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Two short stories, Lamb to the Slaughter (1953) by Roald Dahl (1953), and A Jury of Her Peers (1917) by Susan Glaspell, both have a woman who killed her husband as a key part of their plot. However, both stories touch upon the complicated issues that stand behind the fact of murder.
In our essay, we will compare the situations of the two women who committed these crimes, and will see how they were pushed to such an act by the circumstances which made them dependent. We will also discuss the role of gender in these situations and the notion of justice in connection with their deeds.
Mary Maloney and Minnie Foster
Mary Maloney, the main character of Lamb to the Slaughter, is a woman whose only role in life is a loving housewife. Caring about her husband seems to be her only aim in life. Yet her world turns into a smoking ruin as her husband notifies her of their forthcoming divorce.
This policeman was not satisfied with a life with an obedient slave; it had apparently turned into an irritating burden for him. “For God’s sake,” he says upon hearing her offer to make a meal after he announced his plans for divorce, “don’t make supper for me. I’m going out” (Dahl par. 41).
The destruction of her world made Mary’s brain “wake up”, leaving her consciously unaware at the same time. Having killed her husband and apparently disbelieving his death, she obliviously makes everything up in a way which would save the child she is pregnant with from being killed along with her when she undergoes the death penalty.
The twistedly ironic way she gets rid of the weapon of murder by feeding it to the detectives doesn’t interfere with her obliviousness until the very last line of the story, when, hearing the policemen talk about the weapon being under their nose, she giggles.
In contrast, Minnie Foster from A Jury of Her Peers does not appear to be satisfied with her life. Even though we never see Mrs. Wright in the story, it is evident that she also plays the role of a housewife, and nothing else. However, her world is much unlike the (apparent) sweet dream of Mary’s.
Her husband is “like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (Glaspell par. 201), a cruel man who would abuse his wife and wrung her bird’s neck to inflict pain on her. Even Mrs. Wright’s house is situated in a hollow from where it is impossible to see the road, hinting at her loneliness. While Mary Maloney, seeing the smoldering ruin her life was turned into, acted suddenly and impulsively, the despair which led Minnie Foster to kill her husband is “honed” over the span of 20 years of their mutual life.
The Fate of Women
The theme of women’s fate appears to be obvious in both stories. Women, being turned into housewives and having no other way to follow, are trapped in a situation regardless of whether they feel happy or not. A Jury of Her Peers tells a story of an abused woman; the murder makes it stand out, but behind it there hide millions of stories of abused housewiving slaves who never got the chance to let their scream out. The disregard that the men show for the women who came to Minnie Foster’s house shows that such a scream would not be heard in any case.
Lamb to the Slaughter, in contrast, provides an insight into the bonds that even the “happy” only-housewives are subjected to, being entirely dependent on the will (or on a whim) of a single person. Notably, the story also hints at the adversities that the situation has for men, at the boredom and irritation one might face when their every single motion causes a surge of tenderness from a person who never shows any signs of emotions or thoughts other than their persistent love and care.
The Problem of Justice
The issue of justice is also touched upon in both stories. Lamb to the Slaughter shows us a number of injustices that happen after one another; the betrayal, then the murder. Still, however shocking the fact that Mary killed her husband is, the reader is pushed to side with her in this situation.
The murder does not even appear to be revenge; it seems to be some kind of an involuntary act driven by a sudden burst of chemicals into the woman’s brain; her pregnancy came to our mind when we were trying to comprehend her actions. Despite the cruelty and pointlessness of the murder, the punishment that awaits Mary (and the fate of her child) if the woman is to be judged would appear to create even more injustice even if this punishment was not the death penalty.
Similarly, the punishment that awaits Minnie Foster appears unjust whatever it would be. Yes, she is the murderer; but she is also a person who suffered from abuse over the span of 20 years and could do nothing about it. The women in the kitchen could understand a fact that men upstairs apparently wouldn’t even take into consideration – that the murder, even though planned, was an act of self-defense rather than homicide.
As we have seen, both murders are, in fact, very complicated situations that have many underlying aspects. Both the women were utterly dependent on their husbands. Although they had different motives, their deeds were caused by the terrible inequity resulting from the social perception of the role of a woman. Although their actions (especially Mary’s) appear to be unjust, the punishment that awaits them according to the law definitely appears only to result in even more injustice.
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Dahl, Roald. Lamb to the Slaughter. n.d.
Glaspell, Susan. A Jury of Her Peers. n.d.