Mid-20th Century

“Lamb to the Slaughter” was first published in 1953, and the story is set in the present day of the era in which it was written. Society had the expectation at that point in history that women would employ themselves as the homemakers in their own domiciles. Meanwhile their husbands took on the bread-winning jobs outside the home. Mary and Patrick are representative of that cultural expectation.

The pregnant Mary’s use of alcohol reflects her era. She is moderate with her intake of the whiskey she has laid out on the sideboard, but she does not abstain altogether, as medical science has at this point yet to determine the risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Also typical of the mid-20th century are the names of the characters. Police detective Patrick Maloney, Sergeant Jack Noonan, and Officer O’Malley all have Irish names. Irish immigrants to America in the 1800s underwent, early on, harsh discrimination. It was not uncommon that the lack of employment opportunities and the resultant poverty often obliged many to take on the dangerous jobs of firefighting and law enforcement that more affluent citizens rejected. Thus, by the 20th century, they dominated the police departments.

Urban or Suburban

The narrator does not specify where the Maloney’s house is located. Critical analyses have often situated it in the American suburbs and considered Mary to be a suburban housewife. It seems more likely, however, that the location is urban, though not strictly inner city.

As the story opens, Mary is waiting for Patrick to come home from work and listens for his car on the gravel. While this could indicate either an urban or suburban setting, Mary later hurries from the house after the murder, grabbing her coat and running down the garden into the street. She is next discovered in the grocery shop. This would indicate that she did not drive to the store but arrived on foot and suggests an urban setting rather than a suburban one. When one of the detectives questions Mary about which grocer she visited, he goes outside into the street rather than getting into a vehicle. Again, this would suggest close proximity to the store like one might find in a city rather than a suburb.

Mary’s familiarity with Sam the grocer is probably as typical of a city neighborhood setting as it is of a suburban one. Possibly the strongest indication that the setting is urban is that all the policemen have Irish names. Irish immigrants to America and their descendants were still very much congregated in big cities during the 1950s when the story takes place.