What seems to be solid in one’s life can quickly dissolve.

At the opening of the story, Mary Maloney’s life appears solid. Her home is orderly and intact. Her joyful anticipation of the sound of the car tires on the gravel outside and the punctuality of her husband Patrick’s arrival show that the couple has consistent, dependable routines. The narration is specific about the bliss Patrick’s presence brings to Mary. She is in the sixth month of her pregnancy, which renders her appearance radiant. The community seems to share her conviction that her marriage is solid, as indicated by Sam the grocer’s familiarity with their habits, to the point of making suggestions about Patrick’s dessert preferences. It also becomes evident that one of the couple’s consistent, dependable routines is a date night nearly every Thursday.

On the Thursday evening when the story takes place, however, all this solidity dissolves when Patrick tells his wife the truth in a statement the narrator describes as taking no more than four or five minutes. The narration leaves Patrick’s announcement unspecified but it is clear that he is leaving Mary. Their carefully planned routine destroyed, Mary quickly transforms from upstanding citizen and loving wife to murderer and widow. Their marriage is destroyed by Patrick’s decision to leave, their orderly home disrupted by a team of investigators as a result of Mary’s violent reaction, and their carefully plotted life together has dissolved entirely.

Desperation makes morality less defined.

Mary begins the story as an objectively moral person. She is faithful in her relationship and completely devoted to her spouse as evidenced by the various descriptions of why she loves him, coupled with her desire to make him comfortable and happy. The narrator references her responsibility with alcohol consumption. She makes a “strongish” drink for Patrick but a weaker one for herself. (In the 1950s the possible harmful effects of alcohol on a child in utero were not as well known.) Mary kills her husband out of spontaneous passion and not out of an immoral disregard for the sanctity of life, yet she sees her own hypothetical execution as just punishment for the crime and is content to accept that.

However, she experiences desperation when she speculates that the child she carries may be terminated along with her, or that she may be obliged to carry the baby to term only to be separated from her child forever. Immediately after realizing the true extent of what her future may hold, desperation drives Mary to begin a series of calculated lies and manipulations that could be considered truly immoral. However, the narrator at no point makes judgements of her morality.

Sudden monumental change can be a catalyst for strength.

“Lamb to the Slaughter” is a darkly humorous suspense story of a woman finding strength in an outrageous way. Though Dahl does not pointedly deal in stereotype, the clichéd view of the 1950s homemaker is of an obedient and dutiful domestic partner. In the beginning, Mary fits that cliché. The opening finds a six-month-pregnant Mary sitting at home waiting to serve. Though her husband’s curt, affectionless rebukes surprise her a little, she accepts them without challenging him. She puts his needs ahead of her own and is willing to sacrifice their night of dining out without requiring any compromise.

The sudden monumental change comes when her husband Patrick lays out a confession along with some conditions that he has predetermined, following both with more uncultivated insensitivity. In Dahl’s sly writing style, the narrator does not reveal the confession itself but makes it clear that Patrick is unceremoniously ending their marriage. The sudden shock changes her behavior from docility to swift aggression as she kills Patrick.

After that, with little effort, Mary covers up her crime. It comes as a surprise to Mary that she is skillful enough to pull off a flawless act of innocence for both the neighborhood grocer and a team of police investigators. Her mind operates with a sharpness that is barely hinted at in the opening of the story where the narration describes her translucence, placidity, and softness. With Patrick dead, and having been the one to kill him in an act of reckless aggression, Mary is finally capable of finding her own strength and being fully independent from the husband to whom she once deferred.