This is one protagonist who learns a lesson—or does he? Rainsford starts out like a big macho man, a real Teddy-Roosevelt-posing-with-a-hippo. By the end, he's a frightened animal. But how much does he really change?
It's weird that, even though we hear the story from Rainsford's perspective and even though he undergoes the most profound change—or, really, the only change—we still only see him experience fear and the struggle to survive. There's no inner monologuing here, only action. And considering that his final actions are sending Zaroff to a grisly death and then tucking himself in for a good night's sleep—well, we have to wonder if he's really learned anything.
So let's take a look at our intrepid hunter.
When we meet Rainsford, he's chilling with fellow hunter Whitney and sharing his feelings about the animals he hunts. In brief: he doesn't have any. Check out this conversation:
“…We should have some good hunting up the Amazon. Great sport, hunting."
Rainsford: "The best sport in the world."
"For the hunter," amended Whitney. "Not for the jaguar."
"Bah! They've no understanding."
"Even so, I rather think they understand one thing--fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death." (1.8, I.12-13)
What do we learn about Rainsford from this little exchange? Well, he's not very sympathetic—not to his friend, who he dismisses with "bah!," and certainly not to his prey. He's probably pretty brave, and he's definitely got that thrill-seeking gene.
We learn more about him from other moments in the story. He's an American (a New Yorker, to be specific); he fought in World War I's nasty trench warfare; and he wrote a book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet.
We also learn something else important: he's a realist. In that beginning conversation with Whitney, he tells his friend, “You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher.” And moments later: “Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes--the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters” (I.10).
According to Rainsford’s definition, philosophers have sympathy for other beings (Plato may disagree, by the way), and realists just know that humans are superior to animals and that animals have no feelings.
How do we know that Rainsford defines "philosopher" this way? Because when he criticizes Whitney for being too sympathetic, he calls himself “not a philosopher”: his way of saying that Whitney is overthinking things. Rainsford considers himself a realist because he just doesn't care if animals experience fear—not that he even thinks they do. (File that idea away for later, 'cause it’s gonna come back and bite him. Almost, but not quite, literally.)
If we think about it that way, then we can say that Rainsford stops being a realist when he meets Zaroff. Zaroff sure doesn't think he is. He says, "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." (I.15).
In other words: modern, up-to-date, and postwar people are realists. Old-fashioned, "mid-Victorian," and pre-war people have the luxury of being romantic philosophers.
But is this really true? (Keep in mind that Zaroff’s idea of a romantic is someone who doesn’t want to kill people in cold blood.) Let's check out what happens to Rainsford in the jungle.
When Rainsford is out in the jungle, he experiences some serious panic, quickly realizing that he has “new things to learn about fear” (II.22). He pulls everything out of his hunter’s arsenal, booby trapping and creating false leads all over the place. He is a clever guy. But he realizes that being hunted is even worse than fighting trench warfare in World War I: “Rainsford had dug himself in in France when a second's delay meant death. That had been a placid pastime compared to his digging now” (2.19).
Let’s pause here: being hunted is worse that fighting in war? How can that be true? Well, here's our idea: for all of its violence, war at least has some rules and a soldier has comrades fighting on his side. It’s being alone that seems to terrify Rainsford the most.
And finally we're left with that pesky question about change: does Rainsford actually change his feelings and attitudes about the hunter/hunted relationship? Does he have a twinge of guilt as he climbs into Zaroff's cozy bed, or does he have a clean conscience as he cuddles up with the featherbed? And… bear with us… is there a chance that he becomes the next Zaroff?