Empathizing with the culprit- Lamb to the Slaughter Roald Dahl
Short stories

Empathizing with the Culprit- “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl

A murder most foul, an unlikely culprit, and a leg of lamb served to the detectives. Through all these, readers are still likely to associate more with the culprit than any other character.

Summary: Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl

It is in the evening and heavily pregnant Mary Maloney is eagerly waiting for her husband, Patrick, to come home from work at the Precinct. However, when Patrick arrives, he is jittery and even makes himself another drink- a stronger one this time- before telling Mary that he wishes to leave her.

“And I know it’s kind of a bad time to be telling you, bet there simply wasn’t any other way. Of course I’ll give you money and see 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.”

What happens from here is a suddenness of events from Mary Maloney’s shock and denial, murdering her husband with the leg of lamb she intended to prepare for dinner, and coming up with a strategy to cover up the crime. Dahl’s acceleration of events at this point of the story creates an experience of shock for the reader. The detectives who answer to her call find her beyond suspicion and even discuss the details of Patrick’s murder over the freshly cooked leg of lamb.

Literary Analysis: Using Language to Evoke Sympathy for the Villain

Dahl’s works have never fallen short of dark humor, including his children books, ironically. Besides the same in this story, the author also manages to evoke an ironic empathy from readers as he gets them to associate more with Mary Maloney as the victim despite her being the rather unapologetic murderer.

Early in the story, Dahl lets us know that Mary Maloney is six months pregnant. The pregnancy is an important part of the story because it perpetuates the woman’s role of childbearing in classic literature.

More importantly, the author ensures that the reader is aware of this fact ahead of the events about to unfold. Now, when you are planning to divorce your wife who thinks your marriage is perfectly fine, choosing to break the news on her sixth month of pregnancy is rather a cruel act. Can we also add that this is their weekly night out? Dahl gets us to empathize with Mary Maloney by ensuring that we view her as a victim first.

Even at the end of the story, we are laughing at the detectives’- the good guys in this case- ignorant remark and not justifiably concerned that Mary Maloney is likely to get away with her husband’s murder.

Mary Maloney is a loving, devoted, and submissive wife; an embodiment of the mid-20th century middle class housewife. She is a caregiver, and wants to make certain that her husband has everything he requires from food to comfort.

“‘Darling, shall I get your slippers?'”

“If you’re too tired to eat out,” she went on, “it’s still not too late. There’s plenty of meat and stuff in the freezer, and you can have it right here and not even move out of the chair.”

Dahl even goes further to show that Mary Maloney, unlike most female characters during that period in literature, loves her husband and is happy with their marriage. ” She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man, and to feel-almost as a sunbather feels the sun-that warm male glow that came out of him to her when they were alone together…, and especially the way he remained silent about his tiredness”. She is fervid and satisfied with being his wife.

Comparing this with Patrick’s callous attitude when talking about the divorce Paints Mary Maloney as the victim who deserves our empathy. When he is done telling her about the divorce, he adds,

“But there needn’t really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn’t be very good for my job.”

First he disregards her feelings or reactions to the news as a “fuss” and then goes ahead to unfairly victimize himself should she make a fuss. At this point, Patrick is the villain and Mary Maloney is the weak and timid wife. This is augmented by the fact that she covers up the crime solely to protect her unborn child from the same fate, for to her, the penalty would be a relief.

Also notice how Dahl’s description of Mary Maloney paints her as a meek, kind, innocent wife whom we have no reason to send to jail. He narrates ” There was a slow smiling air about her, and about everything she did. The drop of a head as she bent over her sewing was curiously tranquil. Her skin–for this was her sixth month with child–had acquired a wonderful translucent quality, the mouth was soft, and the eyes, with their new placid look, seemed larger darker than before.” Even as the events unfold to the end, readers are likely to view her as a transformed character, rather than a villain whom we all hate.

It could also be argued that Mary Maloney is not in her right mind when committing the crime. The fact that she is pregnant and in a shock induced by her husband’s insensitivity makes us see her as an object of sympathy despite learning that she has just killed Patrick. Dahl explains,

“…, she couldn’t feel her feet touching the floor. She couldn’t feel anything at all- except a slight nausea and a desire to vomit. Everything was automatic now- “

Dahl also suggests that Mary Maloney did not intend to kill her husband as she went downstairs to fetch something to prepare for dinner. After hearing it all from Patrick, she first decides to deny that it has occurred and ” then later, when she sort of woke up again, she might find none of it had ever happened.”

In the reader’s mind, the argument that this murder is not premeditated and that it is an act of impulse separates Mary Maloney from the heinous crime. Even at the end of the story, we are laughing at the detectives’- the good guys in this case- ignorant remark and not justifiably concerned that she is likely to get away with her husband’s murder.

What are your thoughts and questions on Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl? Let me know in the comment section.

Featured image by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Leave a Reply