Study Guide

The Most Dangerous Game Themes

  • Competition

    “The Most Dangerous Game” doesn’t send you scrambling to diagram its complex plot. But don’t be fooled. This is a story about hunting, but there is more to this struggle than meets the eye. It’s not just about being the strongest and fastest. What Connell gives us is not just a harsh lesson for two arrogant hunters, but also a story that looks at competition from an ethical perspective. Think about what these men have to say about civilization—and whether they show compassion for anyone, or anything.

    Questions About Competition

    1. Is the competition between Rainsford and Zaroff fair?
    2. Do Rainsford and/or Zaroff even consider hunting to be competition?
    3. Are hunters competing against their previous accomplishments or against the animals themselves?
    4. Why does Zaroff crave the hunt so badly?

    Chew on This

    Zaroff was raised in an aristocratic environment, which may have led to his desire to hunt people lesser than him, as he sees them.

    Rainsford and Zaroff have very different ideas of what hunting means. They are at opposite ends of the ethical spectrum.

  • Violence

    The violence in “The Most Dangerous Game” is not just physical—it’s psychological. Connell sets up the dilemma from the get-go whether hunting is a brutal activity or an amusing sport. Deciding on one or the other depends a lot on how you feel about animals. "Don't talk rot, Whitney," said Rainsford. "You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?" (1.10). Rainsford’s attitude suggests his willingness to commit violence without considering any of the ethical implications.

    We quickly forget about that position once we meet General Zaroff, who ups the ante on the lack-of-compassion scale. Although he knows that human beings have feelings, that doesn’t stop him from committing violence against them. But at least he gives them a choice: be whipped by Ivan (who used to offer his skill to none other than the czar himself) or grab your gear and hit the path. Thanks for the options, chief.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Is this a violent story by today’s standards? How would you change the story if you updated it for today?
    2. Who is the most violent character in the story?
    3. Is hunting just violence in “The Most Dangerous Game”—or is it a sport?
    4. Why do these characters consider violence a source of pleasure?

    Chew on This

    The violence in this story is as psychological as it is physical.

    If you only consider what we as the reader “see” in the story, Rainsford is the most violent character.

  • Perseverance

    Rainsford is nothing if not a survivor. Throughout all of “The Most Dangerous Game,” he just does not give up. When he falls off the yacht, he manages to get himself safely to the rocky shore. His success in getting to shore sets us up to expect him to face (and prevail over) even greater challenges: “doggedly he swam in that direction, swimming with slow, deliberate strokes, conserving his strength. For a seemingly endless time he fought the sea” (1.35). When faced with a master game-hunter, he uses all of the tricks up his sleeve—from the Malay mancatcher to the Burmese tiger pit. We see how committed he is to survival not only through the actions he takes—many of which don’t seem like “safe choices”—but also though the clues that Connell gives us, like describing Rainsford’s “determined effort.” This guy ain’t giving up.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Why does Zaroff persevere less as he hunts down Rainsford?
    2. What does Rainsford’s struggle ultimately achieve for him?
    3. Are animals capable of perseverance in “The Most Dangerous Game”?
    4. Why does the hunt become too easy for Zaroff?
    5. Why doesn't Zaroff give it his all when he is hunting Rainsford?
    6. What are some of Rainsford’s most impressive and cunning moves?
    7. Why doesn’t Zaroff fight back in the end?

    Chew on This

    A lot of elements go into making a good hunter: being clever and wily, the ability to improvise and take risks; but perseverance is Rainsford’s greatest strength.

    Zaroff enjoys the hunt more than he enjoys the kill. If it were the other way around, he would have taken Rainsford out with that automatic pistol on the first day of the hunt.

  • Strength and Skill

    Zaroff loves hunting, but it’s just become too easy. It can’t just be about strength anymore; his prey must have reason and skill, be shrewd and cunning, as smart as—or smarter than—he is. From his long experience with hunting, Zaroff has come to associate strength with animals, and skill and reason with humans. But not all humans are created equally. In “The Most Dangerous Game,” Zaroff soon discovers that his opponents have varying levels of skill, with Spanish sailors at the base and only “the occasional tartar” at the peak. Until the arrival of Sanger Rainsford, the game has still been all too easy. Zaroff has never lost.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Between Zaroff and Rainsford, who has the better skill?
    2. What does strength have to do with skill? Are they completely separate qualities?
    3. What are Zaroff’s skills, considering he has Ivan and a pack of bloodhounds to back him up?
    4. What are Ivan’s strengths and skills?

    Chew on This

    Strength and skill have a lot to do with confidence in “The Most Dangerous Game.”

    In this story, hunting is as much about the hunter’s strength and skill as it is about the prey’s.

  • Man and the Natural World

    We’re thinking it’s more like man vs. the natural world in “The Most Dangerous Game.” After all, our main characters, Rainsford and Zaroff, basically see the natural world as something to be contained, controlled, opposed, and killed. Rainsford asserts his firm belief that animals do not experience fear and are just out there to be hunted by man.

    General Zaroff takes it a few steps further, believing in a hierarchy of dangerous game animals, with the Cape Buffalo at the top. But Zaroff is too good a hunter for this game, and even the Cape Buffalo is an easy target. At this point, we take it one step further to man vs. man in the natural world. Because, hey, the natural world is just a sitting target to Zaroff.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. How does the jungle serve almost as a character itself in the story?
    2. In “The Most Dangerous Game,” when men hunt animals, are they really entering the natural world, or are they just using the tools of “civilization” to commit murder out in the wild where laws don’t apply?
    3. According to Zaroff, if a hunter does not catch his prey, does that mean that man is inferior to nature?

    Chew on This

    Zaroff pits himself against the natural world by hunting animals, but he also uses nature (in the form of a jungle maze and a pack of dogs) to win, so it’s not like he is doing it all on his own.

    Rainsford very cleverly uses nature to his advantage by enlisting trees and branches to create traps. He may not have succeeded if he had tried to survive by weapons alone.

  • Fear

    When it comes to fear, Rainsford’s character undergoes a pretty dramatic transformation in a short amount of time. He begins by basically dismissing the possibility that animals have the capacity to feel fear when they are hunted. Then he experiences some deep psychological fears himself, quickly realizing that “he had new things to learn about fear.” (2.22) We know that he is prepared to face his fears by the simple fact that he shows up in Zaroff’s bedroom in the end. But wait a second. Rainsford overcomes his fears by killing another human being—something he had earlier identified as “cold-blooded murder” (1.116). What gives?

    Questions About Fear

    1. What is Zaroff most afraid of?
    2. Who is the most fearless character in the story?
    3. If Whitney believes animals can experience fear, why does he continue to hunt them? What are the limits of his sympathy?
    4. Why does Rainsford think war is less scary than the hunt?

    Chew on This

    By the end of the story, Rainsford is fearless.

    Fear is clearly part of the thrill of the hunt, so there’s no way Zaroff is totally fearless.