Lamb to the Slaughter: Theme & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Overview
  • 2:08 Theme
  • 2:59 Mistaken Identity
  • 4:02 Black Comedy
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

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

You might know Roald Dahl for his delightful children's stories, but 'Lamb to the Slaughter' is definitely not for the kids! Find out why in this lesson when we analyze this darkly comedic short story.

Overview of 'Lamb to the Slaughter'

Have you ever heard someone be called a wolf in sheep's clothing? What does that mean? Usually, when people employ this colorful colloquialism, they mean to say that someone has taken on the appearance, habits, or other characteristics of a group in order to infiltrate it. Of course, this phrase takes on a whole new meaning in the context of Roald Dahl's short story 'Lamb to the Slaughter.'

On the surface, Mary Maloney, the story's protagonist, is your typical 1950s housewife: attentive, respectful, pleasant, and kind, but never too flashy or outspoken. Little do we know, however, about the murderer who lurks beneath this matronly exterior. Of course, such a thing would've never crossed Mary's mind if she hadn't completely lost it for a second.

The first real mistaken identity in 'Lamb to the Slaughter,' though, is that of Mary's soon-to-be-late husband, Patrick. In the very beginning, Mary, eagerly waiting to tend to him, views Patrick as a hard-working detective and provider for their growing family. When he finally drinks up enough nerve to tell her he's leaving her and the baby, with apparently no good reason, though, her brain isn't able to handle the shock - and neither is his.

After Mary snaps, her brain sort of goes into autopilot mode, the way yours might when you're not quite ready for your morning routine. Her first thought is to go on preparing dinner. However, after hefting the frozen leg of lamb up the stairs, her shocked mind realizes it's the perfect weapon. Mary clubs Patrick on the back of the head, killing him instantly.

This inventive homicide and the 'hilarity' that ensues as a result make this story a black comedy, a humorous portrayal of otherwise shocking, horrific, or morbid situations, which anyone who has read Dahl's children's novel Matilda, for instance, knows he's a fan of. Let's take a look at how Dahl turns the dark theme of unsuspected suspects in 'Lamb to the Slaughter' into something to smile about.

Theme in 'Lamb to the Slaughter'

The main theme in 'Lamb to the Slaughter' is concerned with how we overlook the true nature of a person or situation when we allow preconceived notions to cloud our judgment. For instance, you should be able to pick out a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing from the rest of the flock fairly easily, but if you ignore the obvious and accept the wolf as a sheep because it looks white and fluffy, you've been duped - just like the detectives investigating the death of Patrick Maloney.

Mary could well be the primary wolf in question, since she's literally able to get away with murder. You would think that since Patrick was also a member of the police force, the detectives would've investigated more thoroughly. However, this familiarity with the family also blinds them. Really, even Mary is initially mistaken about her own identity, as well as Patrick's.

Mistaken Identities

If your friends were to wear Halloween masks, you might very well be mistaken about who they were. In much the same way, people can project certain traits that mask who they really are from the world or maybe even from themselves. Take Patrick, for instance, whom Mary originally considered to be the perfect husband, one worthy of her dutiful devotion. By all accounts, that would've been true if it weren't for the fact that he'd decided to leave her for presumably no sound reason.

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