Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Intention versus Impulse

The story is filled with impulses that spring from passion or necessity, and intentions that either get fulfilled or ultimately mutate into impulsive acts.

The pregnant Mary’s intention at the opening of the narrative is to provide a pleasant evening for her husband and for herself. She has set the scene in a pristine room with drawn curtains that keep the outside world at bay and a cozy bartending arrangement on the sideboard. Each of her attempts to fulfill her intention run aground. Patrick’s arrival is punctual but his tone is unanticipated, as is the information he delivers. Her intention to cook supper with the leg of lamb turns instead into the impulse to kill him with the frozen leg of lamb. By the end of the opening scene, all order has been overturned, her husband is dead, and Mary is a murderer. The initial intention has been shattered.

Mary’s impulse to accept punishment for her crime turns into an intention to save herself for the sake of her unborn child. As the investigations proceed, Mary entertains no further impulses. She calculates silently to dispose of the key piece of evidence against her in a creative and ironic way and carries out one final devious intention.

Finding Strength

Mary’s position at the beginning of the narrative is not a particularly strong one. She is pregnant, which is a condition that, especially in the 1950s when the story was written and is set, severely limited a woman’s options. It can be inferred from the narrator’s descriptions of her housekeeping, her devotion to her marriage, and her occupation with her sewing that she has no job outside the home. This indicates that Mary’s skill set lies within the domestic arts. She accepts her husband’s unexpectedly rude and harsh behavior toward her with conciliatory responses. It is not until he adds insult to injury by telling her that he wishes to end their marriage that Mary snaps and begins a rapid transformation from homemaker to murderer.

Killing Patrick is not necessarily a morally strong thing to do, but it does require physical strength as well as the strength of unshakable decisiveness, and her reaction to the idea of punishment is characterized by a distinct lack of fear. Her decision to protect her unborn child no matter what becomes her fortification.

Mary also finds strength in the skills required to deceive the police. Her powers of inference are piqued during her quiet observations while the investigation proceeds. Her ability to manipulate the investigators into unknowingly destroying the evidence requires intelligence, and a tenacity she didn’t know she previously possessed. By the end of the story, Mary is a different person, one who is strong and willful rather than merely deferential and cooperative.

Changing Form

Every major element in “Lamb to the Slaughter” changes form in some way. When the story opens, Mary has placed fresh ice cubes in a Thermos bucket on the sideboard, signaling the importance of ice, which is destined to melt and change. The hard frozen cubes clink against the glass as Patrick consumes his alcohol and indicate to Mary that something is not right.

Mary’s life is as solidified as ice, lacking spontaneity and marked by routines that dissolve after Patrick imparts the news that he is leaving her. The marriage briefly changes form and then ends altogether. Mary transforms from a dutiful wife to a wily widow. The setting transforms from a neat, cozy domestic fortress to a crime scene. Mary’s relationships with Sam and Jack Noonan change form from simple, trustworthy associations to calculated connections that benefit her.

The most important change in form is the frozen leg of lamb. It changes from potential nourishment to a deadly weapon. Then, over the course of the story, by the application of heat over time, the lamb gradually changes back from a heavy weapon to a soft, warm, seemingly innocent source of human sustenance.