Let’s give Connell credit. Long before Jaws, he was able to make water really spooky. He sets the tone of the story while they are still on the boat. It’s a dark and eerie mood out on that still ocean. Now, because sailors “have a curious dread of the island,” we pick up that they must know something we don’t—a second sense maybe—or is it just silly superstition?
Either way, their fear establishes an atmosphere of dread. One even says “This place has an evil name among seafaring men, sir” (1.21). Connell ramps up the tone once our hero is on the island. It’s a place of straight-up Gothic terror, complete with a haunted house and mysterious shrieking.
This one’s pretty cut and dry. “The Most Dangerous Game” falls clearly into the adventure story genre, which is probably why it has been adapted into or inspired so many films in the oh-so-many years since it was written.
In typical adventure fashion, the story’s success relies heavily on plot and action. And since we have two opposed characters—predator and prey—we have the whole “good guy” “bad guy” piece worked out. (Well, sort of. Don’t always assume those oppositions are so neat and opposite.) When you have men chasing each other through jungles and a fight for survival involving strategies, mancatchers, and a Death Swamp, you are looking at an adventure story.
But the whole madman-on-the-island thing makes it more than just an adventure. This short story also has many of the telltale signs of gothic fiction: bloodcurdling screams in the night, backlit castles set high on a cliff, creaky gates, gargoyles, men in basements, and sinister aristocrats. This is truly a laundry list for the gothic supermarket. It’s right out of central casting from an 18th-century gothic novel. Even before he meets the evil General, Rainsford is swimming in the “blood-warm waters of the Caribbean sea.” (Note to self: rent The Shining).
In typical gothic fashion, the creepy setting reflects the dark psyche of the characters; in this case, the well-read, fine-dining sadist Zaroff. Though we do not have a damsel in distress—a much-loved figure of the gothic genre—we do have the twisted relations between Rainsford and Zaroff, who go from sipping champagne together to facing mortal combat in a chase involving traps, mind games, and murderous revenge.
Also published as "The Hounds of Zaroff," “The Most Dangerous Game” offers a clever play on words, with game carrying two different meanings: (1) human beings as Zaroff's hunted and (2) the competition, or game, between the hunter (Zaroff) and the hunted (Rainsford and other castoffs).
On the night they meet, Rainsford dines with Zaroff, and we learn a lot about what the general sees as the most dangerous game (i.e., prey): human beings, because they have the ability to reason. Humans are the ultimate challenge—the ultimate game.
So who or what is the “most dangerous game”? The title suggests that hunting other people is the most dangerous game and that people themselves are the most dangerous prey (game) to hunt. But that still leaves us with a question: Between Zaroff and Rainsford, who is the more dangerous game? The one who doesn’t value human life, or the one who wins in the end and (claims to) value human life but feeds his opponents to the hounds?
Sometimes an ending is not just an ending, or at least not a clear ending. What do we know for certain? That according to the rules of engagement, Rainsford wins the hunt because he survives three days out in the jungle without getting killed. But how did we get there? What was the game?
One reason Zaroff loses to Rainsford may be that he has a different idea about the rules of the game. In fact, to Rainsford, it may not be a game at all. And, even if he did see it as a game, the two men are playing for very different reasons. Rainsford is playing for his life; Zaroff is looking for an amusing challenge. He never sees Rainsford as a significant challenge or a threat. He sees Rainsford as a smart strategist and a clever challenge: “Not many men know how to make a Malay man-catcher. Luckily for me, I too have hunted in Malacca.”
Because he is so overly confident, Zaroff never questions that he will win. (Which sort of makes it not a game—don’t two people have to agree that they are playing a game? Try playing Go Fish with someone who doesn’t know he’s playing Go Fish). More importantly, Zaroff never realizes that the game has equally high stakes for both of them. When Rainsford wins—as Zaroff acknowledges ("I congratulate you," he said. "You have won the game”)—all of the rules change.
The ending leaves some questions unanswered. Remember how Rainsford told Whitney at the beginning: “You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher.” Well, here we want you to be a philosopher for a second—even if Rainsford dismisses that kind of diversion.
Rather than simply concluding that Zaroff gets fed to the hounds and Rainsford gets a much-needed good night’s sleep, step back and consider some of the larger questions raised by the ending: Why does Rainsford say, “I am still a beast at bay”? (2.36). Is it simply that he has not yet fed Zaroff to the hounds, or that he knows he is about to kill Zaroff, which will make him no better than Zaroff?
By sleeping in Zaroff’s bed, is he becoming the next Zaroff? He could have slept in his own bed, after all, or even tried to leave. Consider this: In dying, Zaroff passes on his role to Rainsford. Has Rainsford already accepted? How can he sleep so well if he feels remorse over killing a fellow human? After all, Zaroff told him he could leave the island if he won…
When an author mentions the setting in the first sentence, take that as a hint that setting will be important. Here, we have “Ship-Trap Island,” which is apparently a place of great mystery, even though the name itself doesn’t leave much to the imagination.
The author puts a lot of effort into setting up the scene—a “moonless,” “dank,” “warm” “Caribbean night,” with air like “moist black velvet” (1.6). The two men are headed to the Amazon for some big game hunting, but seem to have stalled in the still waters. But things only get worse off the yacht. As Willard famously says in Apocalypse Now: “Never get out of the boat…"
Ship-Trap Island sort of gives itself away by its name. The place is an impenetrable tangle of trees surrounded by rocky shores: "Dense jungle came down to the very edge of the cliffs" (1.39). The setting establishes the feeling that it’s just not a place where good things are likely to happen.
The castle is no better. In fact, it’s so eerie and out of place that Rainsford thinks at first that he is seeing a mirage:
[It is an] enormous building—a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom. His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows. (1.46)
The greedy lips of the sea is a nice touch.
Upon approaching, he sees that there is a “tall spiked” gate at the front of the house, and a large door “with a leering gargoyle for a knocker” (1.48). Inside, Zaroff is living in the lap of luxury, with a “huge, beam-ceilinged bedroom” and a dining room with “medieval magnificence about it; [that] suggested a baronial hall of feudal times…” (1.64).
The story takes place around the time of the Russian Revolution, as Zaroff tells Rainsford: "After the debacle in Russia I left the country, for it was imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay there” (1.90). He is referring here to the overthrow of the aristocracy by the Bolsheviks and the birth of the Soviet Union with leaders such as Stalin.
The timeframe is both important and not important. It explains why Zaroff is on the island (he had to flee Russia) and why he is the snob that he is (he grew up as an empowered son of a nobleman), but it is not directly relevant to the hunt itself.
With such a short story, it’s a good idea to hold on to every detail, so think about why he tells Rainsford all of these details and consider: Do they justify or explain any of Zaroff’s behavior? What would we think of him if he had not come from such a privileged background? Why don’t we learn anything about Rainsford’s upbringing? Does it matter?
On the one hand, we are talking about a straightforward, no tricks, nothing-fancy adventure story here. Richard Connell was clearly not interested in winning any awards for experimental prose. In fact, it’s not all that surprising that he was a screenwriter because he is so sparse with language and makes it all about action and less about depth of character.
But if you pay attention to the dialogue, you'll see that some complex ethical issues come up—and you may even have to draw some tough conclusions all by yourself.
Connell packs a lot of mood into one sentence, so looky here:
He was finding the general a most thoughtful and affable host, a true cosmopolite. But there was one small trait of the general's that made Rainsford uncomfortable. Whenever he looked up from his plate he found the general studying him, appraising him narrowly (1.68).
Just when Rainsford has started to enjoy the foie gras, he starts feeling a little awkward. Why is General Zaroff looking at me like that? Well, he’ll soon find out he’s being sized up.
Connell loads a lot into these two characters, leading the reader to assume we have some clear-cut oppositions going on. Check out these declarations:
We get the distinct impression that we are dealing with good versus evil. Yes, the dialogue is wooden, but it gets the point across. If Connell had delved into the psyche of these characters and really examined Rainsford’s thought process as he went from hunter to hunted, we would have a whole different story here. It would be longer, less adventurous and more psychological.
We’re just going to come out and say that it's a red flag when an author describes the ocean as “blood-warm.” You don’t even have to have seen Jaws to know something spooky is going to happen. Both blood and the color red carry some fiendish implications in this story. Although Zaroff denies that he is a “cold-blooded” murderer, he does have a pack of bloodhounds, which is not the same as a pack of labradoodles.
The connection between blood and red is pretty obvious, but it’s useful to consider how many other things are colored red and just how Connell uses this color to suggest violence and fear.
Our first glimpse of red is the face of Zaroff, whose “smile showed red lips and pointed teeth.” A few lines later, he shows his “curious red-lipped smile,” so the guy basically sounds like a vampire. He is bloodthirsty, after all. The dining experience that Zaroff and Rainsford share also reads like a blood festival. They enjoy a traditional soup called borscht: a “rich, red soup with whipped cream so dear to Russian palates.” Yummy.
Connell really drives home the eeriness of the story by using blood and redness as symbols. (If this kind of thing floats your boat, check out the film The Shining.) Even before we enter the really creepy part of the story, we already have a sense of the tone. Like the sailors’ fear of the island, we have an idea that things are about to go very wrong…
As a symbol, the jungle is not terribly complex. But who says a symbol has to hit you over the head? (That’s not the author’s “game”).
It just wouldn’t be the same if the story took place in a suburban gated community with a bunch of cul-de-sacs. Having it take place on an island suggests isolation—a place where one man can rule without question and create his own laws. And that’s what General Zaroff wants. It’s also a place that's almost impossible to escape.
In seeking real estate, General Zaroff explains: “So I bought this island, built this house, and here I do my hunting. The island is perfect for my purposes—there are jungles with a maze of traits in them, hills, swamps […]" (1.103)
The mysterious and complex setting directly serves Zaroff’s purposes. It’s a setting for booby traps and dead-ends, hiding and pouncing. But because Zaroff is so fixated on the island itself, and how to navigate it (he does have the advantage, after all), he doesn’t take into consideration that his prey might end up in the sea…
For more discussion of the enticing features of “Ship Trap” island, see our “Setting” section. If you want to read about how being set loose in the jungle is harder than fighting Germans in the trenches of World War I, see Rainsford’s “Character Analysis.”
We start out the story with a sea-faring meets dark and unstormy night setting. Everything is just still, the night is thick, and visibility is low. Whitney sets up the reader by commenting: “Sometimes I think evil is a tangible thing—with wave lengths, just as sound and light have” (1.25). Darkness establishes the tone for the story’s mystery and terror. Darkness also places Rainsford at a disadvantage, disorienting and enveloping him, literally, when he falls into the ocean.
Rainsford comments to Whitney that he cannot tell where they are or where the island is located. He is surrounded by silence as “the yacht [moves] swiftly through the darkness” (1.4)—until he reaches the island, where “a high screaming sound” comes “out of the darkness” (1.36). And then, as “Bleak darkness was blacking out the sea and jungle […] Rainsford sighted the lights” (1.46).
Well, if we were following a conventional story, that lightness might symbolize hope and enlightenment. In this story, we have more of a “moth to a flame” situation, where light draws you in to something darker (in a symbolic way). Following the light leads Rainsford to Zaroff’s mansion of malevolence, where “there were many lights.” Who should answer the door (with a “river of glaring gold light” pouring out) but a man with a “dark face” (1.48)?
Connell basically messes with the whole dark vs. light, illumination vs. evil set-up by refusing to present any place of goodness. Zaroff’s whole method of luring sailors to the island is by using light as a trick: a “flash of lights” falsely indicating a channel causes sailors to crash on the rocks. Out in the jungle, Rainsford thinks to himself “only the devil himself could follow that complicated trail through the jungle after dark” (2.3).
Because we are looking at a Third Person (Limited Omniscient) narrative, we really only know Rainsford’s thoughts. And only when Rainsford “escapes” near the end do we get a glimpse of Zaroff’s thoughts:
Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn't played the game—so thought the general, as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur (2.31).
Other than that, we’re with Rainsford.
“The Most Dangerous Game” is the story of Rainsford’s transformation of perspective. He begins by having no sympathy with animals—or prey—and ends up experiencing precisely what the prey does when being hunted. But Rainsford can be a little frustrating as a narrative voice. Even though he openly agrees that humans should be excused from the horrors of that experience (which Zaroff thinks is a “romantic idea about the value of human life”), he doesn't reflect upon his original view at end after all he has experienced. In fact, he ends up killing the predator and repeating the very actions he condemned earlier, which was killing humans.
Here’s where we get the crucial set up: Rainsford is a big-game hunter who thinks he’s all that. The animals? Pfft. It's not like they have any feelings about being hunted. So he may not be the most likable guy—we definitely know what we're getting with our protagonist.
Once Rainsford falls in the water, he doesn’t have the safety of his whole “I’m a hardcore hunter smoking a pipe on a yacht” attitude any more. Now it’s all he can do to get to the safety of the shore--so why not swim in the direction of those pistol shots?
So Zaroff may serve foie gras and champagne, but he also wants to hunt down his guest like a beast. So we have a little reversal of fortunes here, as Rainsford now finds himself in the position of the prey.
Rainsford does his derndest to elude Zaroff. But that Zaroff is good. Rainsford uses all of his old hunter’s tricks and then finally just uses his wits: he jumps into the ocean.
Well, turns out Rainsford survived his leap into the sea—and he’s mad. Real mad. So he does what any good vengeful hunter does—especially one who doesn’t believe in, er, killing people—he kills Zaroff. Wait, wait—but he lets the dogs do the really dirty work.