“Lamb to the Slaughter” is about a wife, Mary Maloney, who loves her husband very dearly, at first, then ultimately kills him, due to him leaving her for unknown reasons. The title “Lamb to the Slaughter” is effective as it is a familiar saying. The literal meaning is to kill the innocent; or that the victim is led to death. The figurative meaning is that someone may be killed, or someone is going to kill another. This creates tension, as the reader prepares for something awful to happen, and also later in the story, we find out that the ‘leg of lamb’ is the murder weapon used to kill, and that the writer is referring to one of the characters as an innocent ‘lamb’.
In the beginning part of the story, the writer mostly concentrates on the wife, Mary Maloney. “Two table lamps alight – hers and the one by the empty chair opposite. Behind her, two tall glasses, soda water, whisky. Fresh ice cubes in the thermos bucket. Mary was waiting for her husband.” The first impression we get of Mary is that she loves her husband dearly, as the house is clean and neat, and that she has made the extra effort to make him feel comfortable when he gets home, by getting everything prepared, therefore, he can relax. The writer has written the setting like a pleasant, warm house, for us to get the impression that Mary is a loving wife, and also, the writer has done this to make the readers be biased to like her, therefore part with her when the husband leaves.
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In the next paragraph, the writer continues the wife’s devotion for her husband – “She would glance up at the clock, but without anxiety, merely to please herself with the thought that each minute went by made it nearer the time when he would come.” This conveys that the wife loves her husband greatly, and is excited when he comes home. The writer now concentrates on Mary’s appearance. “Her skin – for this was her sixth month with child – had acquired a wonderful translucent quality, and the eyes, with their new placid look, seemed larger, darker than before”. This reveals that Mary is pregnant, conveying that the wife and husband must love each other very much and also establishes that she is faithful to him. By describing Mary’s face, my impressions are that she is a loving wife and by mentioning the eyes, it links to an innocent lamb, as her eyes are big and tranquil.
In the next paragraph, “When the clock said ten minutes to five, she began to listen, punctually as always, she heard the tyres on the gravel outside, the footsteps passing the window, the key turning in the lock.” This conveys that the wife’s devotion is out of proportion as she comes close to obsession. It possibly conveys that she longs to see her husband. It seems that her senses are geared whenever the husband comes home. It is important to convince us that Mary Maloney is devoted and unsuspecting at first, as this will make it easier to sympathise and side with her rather than the husband; as the husband decides to leave her.
The story now continues with a speech between Mary and her husband. “‘Hullo darling’ she said. ‘Hullo,’ he answered.” This conveys that the wife is being affectionate towards her husband as she uses the word ‘darling’. However, the husband doesn’t return the affection back, as there is no endearment from him. The first impression of Mr Maloney is that he is a hard, serious man, with no affection towards his wife. This conveys that there is a contrast between Mr and Mrs Maloney. Mrs Maloney is openhearted, loving and conversational, whereas Mr Maloney is held back and uneasy. The writer emphasises Mary’s contentment by saying that “She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man, and to feel that warm male glow that came out of him to her when they were alone together.” This conveys a clear statement of how much she loved her husband.
Mary pays a lot of attention to what the husband does – e.g. “she loved him for the way he sat loosely in his chair, or moved slowly across the room with long strides.” This conveys that she loves him very much, as she concentrates on him all the time, noticing what he does. Now, tension starts to mount, as they both drink in silence, however, Mary tries to start a conversation, but miserably fails. “‘Tired, darling?’ Yes, I’m tired.” This conveys that something may be wrong; as Mr Maloney speaks in monosyllabic words throughout the paragraph; e.g. “Yes”, “No”, “Sit down”. Also again, there is no endearment from Mr Maloney, conveying now that he definitely doesn’t show any affection towards his wife.
The writer focuses on drink (alcohol) several times throughout the story. He does this to create tension, as some people depend on alcohol when they are avoiding, panicking or even feeling uncomfortable about something. This causes tension as Mr Maloney “lifted his glass and drained it in one swallow. He got up and went slowly to get another” this possibly conveys that Mr Maloney is also feeling uncomfortable, as he tries to finish it as soon as possible. This time he wants another drink, but stronger; this may be sending signals that something is wrong. The last parts of page 15, is where anxiety increases, as Mary digresses on, as she feels uncomfortable by the silence because he doesn’t respond.
Mary obsesses about him and keeps going on – “if you’re too tired to eat out, it’s not too late. There’s plenty of meat and stuff in the freezer, and you can have it right here, and not even move” Mary tries her very best to get him to feel comfortable and open up, but still, there is no response from him. This conveys that Mr Maloney may feel suffocated by Mary, as she doesn’t let him do anything, and that she is always with him, all the time. On page 16, “I’ll get you some cheese and crackers first. ‘I don’t want it,’ he said.” Mary still insists on making Mr Maloney something. “She moved uneasily in her chair, the large eyes still watching his face.” This may suggest that Mary may be getting emotionally prepared for something awful. The writer has cleverly gone back to Mary’s large eyes, as this reminds us of the innocence – the lamb.
Mary keeps things moving by making Mr Maloney eat something. “But, darling, you must eat! I’ll fix it anyway, and then you can have it or not, as you like.” This conveys that Mary may be insisting to avoid what Mr Maloney is about to say. “‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘Just for a minute, sit down.” This builds suspense, as Mary and the readers are about to find something out. As we come closer and closer to find out what has happened, the writer obtains detail from Mr Maloney’s expression to build more tension. “He had become absolutely motionless, the lamp beside him fell across the upper part of his face, leaving the chin and mouth in shadow.” This creates the minute detail to create further emphasis on tension; and the short, sharp sentences are used to build up the distress and anxiety.
In the next paragraph, the secret is let out. “And he told her… So there it is” It is very clever for the writer to withhold the reason why Mr Maloney is leaving Mary, as this increases tension because it gives us the reason to speculate; and guess why he is leaving her. Mr Maloney doesn’t care for Mary, as he says, “Of course I’ll give you money and see that 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.” This gives us very negative impressions about Mr Maloney, that he is a cold-hearted, self-centred man; and everything we have been told about Mr Maloney has made us biased against him to dislike him.
In the following page, the writer involves us into Mary’s mind, and what she is going through at these points. In the next paragraph, “She herself had imagined the whole thing…” Mary has a typical and realistic reaction to shock, as she tries to reject it all and pretend that nothing ever happened. Mary has a physical reaction to the shock, as she “couldn’t feel her feet touching the floor. She couldn’t feel anything at all – except slight nausea and a desire to vomit.” The writer establishes that Mary is on “automatic pilot”, as she seems to be carrying on as normal as if she was programmed. This builds tension, as we don’t know what Mary is going to do next.
In the next sentence, the writer increases anticipation by keeping Mary in ‘automatic pilot’, as she heads “to the cellar, then to the deep freeze and the hand inside the cabinet taking hold of the first object it met. A leg of lamb.” The writer has put ‘a leg of lamb’ by itself to make it obvious that it is the murder weapon. Also, it creates irony, as the ‘lamb’ relates to everything in this story – Mary, as she is left by the cruel husband, or maybe the husband could be the lamb, as he could have felt suffocated by the wife. In the next paragraph, Mary “carried it upstairs, holding the thin bone-end of it with both hands and as she went through the living room, she saw him standing over by the window with his back turned to her, and she stopped.”
The writer maintains the suspense by describing the ‘leg of lamb’ as a hard bat or club, as she carries it in a way o protect herself – “thin-end with both hands”. The writer foreshadows that the murder is going to take place, as he has already described the ‘leg of lamb’ as a club that can kill anybody. In the next sentence, Mr Maloney says “‘For god’s sake,’ he said, hearing her, but not turning around, ‘don’t make supper for me. I’m going out.” This conveys that Mr Maloney doesn’t even care that he has left her, and is very disrespectful, as he doesn’t even turn around. The writer sustains the tension, as we don’t know whether Mary is going to hit him or not.
At that moment, Mary commits the murder “Mary Maloney simply walked up and without any pause, swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head.” The writer still maintain tension throughout; as we don’t know what Mary is going to do now with the body – if she is going to call the police, prepare a plan, or get arrested? However, the writer still keeps us sympathising with Mary, as Mr Maloney had left her, and also Mary had committed a crime of passion, therefore she didn’t plan it.
In the sentence “She might just as well have hit him with a steel club.” This suggests how lethal a leg of lamb can be, and that she virtually just killed him. After this, Mary begins to think very fast. “As the wife of a detective, she knew quite well what the penalty would be. That was fine. Made no difference to her. On the other hand, what about the child? What were the laws about murderers with unborn children…”? This creates tension, as Mary is jumping to conclusions and getting anxious, but nevertheless, we still empathise with her, as she doesn’t care what happens to her – she is only worried about how to protect her unborn baby and “she wasn’t prepared to take a chance” therefore, she had to get away with the murder. This creates increasing tension, as we find out whether she gets away with it or not.
To get rid of the murder weapon, Mary “carried the meat into the kitchen, placed it into a pan, turned the oven on high, and shoved it inside. She washed her hands and ran upstairs” This establishes tension now, as Mary got rid of the murder weapon, therefore there is no proof or evidence to show that Mary is the killer. On page 18, Mary has an internal dialogue, as she tries to figure out what to do. She intends to go out to buy some “potatoes” and “peas”. The writer builds tension in the mirror scene, as Mary practices how to communicate to anyone, without them suspecting anything. “Hullo Sam…I want some potatoes to please, Sam and a can of peas.” This shows that Mary isn’t nervous, and wants to show Sam that everything is normal at home. This builds tension, as we don’t know if Sam can suspect anything.
There is also irony, as we have figured out that Mary won’t be buying cheesecake or two potatoes anymore, now that her husband is dead. Once we are aware of this, we sympathise with Mary, as her life has totally changed in one night. Throughout the next paragraph, the writer uses emotive language to get across the idea that Mary genuinely feels sorry that she killed her husband, and that she loved him. The writer uses words like ‘frantic’, ‘tragic’, shock’, ‘terrible’, ‘grief’, ‘horror’ to convey the emotions that describe how Mary is feeling when she sees her husband’s dead body. Mary has now phoned the police up and told them about what she has found. The writer builds tension again, by making us feel anxious that Mart won’t be able to get away with it, as now the police, detectives and forensic pathologists are involved.
As all the people gather into the house, more tension and suspense is built; as there is less chance of getting away with the murder. The writer uses verbs like ‘hurried’, and ‘quickly’ to link to a sense of emergency, and again, the people are withholding information from her, as they ‘whisper’ and ‘mutter’. This also creates anxiety, as we don’t know what they are talking about – if they think that Mary is the murderer or not. The people started to look for the murder weapon, and said, “It was almost like a large piece of metal.” Ironically, the weapon was cooking in the oven, out of the police’s reach.
We are reminded of Mr Maloney halfway down page 21, as Mary says, “she could hear their footsteps on the gravel outside.” The writer makes us feel sorry for Mary, as she will never have to do that again, as her husband is dead. The last two pages are when the murder weapon is finally disposed of. “You must be terribly hungry by now because it’s long past your super time…why don’t you eat up that lamb that’s in the oven? It’ll be cooked just right by now.” The writer creates a lot of dramatic ironies here, as the policemen and the others eat the lamb without suspecting anything. “Their voices were all thought and sloppy full of meat.” This is not a very attractive scene of someone eating, and reminds us of animal eating, as they ‘belch’, etc.
The policemen and others start to discuss the weapon. “That’s the hell of a big club the guy must’ve used to hit poor Patrick… that’s why it ought to be easy to find.” This is very ironic as they are discussing the murder weapon while eating it. The writer builds tension, as the reader feels excited that Mary is going to get away with the murder. Right at the end of the story, comes a twist. “‘Probably right under our very noses.’ And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.” This is very surprising, as Mary had given an inappropriate reaction. This may be due to that she is giggling with relief that she had got away with it, but personally, I think she is giggling because she has gone mad with the emotions, as she is happy as he is not there to treat her badly, but she is also sad because she loved him very much, and that their baby is going to grow up without a father.