Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924) is his best-known work, which gave birth to numerous imitations, film adaptations and, according to Terry W. Thompson, became the model of so-called “hunter-becomes-the-hunted” narrative. The story is also often mentioned as a classic example of a thrilling plot loaded with action and it “has received critical praise for its explorations into such themes as courage, psychosis, and the struggle to remain human in the face of inexplicable cruelty” (“Explanation of: “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell”). “The Most Dangerous Game” raises several important questions about the essence of violence and cruelty and the ethics of hunting for entertainment. These questions are even more relevant today, with all the efforts of different animal rights advocates to prohibit hunting at all.
The plot of the story is simple, yet dynamic. The narration begins with the dialog of two hunters aboard a ship somewhere in the Caribbean. They are Sanger Rainsford, the protagonist, and his friend Whitney. They discuss a mysterious island, “a God-forsaken place”, of which even “sailors have a curious dread” (Connell). From the very beginning, the author reveals that both speakers are experienced hunters. One of them could “pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards”, he is a “big-game hunter”; they are expecting the special jaguar guns to hunt up the Amazon and, finally, the protagonist calls hunting “the best sport in the world” (Connell). Rainsford, according to Terry W. Thompson, “represents the great American democratic ideal—a rugged individualist, square-jawed, determined, and capable of taking care of himself in any situation” (Thompson). Since the very beginning, the author stresses that hunting for them is not violence, but merely an entertainment, a kind of sport. “Who cares how a jaguar feels?” asks Rainsford. The protagonist asserts the idea that “the world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees” (Connell).
At night, Rainsford heard some strange sounds from the island, where someone had fired a gun three times. Being an expert, he could definitely recognize gunfire. He leaped upon the rail in an attempt to see anything and accidentally fell off the yacht. The island became his only hope to survive.
After he had reached the island, he heard another shot, recognized by Rainsford as a pistol shot. The author again stressed the professionalism of the protagonist. He was able to identify the type of gun, and later he found a “twenty-two” caliber empty cartridge. However, he was not able to identify the screams. At this point, an attentive reader can ask a question – how can an experienced professional hunter not recognize a scream of an animal. Therefore, it was not an animal. Since this moment, the title of the story— “The Most Dangerous Game” —becomes clear. The most dangerous game is a human being.
Rainsford found the print of hunting boots, followed the trail and found a castle – “a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom” (Connell). That is where he met General Zaroff and his servant, a former Cossack Ivan. While Ivan looks dangerous – “a gigantic creature, solidly made and black bearded to the waist”, Zaroff is described completely different – “high cheekbones, a sharpcut nose, a spare, dark face—the face of a man used to giving orders, the face of an aristocrat” (Connell). The castle inside is wonderful – “a baronial hall of feudal times” and “the table appointments were of the finest—the linen, the crystal, the silver, the china” (Connell). During dinner, Zaroff explains that he tries “to preserve the amenities of civilization” (Connell). This phrase is rather sarcastic, regarding the following events in the story.
It appears that Zaroff is a fanatical hunter, just like Rainsford. He read numerous books about hunting, including the book by Rainsford. During his life, he said, he had hunted all types of game. The walls of his castle are decorated with “heads of many animals—lions, tigers, elephants, moose, bears; larger or more perfect specimens Rainsford had never seen” (Connell). Moreover, he specifically bought this island to hunt the most dangerous game. While the reader already understands, what kind of game Zaroff means, Rainsford still tries to guess. Finally, Zaroff confesses that this game is human being. Zaroff declares:
Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs are, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not?” (Connell).
Rainsford, who at the beginning of the story declared that “the world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees”, is determined now – he considers himself a hunter, not a murderer. He refuses to join Zaroff in his hunt and wants to leave the island. Zaroff’s reaction is predictable – if he does not want to be a hunter, he will become a prey.
The next several days Rainsford is running away from Zaroff, makes several traps and even kills Zaroff’s servant Ivan. The author describes in detail how he uses his professional experience in order to survive. At last, when Zaroff thinks that Rainsford is dead, he finds him in his bedroom. Zaroff becomes “a repast for the hounds” and Rainsford sleeps in his bed.
It was stated in the beginning of this paper that “The Most Dangerous Game” raises several important questions about the essence of violence and cruelty and the ethics of hunting for entertainment. Gweneth A. Dunleavy offers one more question, if there is “the moral distinction between murder and such forms of killing sanctioned by society as self-defense during the war” (Dunleavy 1-2). As to the question raised by Dunleavy, the answer is yes. First of all, self-defense is the right of every individual. Moreover, most people go to war not because they want to, but because they have to. However, there are people who like to kill, and for such people wars become an entertainment. Rainsford, a former war veteran, cannot accept murder; therefore, there is a moral distinction.
However, Rainsford accepts killing for entertainment, not human beings, but animals. He justifies the murder of animals because he does not think that they can feel or think. He also justifies it because “the world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees” (Connell). According to Dunleavy, “the ease with which he oversimplifies the world into the hunters and the hunted parallels Zaroff’s satisfaction with a world consisting of the strong and the weak” (Dunleavy 1-2). Indeed, these two hunters are the same. The only difference between them is that Zaroff has gone further. He is older, supposedly rich, had more experience than Rainsford. The question is, will Rainsford become like Zaroff, or not. In the story, Rainsford is a dynamic character. He changed his views within the story. At the beginning, he thinks that animals do not feel any fear. After he was hunted and felt fear, he said he knew how animals feel. When he meets Zaroff at the end, he told Zaroff that he was a beast at bay, because he had become an animal himself. That means he can change his views once more. In the story, he declines Zaroff’s offer, even with threat to his own life. However, Zaroff was also a simple hunter, when he was younger.
Dunleavy mentions the ironic reversal as the dominant technique of this story:
Not only does the plot contain reversals that challenge the surface meaning of the story, but also the characters, with their sometimes opposed, sometimes parallel visions of the world, establish expectations that are ironically reversed by the end of the story” (Dunleavy 1-2).
Rainsford, a fanatic hunter, meets another hunting zealot and becomes a game. As Blossom N. Fondo assumed, “by making humans to experience the pains of being preyed upon, [the author] causes humans to feel exactly what animals feel thus provoking a change in their outlook and attitude towards animals” (Fondo 62).
Rainsford violently advocates the idea that hunting human beings is a murder, but kills Zaroff, though he does not need to do it. He does not regret it and occupies Zaroff’s bed. The author stresses his satisfaction with the phrase “he had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided” (Connell).
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Terry W. Thompson argues that:
In Sanger Rainsford—the rugged American individualist—democratic optimism and Emersonian self-reliance are brought to the fore to vanquish the embodiment of an outdated, intractable, and decadent colonial system that has outlived its time yet still clings stubbornly to the remnants of old grandeur and martial glory, however, tattered or decrepit (Thompson).
For Thompson Zaroff represents the decadent colonial system, that outlived its time, it is hard to agree with such an assumption. First of all, the author does not give any hints for such ideas, since the plot is quite simple. Second, Rainsford represents the same colonial system. Third, Zaroff is merely a maniac, a hypertrophic hunter without “old grandeur and martial glory”, as he hunts with guns for men with knives.
In general, “The Most Dangerous Game” is a simple horror story, “a prose comic book with an exotic setting, stereotypical characters, melodramatic action, and a preposterous plotline” (Thompson 200), which, however, became the foundation of the whole genre.