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)
Rainsford doesn’t know it yet but the competition has already begun. That creepy feeling is Zaroff sizing Rainsford up as his next prey. This is what you would call a literal meat market.
“If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships--lassars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels--a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them." (1.121)
Confused? Well, it seems that he prefers hunting humans because they can reason. But he only wants to hunt low class humans because then he doesn’t have to care about killing them. On top of that, animals are worth more than these people. So does he hunt people because they are better or worse than animals?
“I hope the jaguar guns have come from Purdey's. We should have some good hunting up the Amazon. Great sport, hunting.” (1.7)
Though it’s not football or hockey, hunting is a sport to these men. But things get sticky when you start caring about animals and assuming they have feelings. Just don’t go there.
"I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war—" (1.115)
Why does Zaroff consider Rainsford a romantic? Remember, Rainsford sees himself as a “realist.” Should the war have taught him that human beings aren’t worth a lick? Isn’t it possible to make the opposite argument after one has seen all the carnage of war?
"They were no match at all for a hunter with his wits about him, and a high-powered rifle. I was bitterly disappointed.” (1.90)
Okay, let’s take a look at this. How could the animal compete against someone with wits and a high-powered rifle? Zaroff never pauses to consider that the hunt is a terribly uneven playing field.
"Simply this: hunting had ceased to be what you call `a sporting proposition.' It had become too easy. I always got my quarry. Always. There is no greater bore than perfection." (1.96)
To Zaroff, hunting is no longer a sport when the animal becomes too easy to kill. Hey—here’s an idea: try fighting without the gun and see how far human reason will get you in the face of animal instinct.
"Oh," said the general, "it supplies me with the most exciting hunting in the world. No other hunting compares with it for an instant. Every day I hunt, and I never grow bored now, for I have a quarry with which I can match my wits." (1.105)
Clearly Zaroff has an issue with being bored. He believes that humans are equal competitors, but he’s lying to himself if he doesn’t factor in that he knows every inch of the island and that those poor suckers don’t even know where Death Swamp is located.
"Precisely," said the general. "That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. So they are dangerous." (1.123)
Let’s break this down: Zaroff sees reason as a crucial ingredient of competition and the ultimate way of creating danger. He may enjoy the psychological warfare more than the actually physical harming bit. Should this change how we feel about him? Does it make him a darker figure? A less bloodthirsty one?
"Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder." (1.114)
So Rainsford values human life and sees Zaroff’s game as unthinkable. How do you reconcile his assertion here with what he does at the story’s end?
“Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes--the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.” (1.14)
Luck? What is this, the lotto? Rainsford has a pretty simplified idea of human categories. And by the way, does the fact that he refers to them as “two classes” have anything to do with Zaroff’s whole attitude as a privileged aristocrat?