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).
Ah, the History
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?