Below is an exert from
an essay written to compare Dahl and Doyle. I have removed the Doyle comments to leave some very insightful notes on Dahl
– the whole essay can be found at
The writing style is
also exemplary although she did gain the highest marks in England – read both – one
for information and the other for inspiration!
Plymouth Literacy Newsletter
Herwin of Plymstock School
received the highest marks in English GCSE in the whole country. Jason Ryder,
her English teacher, writes about Nicola as follows:
“It goes without saying that Nicola is exceptionally bright but she couples
this with a remarkable work ethic. Her mind is sharp and highly analytical and
she has a clear, superbly readable style in terms of writing. In class, Nicola
was always quiet but her oral work was sensational. She was never afraid to ask
for help, often doing extra drafts. Perhaps Nicola’s strongest assets were,
and are, her highly developed reading skills and an ability to answer the question with total conviction.”
is Nicola’s comparative essay submitted for coursework.
Reading English Coursework
Herwin - October 2000
Comparing Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’
‘The Speckled Band’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1892.
In ’Lamb to the Slaughter’ the main point to the story
is to find out whether Mrs Maloney will get away with committing a murder. Dahl
also tries to illustrate that appearances can be deceptive.
However, in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ the scene of the
crime is :”‘The room was warm and clean’. This causes the reader
to feel relaxed without any suspicion that events such as a murder would occur. Roald
Dahl uses this homely image ‘the curtains drawn, the two table lamps alight’ to contrast sharply with the murder
– shocking the reader – and to support the impression given by Mary Maloney’s character, so forcing the
reader to challenge their preconceptions.
The main character in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is Mary
Maloney. Dahl spends a long time at the beginning of the story creating an impression of her as a loving wife and house-proud
women. ‘Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home’, ‘She
took his coat and hung it in the closet’, ‘Fresh ice-cubes in the Thermos bucket’. There is also a personal description of the woman that paints
a portrait of her as placid and innocent.
This includes statements such as ‘a slow, smiling air’,
‘drop of her head . . . Was curiously tranquil’, and ‘this was her sixth month with child’.
Mrs Maloney is also desperate for her husband to return home. ‘Please herself . . . That each minute gone by made it nearer the time when
he would come.’ I think that Dahl causes the reader to hold this impression
so that Mary Maloney appears the complete antithesis of a murderess. By doing
this Dahl ensures that there is more shock involved when she actually kills her husband.
Another effect of making the reader like the woman is that the audience wants her to get away with the crime and so
continues to read the story to find out whether she does or not.
Mrs Maloney does not appear to be a murderess, more likely a victim. The fact that she was pregnant makes her seem incapable of such an atrocity, an example
of Dahl showing that appearances can be deceptive.
In ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ Patrick Maloney is introduced
as a man on edge. The reader is shown that there is a normal routine that he
doesn’t follow on that particular evening. ‘She knew he didn’t
want to speak much’, ‘Ten minutes to five she began to listen’ and ‘punctually as always’. Then the unidentified man ‘did an unusual thing.
He lifted his glass and drained it in one’. This seems so different
from the general routine that the reader is worried.
The man then gets another drink which has ‘little oily swirls
in the liquid because it was so strong’. This is the action of an agitated, uneasy person.
I actually thought Mary’s husband was the murderer because
she seemed so incapable and he was clearly tense or worried about something. Patrick
Maloney was also very unpleasant to his wife which could have resulted in the murder, for example: ‘ “Darling
. . .Would you like me to get you some cheese?” ’, ‘ “No” ’ and also ‘ “forget it” ’.
Mr Maloney says ‘ “Just for minute, sit down”
’, resulting in Mrs Maloney beginning ‘to get frightened’. The
victim is usually the scared one with a dominant murderer, as Mr Maloney clearly is in the relationship. This is an example of Dahl showing how appearances can be deceptive.
The husband is not portrayed as ‘a typical victim’.
When the murder takes place he has just told his wife he is leaving
her. There is no build up to his demise and his last words are ‘ “I‘m
going out” ’. At no point has he seemed a likely victim because he
is shown as being in complete control and the dominant partner.
The title of ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is also linked
to the murder and the victims. It is both a pun and a warning. Lamb means both the piece of meat used for slaughter and an innocent victim. The animal lamb was killed but also corresponds with the victim led naively to his demise. Depending on the reader’s viewpoint this could mean Mr or Mrs Maloney, or even both.
In ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ Dahl creates very simple
and gullible characters. Mary Maloney held inside knowledge ‘as the wife
of a detective’ and so knew the punishment she would incur. This would
explain why her first course of action was to create an alibi to bemuse the detectives.
‘She certainly wasn’t prepared to take a chance’.
Throughout the story suspense is created because the reader is
wondering whether she will manage to dupe the detectives. From their very first
entry Dahl has hinted at their blind naivety. Mr Maloney is ‘with child’ and the wife of one of their friends,
so they treat her kindly. The detectives barely suspect her ‘they always
treated her kindly’ but still check her alibi. ‘ “Which grocer?” ’ ‘ “impossible
that she . . .” ’.
The stupidity of the detectives is how Dahl gives an air of black
humour. Mary Maloney destroys the incriminating evidence by convincing the detectives
to eat it.
However, the men are shown to have some sense of pragmatism ‘
“get the weapon, and you‘ve got the man” ’, yet are still out-manoeuvred by the murderess. As their frustration increases they become ‘weary, a trifle exasperated’ enough to accept drinks
of whisky. ‘ “I might take just a drop to keep me going” ’. This relaxes them so that they have less concentration or hope of solving the mystery.
Jack Noonan is the first detective Mrs Maloney manages to fool. She fixed him ‘with her large, dark, tearful eyes’ before convincing him
and his compatriots to eat the leg of lamb. ‘They were clearly hungry .
. . Persuaded to help themselves’.
The penultimate line of the story sums up the men’s ignorance.
‘ “Probably right under our very
noses” ’, as they eat it! I think that Dahl wrote this to
give humour and to show how people aren’t always as they should be.
Mary Maloney has succeeded in committing murder because the police
have eaten the weapon. The detectives are bumbling and in no way ‘typical’.
A normal fictional detective solves the crime and catches the criminal. To
the contrary Dahl presents the detectives as being incompetent and incapable of catching a murderess as they are deceived
Even before this I was made uneasy by the character due to her
obsessive nature regarding Mr Maloney. ‘She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man’. To be this obsessed by a man, a woman is not normally in her right mind.
Perhaps this is a reason why she killed him. Dahl could be showing the
idea of believing if she can’t have him then nobody can. This is left deliberately
ambiguous so that the reader must make their own decisions.
When discussing state
of mind I also found the line ‘in the next room Mary Maloney began to giggle’, ambiguous. Possibly the character is giggling because she is unhinged or she is laughing at the detectives’
stupidity. If this is the case then she is of sound mind.
The concept of the placid woman really being immensley cold and
calculating is yet another example of appearances being deceptive. It can be
illustrated with the quotes ‘ “Alright” she told herself, “so I’ve killed him” ’. ‘How clear her mind became’, ‘She rehearsed it several times’,
‘And if . . . she happened to find anything unusual or tragic . . . naturally it would be a shock’. The last quote in particular is sarcastic and when coupled with the other quotes I feel Mary is mainly
a cold and calculating character as she feels practically no remorse, is very cynical and sarcastic whilst planning everything
for self-preservation with the aim of avoiding the death penalty.
In contrast, ’Lamb to the Slaughter’ is mainly concerned
with character actions meaning that having created the setting of the ’clean and tidy’ house Dahl no longer needs
to write vivid descriptions. An added advantage the a lack of description creates
clinical shock and drama. ’Simply walked up behind him and without any
pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high’. The lack of build-up
to the murder helps to strengthen the shock in the reader’s mind.
The language Dahl uses is relatively simple with less variation. It is also more modern though I do not feel that this detracts from the story in any
way. It is obvious from reading the stories that they were written in two very
different eras by two very different authors. I also think that the diffeent
eras and so different expectations of the audiences played an important role in deciding the endings.
Roald Dahl has a humorous and unexpected ending which I found
especially amusing because of the understatements. ‘One of them belched’, ‘ “Probably right under our very
noses” ’, ‘Mary Maloney began to giggle’.
I had half expected this ending, but only because it is so far
distanced from most true happenings. Having read the ending I felt sure I had
read it somewhere before. This could be due to other authors finding the ending
so amusing they write one similar themselves.
I found this ending to ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ very
effective. It is liked by the reader because Mary Maloney has escaped with a
murder the reader was able to empathise with. I know I wanted Mary to escape
punishment as I felt sorry for her. This is interesting as in a normal situation
where a writer has not blurred my view I would find her actions to be awful.
The reason I wanted to continue to read ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’
was different. I was interested in whether Mary Maloney would be found innocent. The suspense causing this desire was found in places like ‘ "Which grocer?"
’, ‘Other detective who immediately went out into the street’.. The
reader is curious about whether the detectives will solve the riddles.
I found ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ more successful as
a story due to its humour and ‘snappiness’ coupled with the way Dahl created suspense. . I do not think that ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’
is a mystery.