Lamb to the Slaughter is a short story written by Roald Dahl.
You can observe that the setting, as described in the first paragraph, is a comfortable one in readiness for a couple to spend a relaxed evening. A loyal and committed wife, Mrs. Mary Maloney is waiting for her husband to return from work. Six months pregnant, she glows with contentment and security, ready to welcome Mr. Maloney. Familiar with his habits, she revels in his almost silent company. She knows he will not speak much till the first drink is finished. The entire description of their sitting together is an interesting one. She, unaware of what is going on in his mind, is ready to do anything to make him comfortable, please him. He, on the other hand, is trying to bring himself to break the news of his intention to abandon her. He empties his glass of whisky, refuses to have anything to eat, and then tells her what he intends to do.
In keeping with the principle that in a short story, less is more, the author does not quote all the details of what Maloney tells his wife. But we understand very well that he plans to leave her for another woman. Of course, he’ll give her money and she will be looked after. This is what is called revealing the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg here is the huge volume of distance that has come to exist between the couple. The presence of an iceberg, a very large dangerous block of ice is visible only as the tip which shows above but its hidden dangers manifest themselves in a frightening manner only when it is too late. In this story too, Maloney simply tells Mrs. Maloney of his intent to leave her, unaware of the fury of emotions released within her, by this declaration.
First, let us observe how the wife’s shock manifests itself. Her first instinct is not to believe any of it. She thinks she might be imagining the whole thing. Or, it might just be a bad dream and when she wakes up, she might find nothing has happened.
Then she gets up to prepare supper. Almost in a dare, she goes down to the cellar to fetch something to cook. The first thing she lays her hands on is a leg of lamb. Do not miss the irony of the word “lamb” here. Still standing by the window with his back to her, Mr. Maloney tells her that he is going out and she shouldn’t make supper for him. In one angry reflex, Mary Maloney simply walks up behind him and hits him on the back of his head with the frozen leg of lamb. The blow is fatal; he falls to the carpet. The crash, the noise of the small table overturning brings her out of her shock.
Her mind starts racing. She realizes the enormity of what she has done. Then, she plans out her evening. She puts the lamb in the microwave to cook. Then she goes out to the greengrocer’s and returns with stuff to be cooked for supper. Then she kneels by the body of her dead husband, finds him dead, and calls the police.
Then, it is as if the detectives take over the action of the story. They fuss around completing all the procedures, finding clues, but of course not finding the weapon used for the murder. As they work late into the right, Mary, showing genuine concern for her husband’s former colleagues, offers them the leg of lamb that was cooking in the microwave. This, in effect, destroys, the weapon of offence. As they eat, they remark ironically that the blunt object used to kill Maloney is probably somewhere right there, “under their noses,” yet they are unable to see it. Of course, the reader and Mary know that the murder weapon is right “under their noses”, being destroyed by becoming food for the hungry cops.
We know the murder cannot be solved in a conventional way. That is why Mrs. Maloney giggles in the other room as the policemen conjecture the presence of the weapon.
This story is replete with instances of black humour. Black humour is humour arising out of situations arising out of death and tragedy. Jokes arising out of such situations or language are called “black”.