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The Most Dangerous Game | Context

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Adventure Stories

In Irish writer Oscar Wilde's (1854–1900) play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a woman says of a novel, "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." Part of the humor of this statement is its wry comment on the injustices of the world, which occur when evil deeds are rewarded and the good suffer. But part of the humor is found, also, in the woman's naive and narrow definition of fiction, which encourages playgoers to think they know better. Her definition of fiction suits adventure fiction, which is considered part of "genre fiction," sometimes thought to be of lower cultural or artistic value than mainstream fiction. In mainstream, high-quality literary fiction, there are often unhappy endings, and the good characters turn out to be flawed. For example, at the end of American author F. Scott Fitzgerald's (1896–1940) novel The Great Gatsby (1925), Gatsby's funeral is scantly attended. By the end of English playwright William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) play Hamlet (1603), Hamlet and many other characters have died.

And yet many fiction plots—in both genre fiction and literary fiction—are motivated by a desire to see the bad end unhappily. Playgoers root for Hamlet to punish his father's murderer, for example—and he does so, but at the cost of his own life and the lives of many innocents. In adventure stories the good triumph much more straightforwardly while undergoing terrifying perils in exotic locales. Adventure stories often mirror imperialism, being set against the backdrop of a colonized country amid "savage" indigenous people. Some examples are the 1901 novel Kim by British writer Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) and The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels by American writer James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), published between 1823 and 1841. Kipling's Kim is set in British colonial holdings in India, and Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales feature white settlers and Native Americans.

"The Most Dangerous Game" takes place in the Caribbean, and its European and American characters speak casually of their exploits in far-flung places such as Tibet and the Amazon. The story also makes a sharp distinction between good and evil characters, as is typical of adventure stories. Rainsford is morally upright enough to decry the hunt as murder, while General Zaroff seems to be "the devil himself."

Hunting Traditions

In "The Most Dangerous Game," Rainsford says to his acquaintance Whitney, "The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees." In fact, the sport of hunting magnifies other class divisions, such as those between rich and poor or between noble and common. In prehistoric times, human beings relied on hunting for food. With the development of agriculture it became possible to hunt solely for pleasure—a sport of kings and other nobles or wealthy people. In ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and China, nobles enjoyed leisure-time hunting, and such practices continued in Europe in medieval times and later. In England and other countries, hunting was long associated with land ownership and nobility.

Meanwhile, hunting for food or commerce did not die out altogether. But the two forms of hunting developed different customs. In Europe in the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 CE), a trader catching birds for market might hang a net to trap many birds at a time. However, a nobleman or noblewoman hunting at leisure would use a falcon to pluck birds out of the sky one by one. The culture of European hunting resulted in the development of complex codes of fair play, intended to give a sporting chance to the hunted prey. Thus it is still considered bad form to shoot a sitting (rather than flying) duck or to use a salt lick to lure deer into shooting range.

Like other hunters throughout history, the character of General Zaroff in "The Most Dangerous Game" is a nobleman, but he exhibits a warped sense of the hunter's code in giving Rainsford a head start. "The Most Dangerous Game" is far from being a diatribe against hunting, but it does expose some of the absurdities of the behavioral code associated with it. The sense of fairness enshrined in the hunting code permits many things that would seem cowardly or unfair in combat between equals, such as using traps or setting a pack of dogs upon the target. "The Most Dangerous Game" is about hunting, but it is also about a hunted man seizing the right to be treated as an enemy rather than a quarry.

Russia and the Cossacks

In "The Most Dangerous Game," both the villain, General Zaroff, and his henchman, Ivan, are Cossacks. The Cossacks are a Russian and Ukrainian people. In the Middle Ages the Cossacks had some claims to political autonomy, but after the 15th century, at various times, they were dominated by Poland and then Russia. In 1654 the Cossacks signed a treaty with Russia, granting them some autonomy in return for military service for the tsar, a Russian title for ruler or emperor. Their autonomy gradually eroded, but the Cossacks continued the custom of military service for the tsar's empire. In the 19th and 20th centuries Cossack troops were used to suppress revolutionary activity in Russia.

In 1917 revolutionaries overthrew the tsarist government of Russia, and the Bolshevik party established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union. The fledgling republic was beset by World War I (1914–18), decreased industrial production, food shortages, and civil war. In the Russian Civil War (1918–20), the Red Army defended the Soviet Union against various Russian and anticommunist armies, who became known as the Whites. General Zaroff in "The Most Dangerous Game" refers to this time as "the debacle in Russia," probably because he was on the tsarist side—the losing side. The Red Army prevailed in November 1920. General Zaroff recounts how at some point after the revolution he decided "it was imprudent for an officer of the [tsar] to stay" in the new Soviet Union and went into exile. He also comments scornfully on his fellow émigrés. Having left their estates and their fortunes behind, many of them are reduced to "open[ing] a tea room in Monte Carlo or driv[ing] a taxi in Paris." He was wise enough to invest in American stocks, and so he lives the life of an international aristocrat.

General Zaroff's henchman and servant, Ivan, also represents the old, aristocratic Russia, even though he is not a nobleman. He is said to have been a "knouter" to the tsar. The Russian knout was a whip of rawhide interwoven with wires. A whipping with a knout could be fatal because the wires tore the flesh. This is why the captive sailors in "The Most Dangerous Game" choose the hunt rather than being turned over to Ivan. Along with being fearsome, Ivan's role as a "knouter" connects him to the old feudal order. In the Middle Ages, whipping, branding, and other corporal penalties were common legal punishments for crime. From the 19th century onward, prison time gradually replaced these physical punishments. As customs changed, it came to seem barbaric to flog or otherwise assault the bodies of prisoners. Thus Ivan is representative of an old, premodern social order—a brutally violent one.

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