The Most Dangerous Game
Look. We shouldn't even have to say this, but we're going to anyway: never trust a European aristocrat in the middle of a jungle. It's just good practice. If Rainsford had known that—well, he probably still would have ended up as tracking practice, but at least maybe he'd have had more than a three-hour start.
So who is this guy tracking him through the forest?
Lord of the Hunt
One look at Zaroff and you can tell this guy is not to be messed with: “His eyes, too, were black and very bright. He had high cheekbones, a sharpcut nose, a spare, dark face--the face of a man used to giving orders, the face of an aristocrat” (1.57). So basically he’s a handsome devil in a spooky and superior kind of way. (On this subject, you will love the film stills of this guy.)
As for his personality? We'll let General Zaroff tell you in his own words: "God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars.”
And evidently, he made General Zaroff a massive psycho. Here's the question: is that the only thing that separates him from Rainsford? Both of them clearly believe in some kind of destiny, and both love to hunt. (We're just going to set aside the bizarre fact that Zaroff even seems to believe in God.)
Either way, Rainsford and Zaroff seem to agree that people fall into distinct categories, which they basically can't escape. So we have to ask—is Zaroff a poet, a king, or a beggar, or is his whole philosophy just bogus?
In Communist Russia, Bear Hunts You
Zaroff is not a man not to be messed with. He’s from an aristocratic Russian family that had a heap of land in the Crimea, a charming peninsula in the Black Sea. And he did what all good wealthy and powerful young Cossacks do: he killed things (like sparrows, turkeys, and bears) and commanded a cavalry division in the Russian Army.
You know, your typical guy's guy.
In 1917, all that power and privilege went "poof" when the czar was overthrown by Bolsheviks (communists) who'd had it with being oppressed by the rich and decided to overthrow the aristocrats. Poor Zaroff had to move to a Caribbean island—but at least he didn’t have to “to open a tearoom in Monte Carlo or drive a taxi in Paris,” because he made some wise financial decisions and “had invested heavily in American securities” (1.90).
A man has to have his hobbies, so Old Zaroff imported boatloads of animals. He’s killed elephants, tigers, water buffalo—you name it. But something was just missing. You know, the challenge went out of it. He had to do something to prevent himself from going "to pieces" (1.90), and so he came up with a new plan: hunt the only animal with reason.
Oh, but it's okay, because he only hunts worthless humans—the “scum of the earth” (1.121), and everyone knows that they're not as valuable as a good dog or horse.
Zaroff the Philosopher
So, here's our question about Zaroff: yes, he's obviously quite crazy. But is he a hunter or a murderer? Is there some twisted logic at work here?
When Rainsford disagrees with his morals, Zaroff accuses him of being a prude: “One does not expect nowadays to find a young man of the educated class, even in America, with such a naive, and, if I may say so, mid-Victorian point of view… Ah, well, doubtless you had Puritan ancestors” (1.117).
In other words, Zaroff calls Rainsford a square, because he's stuck in the past (“Victorian”--morally prude) and tied to an outdated religion (Puritan--well, if you haven’t read The Scarlett Letter, we’ll just say that Puritans tend to be conservative thinkers).
Zaroff himself says, "Thank you, I'm a hunter, not a murderer" (1.118). But we're not so sure. He apparently places a high premium on having smart prey that can fight back—but notice that he gets the gun while his prey only gets a knife. And how "sporting" is that?