‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ tells of at least one betrayal: Patrick Maloney’s unexplained decision to leave his pregnant wife. This violation of the marriage-vow is obviously not the only betrayal in the story, however. Mary’s killing of her husband is perhaps the ultimate betrayal. Her elaborately planned alibi and convincing lies to the detectives also constitute betrayal. Identity Dahl plays with the notion of identity both at the level of popular psychology and at a somewhat more philosophical, or perhaps anthropological, level.
At the level of popular psychology, Dahl makes it clear through his description of the Maloney household that Mary has internalized the bourgeois, or middle class, ideal of a young mid-twentiethcentury housewife, maintaining a tidy home and catering to her husband; pouring drinks when the man finishes his day is a gesture that comes from movies and magazines of the day. Mary’s sudden murderous action shatters the image that we have of her and that she seems to have of herself. Dahl demonstrates, in the deadly fall of the frozen joint, that ‘‘identity’’ can be fragile. Once she shatters her own identity, Mary must carefully reconstruct it for protective purposes, as when she sets up an alibi by feigning a normal conversation with the grocer. ) In the anthropological sense, Dahl appears to suggest that, in essence, human beings are fundamentally nasty and brutish creatures capable of precipitate and bloody acts. Then there are the police detectives, who pride themslves on their ability to solve a crime, but whom Mary sweetly tricks into consuming the main exhibit.
Their identity, or at least their competency, is thrown into doubt.Love and Passion At the beginning of ‘‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’’ Mary Maloney feels love and physical passion for her husband Patrick. She luxuriates in his presence, in the ‘‘warm male glow that came out of him to her,’’ and adores the way he sits, walks, and behaves. Even far along into her pregnancy, she hurries to greet him, and waits on him hand and foot—much more attentively, it appears from his reactions, than he would like. Patrick is presumably motivated to leave his wife by an overriding passion for something or someone else.Mary’s mention of his failure to advance at work, and his own wish that she not make a ‘‘fuss’’ about their separation because ‘‘It wouldn’t be very good for my job’’ indicate that it may be professional success that he desires.
His treatment of his wife does not suggest that he loves her. Passivity The concept of passivity figures in the story. The first pages of the story portray Mary’s existence as almost mindlessly passive: she sits and watches the clock, thinking that each minute brings her husband closer to her.She is content to watch him closely and try to anticipate his moods and needs. Patrick’s predictability up to this point is part of this passivity. The two are living a clockwork life against which, in some way, each ultimately rebels. Passivity appears as the repression of passion, and passion finds a way to reassert itself.
Justice and Injustice The question of justice and injustice is directly related to the question of revenge. ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’’ narrates a train of injustices, beginning with Patrick’s betrayal of Mary and their marriage, peaking with Mary’s killing of Patrick, and finding its denouement in Mary’s deception of the investigating officers. Patrick acts unjustly (or so it must be assumed on the basis of the evidence) in announcing his abandonment of Mary, for this breaks the wedding oath; Mary acts unustly, in a way far exceeding her husband’s injustice, in killing Patrick, and she compounds the injustice by concealing it from the authorities.