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…