From the Bookshelf: “Lamb to the Slaughter”

Lamb to the Slaughter

Mary Maloney (Barbara Bel Geddes) prepares to whack her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb in the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” version of Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter.”

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.


“Well,” I said after they’d finished reading the story, “I guess if you wanted me to get into the literary value here, we could talk about pacing in plot and character development and irony. But in all honesty, I just wanted you to read it because it’s fun.” I think that my advanced English class appreciated me saying that after we had finished reading Roald Dahl’s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter,” probably because with two days to go before spring break, they didn’t feel like having a lengthy discussion about figurative language.

And to be honest, I think the story was a little “below their grade level.” But I’ve used the story in 10th grade English for four years now and it always seems to be the one students remember the most and to me that’s because it’s the most fun. If you are familiar with it, “Lamb to the Slaughter” is the story of Mary Maloney, a housewife married to a police detective whose husband comes home from work one day and tells her that he wants a divorce and is leaving her. We don’t know why, just that he told her and that it’s enough for her to grab a frozen leg of lamb from the freezer in the garage and hit him over the head with it. What she does with the leg of lamb afterwards is a master plot twist: Mary cooks it and then later winds up serving it to the police (the best line is one of the last, a police officer saying that the murder weapon is probably right there under their very noses).

The story itself is not in my English textbook. In fact, the stories in the textbook don’t seem to be too particularly entertaining. I have found myself over the last few years taking short stories from other sources–sample textbooks from other publishers, collections I have at home, literary journals and magazine–because a dearth of material provided by our school’s chosen publisher. And I think one of the reasons I’ve been able to use it so well as a teaching tool for literary devices to a “general-level” English class is because it’s an easy read. If you’re not getting stuck on the material, you’ll be able to grasp some of higher-order stuff.

After reading, one thing my students have had fun with is writing the missing scene from the story. Like I mentioned, in Dahl’s story, Mary’s husband telling her that he is leaving her is accompanied by the phrase, “And he told her” and that’s it. There’s no reason given as to why, just that he’s leaving. So having students write a dialogue where he tells her allows them to stretch creatively and also helps teach how to write dialogue properly. I’ve had the obvious (he’s leaving her for another woman) to the crazy (he’s actually a spy or he’s wanted or the mob is after him).

And of course there is a movie. “Lamb to the Slaughter” was adapted into an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” back in the 1960s starring Barbara Bel Geddes. The show fills in that missing portion, but is quite entertaining and really pulls off the irony at the end. And … it’s available on DVD as well as on Hulu (provided the internet in your building is working properly; mine wasn’t last week). I’ve done a classic compare/contrast between the two where we talk about why some aspects of the story were changed. And I suppose if you wanted to go the full nine, you could use this as a way to teach writing plot twists. But it’s also a good story just for the heck of it.


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