The best stories are often those in which we miss most of what the author is doing. A good author is not only able to use the tricks and tools of language to tell a good story but able to hide those tools so that they don’t distract the reader. Yet in stories like "Lamb to the Slaughter," there is a great deal of value in looking at and understanding what they have done. That is why the examination of the structure of a story is so useful. Understanding the rising and falling action of "Lamb to the Slaughter" can help writers to tell a better story and readers to understand and enjoy the skill of the author just as someone might enjoy the brush strokes of a master painter.
In order to understand what happens after the climax, one must first be able to pinpoint the point of maximum tension in the story. In the case of "Lamb to the Slaughter," there are in some ways two climaxes. The first of these is at the point in which Mary attacks her husband and kills him. This is the culmination of everything that has happened to this point in the story. The story then pulls back and allows the action to fall.
The second and main climax of the story occurs when the detective notices that the oven is still on with the leg of lamb cooking. This is the point at which the detectives are closest to discovering the murder weapon and Mary has to keep from being caught. The conflict then begins to rise again as she creates an alibi and brings in the police to catch the murderer.
Just as there are two climax in the story, there are two major conflicts in this story. The first of these conflicts is between Mary and Patrick as Patrick tells his pregnant wife that he is going to leave her. This conflict ends as Mary hits her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and leads into the main conflict of the story. This second conflict is in Mary's attempt to avoid being caught. She knows that if she is caught she will be executed and fears that her unborn child will be killed as well. This becomes the main conflict of the story and leads to the ultimate resolution of the story in which the detectives eat the evidence of her crime.
Rising and Falling Action of the First Climax
The action of the story begins to rise as Mary waits for her husband to return in anticipation and continues to increase as it becomes clear that he is preparing to tell her something. It reaches its climax as he explains that he knows that it is a bad time and as he turns his back Mary hits him with the leg of lamb.
The falling action for the first of these climaxes is interesting because it has to set up the action for the second half of the story while releasing some of the tension of the first half so that it can be rebuilt. The line which carries the load of this work reads "All right, she told herself. So I’ve killed him."
This line pulls back the emotions not only of Mary who is telling the story, but also the reader. It is a well created note to the reader that the story is now going to slow down and change. The next paragraph continues this as the woman, who was moments ago out of control, begins to think through the possibilities. She knows that the penalty for murder is execution, but fears for her unborn child and decides that she must protect that child. This then leads into the action beginning to rise again as she focuses on avoiding being captured.
Rising and Falling Action of the Second Climax
The second climax of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is the true climax of the entire story. With action that continues to rise as Mary tries to cover up her crime from seconds after she commits it until the moment the detective sees that the oven is still on, the tension spikes. At this moment, Mary is very close to being caught. Yet she is able to think clearly and doesn’t react out of fear. The character herself creates the falling action as she offers the officers something to drink and asks them to help her get rid of the meal that she had been cooking for her husband.
This leads not only into the irony of "Lamb to the Slaughter" as the officers eat the evidence that would have likely put Mary into the electric chair, but also the falling action. The officers have clearly decided that she is the victim of the crime and not the perpetrator as they try to console her.
The last of the action disappears as the police officer, while eating the leg of lamb says of the murder weapon, "Probably right under our very noses," a literal truth that makes it entirely clear that the police have no idea what happened and are unlikely to discover the truth. In the other room, the last line of the story shows Mary free of tension as she begins to giggle.
The resolution of "Lamb to the Slaughter" is largely implied by the final line. The assumption of the author and reader is that with the murder weapon gone, Mary will not be captured for the crime. Yet none of this is actually said in the story. The story simple ends with the police commenting on the lack of murder weapon and Mary giggling presumably at the irony of them looking for the weapon while eating it.
"Lamb to the Slaughter" is an excellent example of a story that is able to create and release action expertly. It builds up slowly, adding tension on top of tension, until it reaches a crescendo and then releases that, creating a powerful story in the process. Understanding where and how that the author has created that rising and falling action can help to create a greater appreciation for this story and the masterful brush strokes of a master artist as he created the story.
- Image: Roald Dahl by Carl Van Vechten under Public Domain
- Dahl, Roald. Lamb to the Slaughter. Harper’s Magazine, 1953, http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lamb.html