Symbolism and Irony in Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”

First published in 1953, the short story “Lamb to the Slaughter” is a dark comedy telling the story of a simple evening taking a morbid turn for a couple, as the wife murders her husband with their intended supper, a leg of lamb. Mary and Patrick Maloney’s evening started out the same as the rest, but when Patrick unexpectedly announces that he’s leaving Mary, whilst she is heavily pregnant,  it is too much for her to handle, and after always being a quiet, doting wife, she snaps (1-3).

There is a lot of clear symbolism in this story, but I want to focus on the most obvious being the use of the lamb throughout. Throughout history in literature, spirituality and society, the lamb has been viewed as a symbol of innocence, purity and sacrifice. The lamb in this story could be represented in several ways. Mary herself could symbolize a lamb, as she is the meek, innocent wife of a man who clearly has power and control over her in their marriage. Mary is shown to be at Patrick’s every beck and call, “(taking) his coat”, “(making) drinks”and jumping at the minute he wants anything (1).  She portrays all the qualities a lamb is symbolically known for like meekness, gentleness and following a leader, as shown by the way she follows Patrick around and meets his every need (1-3). Patrick could also been seen as a symbol, not just for a lamb, but for a “lamb to the slaughter”, a phrase well known to mean someone going about something calmly, totally unaware that something bad is going to happen. As Patrick delivers the devastating news to Mary, he is completely unaware that she soon will “(swing) the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and (bring) it down as hard as she could on the back of his head” (3).

Not only is there a lot of symbolism in this story, but along with the dark humour of it, Roald Dahl incorporates a lot of irony, in regards to the lamb as well. While Mary is symbolic of an innocent, meek lamb, it brings irony as she is the one to kill her husband, but is able to go unsuspected because of her pure and innocent known persona. As well, the idea of a lamb leg being used as a weapon, to bring harm is ironic, because it is so well viewed as a sign of innocence and purity, and the contrast is astounding. It can also be seen as ironic, because, diving into the spiritual aspect, biblically lambs were slaughtered as sacrifices to God, and now Mary used the lamb to ‘slaughter’, so to speak, and ‘sacrifice’ her husband for her own sanity, as she panics with the news that he is leaving her. Finally, towards the end of the story, Mary offers the cooked lamb to the police officers as a thank you, and they end up feasting on, ironically, the murder weapon, as they discuss that something used to cause so much damage must be “right under (their) very noses” (p. 6).

All that I just discussed supports the statement that Roald Dahl has the ability to use irony in a dark situation to create humour. As well he is able to incorporate deeper meaning in simple things throughout the story, to create a very engaging piece of writing.

Works Cited:

Dahl, Roald. “Lamb to the Slaughter”. Harper’s Magazine, Harper Publications, 1 Sept. 1953, Accessed from Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Illustrated Lamb Leg Photograph. “The Lamb to the Slaughter”. Thinglink, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.


2 thoughts on “Symbolism and Irony in Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter””

    1. Hi Colette,
      Sorry I just saw this comment! I am not sure what you can see, it looks fine on my screen, could you specify what sentence/part of a sentence you can first see? And I can try to adjust it!



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