Describe a key relationship between two or more characters or individuals in the text. Explain how this relationship helped you to understand at least one of these characters or individuals.
‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, written by Roald Dahl in the 1950s is a short story about Mary Maloney, a seemingly docile housewife who commits a crime of passion in response to a devastating revelation about divorce. Through Mary’s complex relationship with her husband Patrick Maloney, Dahl showcases the entrapment of Mary Maloney within the societal norms of a 1950s housewife and the consequences of the suffocating nature of following such ideals. This relationship allows the reader to understand Mary Maloney’s sudden shift in morality as she commits a crime of passion.
Mary Maloney is an archetype of the 1950s housewife. In the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to the Maloney household. Dahl describes how “the room was warm and clean” and this perfectly set up environment for Mary and Patrick with “two tall glasses”, “two table lamps and two chairs while she waits in anticipation for her husband to come home. Dahl uses the imagery of their house to paint a picture of Mary as a calm and devoted housewife whose life is centred around her husband. Like the description of their living room, Patrick is quite removed and absent from the relationship while Mary is devoted and committed. When he does come home, Mary loves to “luxuriate” in the presence of him, “almost as a sunbather feels the sun-that male glow that come out of him to her” and Patrick barely talks even after he finishes his drinks. To Mary, Patrick is like her lifestyle as she sunbathes in his presence while Patrick does not reciprocate the same amount of effort as he came home, sat in a chair, and started drinking. From this description, Dahl allows the reader to understand the Mary’s deeply engrained identity as a devoted homemaker which is synonymous to what is commonly expected of women in the 1950s. Since then, gender roles in marriage has become less ridged and there is a stark contrast between what is expected of a woman then and now. Thus, it is difficult for the modern reader to understand her deep devotion to her husband when the same feelings aren’t reciprocated. However, at the same time, this allows us to sympathise with her as we live in a better time where gender roles aren’t as enforced and we are more lucid to the horrible state that Mary Maloney and many other women would have been trapped in.
After Patrick’s excessive drinking, a pivotal exchange happens where Patrick tells Mary he wants a divorce. Interestingly, the word divorce is never mentioned in the exchange as Dahl only uses the simple phrase of “And he told her”. Dahl’s use of indirect dialogue indicates a deep-seated stigma towards divorce in the 1950s as the word isn’t even uttered. By not revealing the exact dialogue it highlights the discomfort in discussing the subject and hints to the weight it holds in society at that time. Especially for a housewife like Mary Maloney, a divorce signifies the failure at being a woman as they were often ostracised in society. In addition, Patrick’s dismissive phrase “There needn’t really be any fuss” signifies the expectation to suppress any upheaval about marital disputes. Furthermore, it reflects how men face far fewer social repercussions than women in terms of divorce as he dismisses her feelings and downplays what divorce might mean to Mary. Her intense emotional reaction to the divorce reflects the suffocating nature of societal standards that women had at the time. Due to such pressures, Mary’s identity and self-worth is anchored in these societal norms and the talk of divorce destroys her as she spirals in denial and kills her husband in a crime of passion. This extreme reaction allows the reader to understand the amount of desperation Mary felt when divorce was brought on her. Through her inability to process divorce, Dahl warns readers about the consequences of basing one’s self-identity on ridged parameters of what society deems acceptable.
After Mary murders her husband, she immediately tries to cover her tracks. She does this by going to the grocer to buy food to make supper and cooking the leg of lamb she used to kill her husband. This plays into her role in society as a homemaker as she performs domestic tasks in order to cover her tracks. In her interactions with the detectives, Dahl uses dramatic irony to highlight the absurdity of how significant societal roles were as Mary easily escapes being arrested for murder. This is evident in how the detectives treated her as a victim from the beginning as Dahl described “They were exceptionally nice to her”. The dramatic irony is further displayed when Mary encourages the detectives to eat the cooked leg of lamb which is also her murder weapon by saying that “It’d be a favour” for her. The manner in which the detectives never suspects Mary and even does her a favour by eating up the murder weapon shows that judging based on societal norms can be damaging. Furthermore, it indicates that anyone, no matter how innocent seeming, are capable of unimaginable things in desperation when pushed to their extremes.
Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is a short story about a housewife trapped in societal expectations. Despite her self-less adherence to those standards, her husband still decided to divorce her. Through Mary and Patrick’s relationship, Dahl employs various language structures such as imagery, indirect dialogue and dramatic irony allow the reader to understand Mary’s sudden shift is morality as she murders her husband in desperation. While Mary’s irrational act conveys the suffocating nature of societal expectations, it is also a cautionary tale that warns people of the dangers of basing one’s self-worth in the expectations of others. Especially in an age of social media it is more evident that Societal standards will never cease to exist, it will only transform. It is important that we don’t let societal expectations to shape our self-worth. As seen in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, the resulting irrational acts are not beneficial for anyone.