enough to realize she needs a plan. She puts the lamb in the oven and heads to the butcher shop where she sets up the scene: Patrick is tired and wants to stay in, so unprepared for fixing dinner, she needs some potatoes and vegetables.

Heading home, she pretends to discover her husband murdered. She calls the police and her husband’s comrades from the station flood her house. They other detectives believe Patrick has been killed by a steel pole to the head and they search for the murder weapon.

The detectives remain suspicious of Mary, but she says all the right things and provides them with weepy hysterics. Yet they head to the butcher shop to interview the butcher and he tells them she acted completely natural.

In the end, the lamb finishes cooking and she convinces the investigators – as a favor to her and in memory of Patrick – to sit down and eat dinner. They are reluctant at first, but then acquiesce and end up eating the murder weapon.

The story concludes with Mary, in the other room, giggling.

Dahl has a wonderful time with “Lamb to the Slaughter” (even the title is humorously horrific). The writing is fresh, active, and moves at a lightning pace. Dahl uses dialogue effectively and a large part of the story is told through conversation (establishing character and pushing the plot forward).

One can’t help rooting for Mary Mahoney, even as one suspects that she might be a bit crazy.

If you’ve only experienced the “light” Dahl, I recommend you try some of his macabre fare and “Lamb to the Slaughter” is a good place to start – especially this close to Halloween.

Read our literary criticism of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

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Anonymous Joanne Turner said...
I actually find this rather vague considering it to be a "literary criticism." It's almost like a mere regurgitation of the story. Perhaps you could analyse it in a manner that provides greater insight for the reader.

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