Lamb To The Slaughter As A Representative Of Traditional Family Values In The 50s

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Lamb to the Slaughter is a short story published by author Roald Dahl in 1953. The story was set in America during the 1950s and illustrates the curious relationship between characters Mary and Patrick. In the beginning, the story portrays a calm and tranquil mood, however as the suspense builds so does Patrick’s innate hostility towards his wife, Mary. At the sudden breakdown of their marriage and the world she had built around Patrick, Mary commits her own betrayal by killing him. Dahl employs irony, symbolism, and allusion to address the theme of betrayal in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’. By using an array of literary devices, the reader is able to view the unrealistic portrayal of women at that time, and the traditional role of women as the author presents the idea of not accepting something at face value, as it might have a darker side.

Roald Dahl incorporates irony in order to represent the abstract principle that ‘everything is not always as it appears the author utilizes dramatic irony. This use of dramatic irony reveals to the reader Mary’s darker side. This appears in the text when Mary Maloney feeds the cooked leg of ham to the policemen, who seem blissfully unaware of what had taken place. This is made clear to the reader when one of the policemen comments in a conversation with his colleague, “The weapon of a murder could be right under our very noses”. The utilization of this aesthetic feature demonstrates to readers the misogynistic values present in the early 1950s as they wouldn’t suspect a woman of committing mariticide. “It’d be a favor to me if you’d eat it up”. The character is unaware that the lamb was used as a murder weapon. On the contrary the audience fully aware of the situation. Policemen think that Mary wants them to eat the lamb as no one else will eat, however, she just wanted them to consume it was so that the evidence for murder was completely erased. The irony is a major device used in Lamb to the Slaughter, even the title of the story suggests an innocent creature about to undergo torture and death. Mary could be represented as an innocent creature, as she would have met a similar fate if she was charged as guilty of murdering her husband. The author uses irony to demonstrate not only the portrayal of women in the 1950’s but the values attitudes and beliefs held by people at the time.

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Through the characterization of Mary, the reader is shown how she breaks the traditional values and stigmas around what it means to be a woman in the 1950s, as she finds her own strength and independence. The author utilizes direct characterization when describing the things Mary liked about her husband Patrick. This can be seen in the sixth paragraph of the story where she says, “after the long hours alone in the house. She loved the warmth that came out of him…She loved the shape of his mouth, and she especially liked the way he didn’t complain about being tired.” The author uses the aesthetic feature of characterization to make the reader sympathize with Mary, as any woman would do the same, which therefore makes the reader oblivious to Mary’s darker side. Furthermore, from the beginning to the ending of the story, the author makes it clear to the reader her Mary’s character develops to break the stigma. In the 1950s America misogyny was very prevalent within society and many believed women should confine to the role of a traditional housewife. Mary’s dynamic character goes from being warm, caring, and a loving wife who waits on her husband’s hand and foot. However, after Mary was told about the ‘shocking’ news her values changed and she reacted by murdering her husband, but she was never convicted as the policemen would never have suspected a typical traditional woman of committing the murder of her husband.

Dahl has used symbolism in Lamb to the Slaughter in order to show the reader how the traditional values of women were held against Mary Maloney. Through the use of this aesthetic feature, the author depicts Mary as more of an innocent character as opposed to her husband. In the second paragraph of the story it is made known to the reader that Mary is pregnant, where the narrator says, “As she bent over her sewing, she was curiously peaceful. For this was her sixth month with child”. The baby she is carrying represents the innocence that Mary has. Further embellishing her persona of being an innocent housewife, which overall pegs her as more of the lamb rather than the shepherd. Moreover, the leg of the lamb symbolizes Mary’s weakened status. The act of murdering of husband with the lamb represents her ‘slaughtering’ her own weakness. The lamb is eaten by the policemen which therefore destroys any valid evidence of her weakness and symbolizes her newfound strength and independence as a woman. Dahls carefully constructed the symbol of the lamb and creates a recognizable representation of woman’s independence in 1950’s America.

Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter is an excellent addition to the literary genre, as it uses the aesthetic features of irony, symbolism and characterization to address values and tradition forced upon women in the 1950’s. Dahl’s powerful incorporation of irony represents to the reader that how ‘everything is not always as it seems’. The characterization of Mary illustrates her growth as a character to break the stigma around what it means to be a woman. Dahl utilized symbolism in this short story to show Mary’s growth from a place of innocence to strength and independence. Overall, Lamb to the Slaughter and its power representation of what it means to be a woman in 1950’s America is an important reminder of how literature has the power to show real experiences allowing the audience to empathize with characters. 


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