Lamb to the Slaughter: Summary, Setting & Characters

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  • 0:01 A Brief Synopsis
  • 2:20 Characters
  • 4:42 Setting
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

From giant peaches to kids with telekinesis, Roald Dahl has brought us some fascinating characters and settings over the years. Visit some new and not-so-kid-friendly people and places in this lesson on Dahl's short story, 'Lamb to the Slaughter!'

A Brief Synopsis of 'Lamb to the Slaughter'

The phrase 'like a lamb to the slaughter' actually has a long and distinguished history in biblical and English literature, and you might've even read it yourself somewhere. If so, you recognized that it's generally used to describe a situation into which a person blindly enters without any knowledge of the inherent danger. The same could be said for certain folks in Roald Dahl's short story 'Lamb to the Slaughter.' The story's title also works as a dark double entendre, a word or phrase used in a way that conveys two meanings, of its eventual outcome.

The story opens on Mary Maloney, who's waiting patiently but eagerly for her husband, a police officer, to get home from work. When he finally does arrive, Patrick Maloney silently takes the drink his wife has prepared for him, and even makes his own stronger second one.

It's Thursday, and the couple usually dines out on those evenings, but Mary recognizes Patrick may be too tired, so she offers to prepare dinner, despite her advanced pregnancy. Patrick seems agitated by his wife's insistence on being useful and asks her instead to listen to what he has to say. He proceeds to tell her, though he never states it explicitly, that he's planning on leaving her.

In a total state of shock, Mary continues to go about making dinner, heedless to Patrick saying that he's going out. Coming to the first piece of meat in the basement freezer, a leg of lamb, she takes it upstairs for dinner. She finds Patrick facing away from her in the den, and without a single thought, clubs him in the back of the head with the leg of lamb, killing him instantly.

Suddenly realizing the severity of her crime, Mary quickly goes about covering it up. She puts the lamb in the oven and goes to the local grocer to buy vegetables to complete the dinner. After returning home and 'finding' her husband dead, she calls the police, who are also friends of the family. They arrive promptly and investigate.

Tired and confused from their investigation, Mary pleads tearfully with the detectives to let her finish the dinner she was preparing. Out of pity for the new widow, they concede. While enjoying the lamb, the men discuss the case, each of them convinced that the murder weapon, which has yet to be found, is 'probably right under (their) noses.'

Characters in 'Lamb to the Slaughter'

Mary Maloney certainly isn't Matilda's Miss Honey, but she's not really Miss Trunchbull, either. In fact, she's the model 1950s housewife. Dutiful even to a fault, she takes pleasure in providing her husband with a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere to come home to. She loves Patrick and his company and wants nothing more than to share a happy life together with him. However, when her unwavering and devoted service is thrown away for no apparent reason, something breaks in her brain.

With a child soon on the way, it would seem that Mary's life of wedded bliss is almost complete. But it's all been jeopardized by Patrick's sudden decision to end it. In total shock and denial, Mary is unable to make sense of this decision, and it would appear that she simply goes into survival mode. A pregnant widow would've had a much easier time in the '50s than a pregnant divorcee.

Although she is dazed and in shock right up until she whacks Patrick on the head, as soon as the deed is done, she is remarkably clear and calculating. As the wife of a detective, she knew what the punishment would be, so she hurries to cover her tracks, and does so quite successfully. Perhaps too pleased with herself, although some might find her actions justified, she even laughs when she overhears the detectives talking about their search for the weapon, which they happen to be presently consuming.

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Additional Activities

"Lamb to the Slaughter" Analysis

Discussion/Comprehension Questions

For this activity, you will critically analyze Roald Dahl's short story, "Lamb to the Slaughter." Make sure to answer all questions thoroughly and in complete sentences. Also, use specific information from the short story to support your responses.


  1. Who are the major characters in the story? Explain.
  2. Who are the minor characters in the story? Explain.
  3. Who is the story's protagonist? Describe this character.
  4. Is the protagonist a round or flat character? Explain.
  5. What causes the protagonist to act out of character?
  6. What is the climax, or turning point, of the story?
  7. Why is the setting significant to the plot of this story?
  8. What are the themes of this story? Explain.

Possible answers

  1. The primary main character in this story is Mary Maloney. She is the only character that is present throughout the entire short story.
  2. The minor characters include Mary's husband, Patrick, as well as the policemen who come to investigate the crime scene.
  3. Mary Maloney is the story's protagonist. She is a doting housewife, and she is also pregnant.
  4. Mary Maloney is a round character as she shows different characteristics. At first, she appears to be the perfect 1950's housewife. She gives her husband a drink as soon as he arrives home, and she plans to make supper for him. However, after he tells her that he plans to leave her, something inside her clicks, and she becomes a murderer.
  5. The idea that her husband was planning on leaving her and her unborn child triggered something within her, and this panic and pain caused her to act out of character.
  6. The climax of the story is when Mary kills her husband with the leg of lamb.
  7. The setting of the story is in a town in America during the 1950s. During this time, there was a certain stigma on divorced women. The idea of being disgraced by society may have caused Mary to act out and kill her husband.
  8. Common themes from this short story include betrayal and gender roles. In this story, the husband betrays Mary by telling her that he plans to leave her, and she betrays him by killing him. This short story also illustrates certain gender roles, such as the expectation for women to stay at home and cook and clean all day.

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