The Lamb Slaughter Essay Contest

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Sections:Information | Plot Description | Reviews | Criticism and Analysis | Teacher Ideas


  • Related books:
  • Magazine publications:
  • Theater:
    • The Honeys (play), 1955, Longacre Theater, Broadway
  • Audio Books:
    • “De Fijnproever & Lam Ter Slachtbank” read by Hans Keller
    • “Lamb to the Slaughter” read by Juliet Stevenson
    • Someone Like You read by Julian Rhind-Tutt, Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig, Derek Jacobi, Richard Griffiths, Willl Self, Jessica Hynes, Juliet Stevenson, Adrian Scarborough, Richard E. Grant
    • Tales of the Unexpected read by Geoffrey Palmer, Joanna David, Tom Hollander, Patricia Routledge, and Joanna Lumley
  • TV Shows:

Plot Description

This is probably the most well-known of all Dahl’s short stories, simply because (in my opinion) it’s so simple. There isn’t a single wasted word in it. It’s gripping, shocking, and yet the story proceeds in such a rational manner that the reader’s suspension of disbelief is never broken. We are with Mary Maloney from the first sentence of the story, and only at the end do we realize that we never really knew her at all.

Spoiler warning! Mary Maloney is a devoted wife and expectant mother. She waits happily each night for the arrival of her husband Patrick, home from work at the police station. On this particular night, though, she can tell something is wrong. In disbelief, she listens as Patrick tells her that he is leaving her for another woman. [Actually Dahl never really says this; the details are left up to the reader’s imagination.] Dazed, she goes into the kitchen to prepare their supper and pulls a large frozen leg of lamb from the deep freeze. Still numb, she carries it into the living room and without warning bashes her husband over the head with it. As she looks at Patrick lying dead on the floor, she slowly begins to come back to her senses. Immediately she realizes the ramifications of what she has done. Not wanting her unborn child to suffer as a result of her crime, she begins planning her alibi. She places the leg of lamb in a pan in the oven and goes down to the corner grocery to get some food for “Patrick’s dinner” (making sure the grocer sees her normal and cheerful state of mind). She returns home and screams when she finds Patrick lying on the floor. She calls the police and informs them that she found her husband lying dead on the floor. Within hours swarms of officers are searching the house and conducting an investigation. Mary’s story of coming home from the grocer and finding him is corroborated as she had planned. While the police are searching fruitlessly into the night for the murder weapon, Mary offers them some lamb that she had prepared for dinner. They are happy to oblige. While they lounge in the kitchen and discuss the case (their mouths “sloppy” with meat), Mary Maloney sits in the living room and giggles softly to herself.


Criticism and Analysis

Teacher Ideas

Reading “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl always leads to lively discussions in the classroom about the culpability of Mary Maloney. So of course I’m compelled to create a lesson where students battle out her guilt or innocence “Law and Order” style.

The Perfect Episode

You can’t just ask students to imitate “Law and Order.” Some, insert heart break, have never even seen an entire episode before. I found the perfect episode with “Family Hour” from season 17, episode 22: the season finale. A former senator murders his own daughter and is claiming self defense. Click here for the three-minute YouTube clip of the closing arguments.

UPDATE: The above clip is no longer available due to copyright infringement. Amazon Prime members can buy the SD version of the episode for $1.99 which is what I have done. I start the episode at 38:21 and let it run until 40:54. The verdict comes right after that.

It’s the perfect episode for this lesson because everyone knows the senator did kill his daughter. The lawyers are trying to prove now if he should be convicted for the murder or if it really was self defense. To set up a similar scenario with “Lamb to the Slaughter” I include in my writing prompt that Noonan figured it all out and they know Mary killed Patrick. Now, the lawyers (students) need to prove if Mary should be convicted for the murder or if she was temporarily insane.

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

The clip I show of the episode is just the closing argument and only lasts about three minutes. It’s short but very impactful. Each lawyer uses at least one instance of each appeal: ethos, pathos, and logos. I typed up the transcript of the closing arguments. Students annotate it to show each argument and analyze which appeal has the greatest impact on the jury.

Now students are ready to model their writing off of the “Law and Order” arguments. Students frequently just write out a summary, so it’s important to have them annotate their own arguments. Asking them to identify each argument usually leads to them realizing they didn’t include it yet. My students did a good deal of revising with this assignment, but in the end they came up with some really great work.

*For a quick lesson on ethos, pathos, and logos, hand out old magazines to students (one each or one per pair depending on your class and resources). After you explain each appeal, challenge them to find at least one advertisement that uses the appeal. I’ve shown examples in the past, but students better learn and internalize it when they have to find their own examples.

Once More, With Feeling

Further engage students by having them present against each other in an attempt to sway the jury (their classmates) to agree with them. This episode, the closing argument of a season finale, is intense. The actors do a fantastic job and the students love trying to out-do them. You can record student arguments and play them all together with a vote at the end; you can have them paired and battling one-on-one with a jury vote at the end of each battle; or you can take it a step further and involve a green screen so students can present in front of an actual (okay, just a picture) jury.

Click here for a link to my TeachersPayTeachers product if you want my worksheets already made. Hope your students like it as much as mine do!



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