32 pages 1 hour read

Roald Dahl

Lamb To The Slaughter

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Lamb to the Slaughter”

First published in Harper’s Magazine in 1953, “Lamb to the Slaughter” is Roald Dahl’s best-known short story for adults. Dahl (1916-1990) was a British novelist, screenwriter, short story author and, arguably, one of the greatest children’s storytellers of the 20th century. Many of his popular children’s books have been adapted for stage and screen, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Dahl published four collections of adult stories between 1946 and 1974. His short fiction was often characterized by black humor and macabre plot twists. “Lamb to the Slaughter” was adapted into a television script that Alfred Hitchcock presented in 1958. Many of the author’s other short stories were adapted for the British television series “Tales of the Unexpected,” which aired from 1979 to 1988. Dahl received the 1983 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the British Book Awards’ Children’s Author of the Year in 1990. He was also presented with three Edgar Awards for his short fiction.

This study guide refers to the 2017 Penguin edition of Skin & Other Stories by Roald Dahl.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of domestic violence.

The story opens on a Thursday evening as Mary Maloney awaits her husband’s return from work. The living room is warm, tidy, and invitingly lit. Mary, who is six months pregnant, occasionally checks the clock as she sits sewing.

At 4:50 p.m., Mary is pleased to hear Patrick Maloney’s car pulling into the drive. She greets her husband at the door, kissing him and calling him “darling” (22). He responds with a brief “Hullo” (23). After hanging up his coat, Mary pours two whiskey and sodas. Giving the stronger drink to her husband, she sits opposite him.

Mary loves this time of day. She knows her husband likes to savor his first drink in silence, and she sits contentedly, happy to be in his presence. However, she is surprised when he quickly gulps down his drink and gets up to pour another. She offers to help him, but he orders her to stay seated. Mary notices that his second whiskey and soda is stronger. He declines her offer to fetch his slippers.

The Maloneys usually go out to eat on a Thursday. Nevertheless, Mary tells her husband she will prepare supper if he is tired. He curtly refuses the offer. Mary moves toward the freezer, and Mr. Maloney again instructs her to “[s]it down” (25). She listens as her husband makes a brief but shocking announcement (the narration does not recount his exact words but implies that he intends to leave his wife). Afterward, Mary stares at him “with a kind of dazed horror” (25). Mr. Maloney admits that the timing of his decision is not ideal but assures Mary that he will provide for her financially. He says he wants to avoid “any fuss” that might adversely affect his career as a police detective (25).

In shock, Mary behaves as if nothing has happened and declares she will make supper. She goes down to the cellar and takes a leg of lamb out of the freezer. When she returns to the living room, Mr. Maloney’s back is turned, and he abruptly announces he is “going out” (26). Without stopping to think, Mary clubs him over the head with the frozen leg of lamb. Mr. Maloney totters for a moment before toppling to the floor.

Coming to her senses, Mary realizes her husband is dead. She knows the penalty for murder is the death sentence. However, she is unsure if her unborn child would be spared this punishment. Although Mary feels that death “would be a relief” for her (27), she is not prepared for her baby to suffer this fate. Thinking quickly, she places the lamb in the oven and tidies her appearance. She smiles at the mirror and practices asking for potatoes and a can of peas in a cheerful voice.

Mary walks to her local grocery store, arriving just before six o’clock. She cheerfully greets the grocer, Sam. Mary explains that she needs peas and potatoes to accompany the lamb she is cooking, as her husband is too tired to eat out. She agrees when Sam suggests that Mr. Maloney might also like some cheesecake.

Hurrying home, Mary reflects that her behavior must appear as natural as possible. She convinces herself that it is an ordinary evening and she is about to cook her husband’s supper. Going inside, Mary is genuinely shocked at the sight of Mr. Maloney’s dead body and bursts into tears. She calls the police station where her husband worked to report that Patrick Maloney is dead.

When two policemen arrive at the scene, Mary is still crying. She recognizes the men as her husband’s colleagues, Sergeant Jack Noonan and O’Malley. Collapsing into Noonan’s arms, Mary tearfully explains that she discovered her husband’s body after going to the grocery store for vegetables. More men arrive at the crime scene, including a doctor, two detectives, and a photographer. All of them are kind to Mary. One of the detectives visits the grocery store to check Mary’s alibi. He returns, satisfied with Sam’s claim that Mary behaved normally.

Mr. Maloney’s body is taken away, leaving Mary with the two detectives and policemen. Sergeant Noonan asks if she wants to stay with a female relative, but Mary declines. She stays in the house as the police search for the murder weapon. The police officers tell her that they are looking for a heavy instrument, most likely made of metal. Mary suggests they search the garage.

By nine o’clock, the police have failed to find anything significant. Mary asks Sergeant Noonan to pour her a whiskey and suggests he has one too. Noonan admits that he is not supposed to drink alcohol while working but nevertheless acquiesces. The other police officers come in from outside and also accept Mary’s offer of alcohol.

When Noonan notices that the oven is still on, Mary asks if Jack and the other three policemen will do her “a small favour” (33). She insists that, as they are trying to catch Mr. Maloney’s killer, her husband would have wanted them to eat the lamb, which is now perfectly cooked. The policemen are persuaded, and Mary listens to them eat while she remains in the living room. Discussing the murder weapon, the men speculate that the man who killed Patrick Maloney must have used a weapon like “a sledgehammer” (33). The policemen agree that the murder weapon is most likely “right under [their] very noses” (34). In the living room, Mary laughs to herself.

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