Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl | Summary, Characters, Setting & Conflict

Margaret Stone, Joshua Wimmer, Jenna Clayton
  • Author
    Margaret Stone

    Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English from Mississippi State University. She holds a Mississippi AA Educator License.

  • Instructor
    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.

Explore "Lamb to the Slaughter" short story. Learn "Lamb to the Slaughter" meaning, read a summarized version, and review its characters, setting, and conflict. Updated: 08/02/2021

Lamb to the Slaughter Short Story

Roald Dahl wrote "Lamb to the Slaughter", one of his most well-known short stories, in 1953. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, purportedly suggested the story's plot to Dahl.

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  • 0:01 A Brief Synopsis
  • 2:20 Characters
  • 4:42 Setting
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Roald Dahl also wrote stories for children.

Roald Dahl at book signing

Lamb to the Slaughter: Meaning and Context

The story's title refers to the widely used phrase "like a lamb to the slaughter", meaning an innocent person being unknowingly led to his or her demise. The expression might be used, for example, when someone is called into a meeting to be fired. The person, innocent of any wrongdoing and unaware of the meeting's reason, could be said to enter the meeting like "a lamb to the slaughter."

The phrase has its origins in the Bible, specifically in the Old Testament books of Jeramiah and Isaiah. Jeremiah 11:19 says, "But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered." The phrase also appears in Isaiah 53:7: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth." The title may also allude more generally to the New Testament story of Jesus, an innocent man who is killed by crucifixion.

Lamb to the Slaughter Summary

As the "Lamb to the Slaughter" short story opens, a pregnant Mary Maloney is waiting for her husband Patrick to come home from work. She has turned on the lamp beside Patrick's chair and has collected the ingredients for his evening cocktail. After Patrick arrives and settles into his chair, Mary notices that he guzzles the drink she prepares for him. Patrick is a policeman, tired from the day's work, and Mary offers to bring his slippers for his aching feet. The couple usually goes out to eat on Thursdays, but Mary offers to prepare dinner on this Thursday night since Patrick is exhausted. He declines the offer and asks her to sit down. Patrick then delivers some shocking news to Mary.

Patrick's words are not revealed in the story, but he is apparently planning to leave his pregnant wife: "It didn't take long, four or five minutes at most, and she sat very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word." Patrick then says that he will support her financially, but he hopes that she won't make a "fuss" because that would be bad for his job.

Mary is horrified by Patrick's words, but she slips briefly into denial, thinking that if she just behaved normally the problem would just go away. Mary decides that she will prepare dinner, so she removes a frozen leg of lamb from the freezer in the cellar. When she returns with the lamb, he tells her not to cook dinner because he is going out. After Patrick reveals this plan, Mary walks behind him and hits him in the head with the leg of lamb.

Once she realizes that she has killed her husband, Mary suddenly comes out of the shock she has been experiencing. She puts the lamb in the oven to cook and begins to think of an alibi. She decides to go to the local grocer's, but first she practices what she will say. She knows she needs to make this visit to the grocer appear to be just like her regular trips to the store. Mary goes to the store and asks Sam, the grocer, for vegetables. She says that she is cooking dinner for Patrick, and asks Sam's opinion on cooking frozen lamb. Sam suggests cheesecake for dessert, which Mary purchases, saying, "Perfect. He loves it."

When Mary returns from the store, she calls the police and reports that she has found her husband dead. The police arrive, determine that Patrick has been struck in the head, and begin to search for the murder weapon. Mary tells the officers that she found her husband when she returned from the grocery store. An officer talks to Sam, the grocer, who confirms that nothing seemed unusual when Mary came to his store.

The police continue their investigation by taking fingerprints and continuing to look for the murder weapon. They believe an object such as a heavy metal vase was used to kill Patrick, but they find nothing in the house that could have been used to kill him. After Patrick's body is removed, one of the officers notices that the meat is still cooking in the oven. Mary says that she cannot eat, but she offers the lamb to the assembled policemen who have been working through their regular dinner time. They reluctantly agree to eat the leg of lamb without realizing that they are consuming evidence. As they eat, the policemen continue to speculate on the whereabouts of the weapon. It is "probably right under our noses," a policeman says as he eats the lamb, while Mary quietly laughs to herself.

Mary convinces the officers to eat the leg of lamb.

Legs of lamb displayed for sale

Lamb to the Slaughter Setting

Most of the events in "Lamb to the Slaughter" are set in the Maloney home. Mary and Patrick's home is a scene of 1950s domestic tranquility. Mary is a pregnant housewife, who waits with her sewing for her husband to return from work. She makes certain that he enters a home with everything set to his liking; she turns on the lamp beside his favorite chair and is prepared to make him a drink when he comes home from work. The only other location in the story is the grocery store, where Mary cements her alibi with Sam, the grocer.

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"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.

Why did Mary kill her husband in Lamb to the Slaughter?

Mary kills Patrick after he announces his apparent plan to leave her. She is pregnant and unable to support herself, and she is unwilling to accept the stigma of divorce.

What does the lamb symbolize in Lamb to the Slaughter?

The lamb ordinarily suggests innocence, but in "Lamb to the Slaughter" the lamb becomes the weapon that Mary uses to kill Patrick.

Is Lamb to the Slaughter a true story?

"Lamb to the Slaughter" is not a true story. The idea for the story originated with Ian Fleming, who suggested the plot to Roald Dahl.

What is the main message of Lamb to the Slaughter?

The main message of the story is that things are not always as they appear. Mary appears to be a dutiful housewife, but she is actually capable of murder.

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