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From Feminine to Fatal: A Feminist Approach to Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”

Throughout the years, women have been overpowered, oppressed and silenced. The act of “angel of the house” was the personae that women adopted while, behind closed doors, they endured unjust and cruel treatments. Literature, mostly written by men, rarely portrays these struggles and tends to sugarcoat the harsh reality of the sexist and patriarchal societies. However, there are rare exceptions. Although Roald Dahl is known for specializing in children’s literature, he wrote a collection of shocking, mind-twisting and unforgettable short stories. This article will analyze one of these fictions, “Lamb to the slaughter”, from a feminist point of view, focusing on the central figure of the story, Mary Maloney. In this narrative, MaryMaloney starts off as the victim, but quickly become a sly, vengeful and unapologetic murderer.

To begin with, Dahl begins his story with the familiar childish tone that he employs in most of his works. Mrs. Maloney is described as a typical housewife: she spends her days doing chores, patiently waiting for her husband to come home, and, most importantly, expecting a child. When the book begins, she is sewing, a common and domestic activity for a housewife. As soon as her husband’s car enters the driveway, her mood shifts, and she excitedly attends to his every need, highlighting her submissive and obedient nature. On the other hand, he is not reciprocating her care and affection, which doesn’t seem to strike her as odd. It isn’t until he orders her to sit down for a chat that she “began to get frightened” (Dahl, 1953).This fear allows the audience to believe in Mrs. Maloney’s innocence and helplessness, making her eventual crime that much more striking.

Figure 2: Photograph of the film Lambs to the slaughter by Alfred Hitchcock (1958)

This short story is built on ironies. Starting from the very beginning of the tale, the wife is comically ecstatic with the mere presence of her husband, so her attitude mocks the social stereotypes of the devoted wife and the cold husband: “She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man” (Dahl, 1953).However, the main irony lies in the title of Dahl’s work: the lamb leg. The reader can sense the literary comedy in the fact that a dinner, often associated with the realm of women, turns into a weapon used to fight the patriarchy. According to Jaber (2016):

There is perversity and absurdity in the way that a leg of lamb (intended to be cooked for dinner) is turned into a murder weapon and how after it becomes a murder weapon it is tuned back to be a dinner meal.(pp.1173-1174)

The lamb leg comes full circle, and disappears from existence.Furthermore, the choice of animal in the story holds a certain ironical paradox. Joshi (2015) states that “When an individual is innocent, trusting and has no clue that another is trying to take advantage of him or her, that is like leading a lamb to the slaughter”. He continues by arguing that, at first, one tends to believe that Mary is very naïve and clueless, but later the reader comes to realize that she is cleverer and stronger than she seems.

The illusion of the perfect, happily-married couple quickly vanishes as Patrick declares that he intends on leaving his pregnant wife as soon as possible. He proceeds to appease her pain and shock by assuring her that he will be financing her and their unborn child. This compensation feels frail after witnessing Mary’s attention and care towards her working husband; this offer even feels humiliating and degrading to a woman whose heart has just been shattered. Patrick’s behavior only strengthens the need of audience to sympathize with Mary and to understand her motivations. The roles here are reversed, as we pity the murderess and abhor the victim. Additionally, the feminist power of this story lies in its eventual effect on the reader: as Mary gets away with her crime and slightly “giggles”, the reader celebrates her victory and even feels relieved.

Figure 3: Oil painting of Lamb to the Slaughter by Math Metivier (n.d)

Having heard the news, Mrs. Maloney quickly goes through the stages of grief: at first, she is in complete and utter denial: “Her first instinct was not to believe any of it, to reject it all” (Dahl, 1953). However, the next stage of grief, anger, is manifested through the murder itself rather than through verbal aggression. The act itself feels rather effortless and easy, even humorous to Mary: “the funny thing was that he remained standing there for at least four or five seconds, gently swaying” (Dahl, 1953).

Mrs. Maloney has no time to bargain and, thus, skips the third stage as she quickly develops a plan to find herself an alibi to escape punishment. Even within these brief moments of panic, Mary’s maternal instincts get the best of her, as she is mostly worried about the future of her child. Her affectionate side resurfaces once more during the story as she attains the fourth stage: depression. Remembering the love she had for Patrick and his sudden death brings Mary to a brief breaking point. Here the reader witness Mary’s true feelings after several instances of fake surprise and sadness: “No acting was necessary” (Dahl, 1953). This sentence is short, but effective as it highlights the depth of her previously concealed emotions. What really stands out in this narrative is that the final stage of grief precedes the rest of them, as Mary comes to the sudden and conclusive deduction that she has killed her husband. This acceptance is what drives the plot forward, but it also portrays Mary as a strong, unconventional woman that is able to switch so quickly from a loving and caring wife to a psychopathic killer.

To sum up, Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” is a captivating short story that challenges the traditional gender norms in only a few pages. By killing her husband, Mary is seen as an unconventional, powerful and feminist woman that would not allow her spouse to walk away freely, abandoning her and their unborn child. Jaber (2016) mentions in her article that Dahl “combines horror, shock, and absurdity in a way that reinforces the effect of his work”. By using irony and dark humor, the author addresses the issues of gender inequality, patriarchy and transfer of power. References

Dahl, R. (2012). Lamb to the Slaughter (A Roald Dahl Short Story). Penguin UK.

Jaber. (2016). The Female Avenger: Violence, Absurdity, and Black Humour in Roald Dahl's Short stories. Journal of the College of Education for Women, 27(3).

Joshi, D. P. (2015). Portrayal of Different Shades of Marital Life in The Lost Jewels and Lamb to the Slaughter: A thematic study. European Academic Research, 3 (2).

Pictures References

Figure 1. Chia, Roxanne (2011) Kelly Reemtsen’s ladies[Digital Illustration], Flickr.

Figure 2. Hitchcock, Alfred (1958) Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Lamb to the Slaughter. [Photograph] United States, Shamley Productions, CBS Productions.

Figure 3. Metivier, Math (n.d) Lamb to the Slaughter [Oil Painting], ArtStation.



Mar 20, 2023

This is disgusting. Murder is not ok. Women were not even treated that bad.

Mar 21, 2023
Replying to

Something tells me that this article is very very feminist


Charming and beautifully creepy. The perfect woman may not exist, but the perfect crime does.

Apr 27, 2023
Replying to

L opinion

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Elsa Abdallah

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