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Study Questions on "Lamb to the Slaughter"

written by: Elton Gahr • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 3/2/2012

To understand "Lamb to the Slaughter" fully, it requires more that simply understanding the events of the story. It is important also to understand the reasons for the characters' actions and the choices that the author made. These questions will help to delve into the depth of this story.

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    "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl Roald Dahl is a fun story that uses irony and perspective to create a truly enjoyable story. Still, to get the greatest value out of this story, it is worthwhile to understand not only what happens in the story but why it happens. From the way the situations of the characters change them to the decisions they make, everything in this story must work together to create a masterpiece.

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    What Point of View Is "Lamb to the Slaughter" Told From and Why Is That Important?

    "Lamb to the Slaughter" is told from the point of view of Mary Maloney. This choice to tell the story from the point of view of the murderer is an interesting choice and one that largely defines this story. The reader knows only what she knows. At times, such as the end of the story, this means that the reader knows more than the other characters, especially in relation to the leg of lamb. On the other hand, the reader is not given access to the reasoning behind Patrick’s decision to leave. This makes it far easier for the reader to be on Mary’s side when she makes questionable decisions.

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    What Influence Does Mary's Pregnancy Have on the Story?

    Early in the story, the reader discovers that Mary Maloney is pregnant. This understanding is important to the story on a number of levels. The most basic is that it helps the reader to understand just what it is that her husband is doing by leaving her. This makes the story more ambiguous in morality by making the reader associate with the woman more. In addition, it almost certainly helps keep her from being suspected. The motherly instinct of protection is invoked by this understanding as anyone can understand the instinct of a mother protecting her child and the fear of execution is vital to making Mary a more positive character.

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    Why Are the Exact Words Patrick Says When Leaving Mary Left Out?

    In the middle of the conversation between Patrick and Mary, the narration changes for a single paragraph at the very climax of the conversation. Patrick leads into the conversation with the hope she won’t blame him too much. It then says that he told her, though not exactly what, and ends with him saying that he will take care of her. This change in narration is disconcerting and in large part that is the point. This helps the reader to understand the disorientation and detachment of Mary.

    In addition to this, by not telling the reader exactly what happened, it gives far more power to the reader in the interpretation of her later actions. By not knowing exactly what he said, it lets the reader decide if Mary’s actions in the rest of the story are justified or not.

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    Why Is Patrick's Profession Important?

    Patrick is a police detective. This bit of information is vital to the story in a number of ways. As a story in which the reader is supposed to empathize with the murderer, having the victim be a vital and trusted member of society creates even more conflict in the mind. In addition to this, it plays with two basic ideas, that the police will look for a killer more vigorously if an officer is killed, but also that she knows the officers who will investigate the crime. This means that they are more likely to be comfortable with her. Also important is the understanding that Mary is likely to have an escape of being arrested for the crime. As the wife of a police detective, she has almost certainly heard many stories about crimes that he has solved and how he has done it. Finally, this creates many other suspects that could have committed the crime because as a police detective he has many enemies.

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    What Is the Dramatic Irony in "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

    There are a couple of moments of dramatic irony in "Lamb to the Slaughter." These are cases in which the reader understands more than the characters. The most clear of these occurs near the end of the story. Mary has called the police and the detectives are in her house. As they are eating the lamb of leg, one of the officers says in relation to the murder weapon that it is “probably right under our very noses.” This statement is literally true though the officer who says it has no idea what he is saying.

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    What Is the Origin and Meaning of the Title "Lamb to the Slaughter"?

    The original use of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is found in the Bible. This phrase is located in both Jeremiah and Isaiah. It refers to someone who goes innocently and unconcernedly into a dangerous or life threatening situation. In the story "Lamb to the Slaughter," it has a number of meanings though.

    The first clear meaning is one that is a form of dark humor. The lamb in this case is actually a murder weapon. This twists the meaning of lamb to the slaughter into something that is not a metaphor but what actually happens.

    While the first meaning is clear, the metaphorical use of the statement is still valid and in fact there are two people who go into a situation like lambs to the slaughter. The first of these is the murder victim who, while knowing he is going to do something uncomfortable, has no idea what is going to happen to him. The second though is Mary herself. It is the shock because she doesn’t know what is coming and that shock is what drives her over the edge.

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    Why Does Mary Insist the Police Eat the Leg of Lamb?

    Leg of Lamb 

    In the story, Mary asks the detectives to eat the leg of lamb she had made for her husband, and even when they turn it down, she insists that they eat this. This insistence is important beyond simply the idea that it is the murder weapon. By having the detectives eat the lamb, they have destroyed the evidence which will make them look stupid even if they later understand. This will discourage them from thinking of it as a weapon. In addition, because she ensures they have seen the murder weapon rather than hiding it, she defies the expectations as most criminals hide the weapon.

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