The Most Dangerous Game | Study Guide

Richard Connell

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The Most Dangerous Game | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Castaway

"The Most Dangerous Game" is set on the fictional "Ship-Trap Island" in the Caribbean, early in the 20th century. The action unfolds over the course of five days. One evening two men, Rainsford and Whitney, are conversing on the deck of a yacht as it passes by Ship-Trap Island. Rainsford and Whitney are on their way to Brazil to hunt jaguars along the Amazon River. Whitney remarks that sailors, even Captain Nielsen, the captain of the ship, "have a curious dread" of Ship-Trap Island. Both Whitney and Rainsford agree hunting is the best sport in the world. But it's not the best game for the animal being hunted, Whitney observes. Rainsford dismisses Whitney's concerns about the animals, and he is also skeptical of Whitney's belief that the island broadcasts "vibrations of evil." Whitney goes belowdecks to sleep, and Rainsford stays up to smoke his pipe. He hears three gunshots coming from the island, and he climbs onto the railing for a better look. He loses his balance and falls overboard. He yells after the yacht but it sails away, so he swims to the island. As he swims he hears "a high, screaming sound ... of an animal in an extremity of anguish and terror," but he can't identify the animal. The scream is cut off by the sound of a pistol shot.

After a long, exhausting swim, Rainsford reaches the shore and falls asleep. When he wakes up it is late afternoon. Because of the pistol shots he heard the night before, Rainsford knows there must be people and food on the island. He sets about exploring. He comes upon evidence that "some wounded thing, by the evidence a large animal, had thrashed about in the underbrush." Night is falling when Rainsford comes upon a "palatial château," or country house. He knocks on the door, which is answered by an armed man described as "a gigantic creature, solidly made and black-bearded to the waist." Rainsford tells the man he is Sanger Rainsford of New York City, but the giant man keeps his gun trained on him. Then "an erect, slender man in evening clothes" appears: General Zaroff.

General Zaroff's Game

General Zaroff tells his armed servant, Ivan, to let Rainsford in. The general introduces himself and says it is an honor "to welcome Mr. Sanger Rainsford, the celebrated hunter," to his home. He praises Rainsford's account of hunting snow leopards in Tibet. He mentions he and Ivan are both Cossacks (a people of Russia and Ukraine). Ivan then shows Rainsford to a bedroom, and Rainsford is loaned an evening suit.

In a dining hall decorated with the mounted heads of General Zaroff's trophy kills, General Zaroff and Rainsford eat dinner. Admiring one of the mounted heads, Rainsford remarks, "The Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game." General Zaroff demurs, saying he hunts even more dangerous game, but he doesn't yet say what it is. He says, "I have done a rare thing. I have invented a new sensation." But instead of explaining, he tells the story of his life. He was born to a wealthy landowner. He went into the Russian army, as was expected of him, being the son of a nobleman. But his passion was always for the hunt.

"After the debacle in Russia"—the Russian Revolution (1917) or the Russian Civil War (1918–20)—General Zaroff left the country. Unlike other Russian nobles, he was not impoverished after the revolution because he had invested in American stocks. He traveled the world, hunting. But he grew bored. He had developed such skill that hunting no longer presented a challenge. "There is no greater bore than perfection," says General Zaroff.

So he decided to "invent a new animal to hunt." The animal he hunted would have to have "courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason." At first Rainsford replies animals cannot reason, but eventually he realizes General Zaroff means he hunts human beings.

Such a hunt is murder, Rainsford objects. General Zaroff laughs him off, and he invites Rainsford to hunt with him. Rainsford refuses. "The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure," says General Zaroff. He tells Rainsford he hunts sailors who find themselves shipwrecked there: "lascars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels." (A lascar is a sailor from India or Southeast Asia.) When the supply of prey runs low, General Zaroff sets up false channel lights near the island, which lure ships onto rocks.

General Zaroff explains he trains the sailors first, giving them food and exercise so they will make strong prey. Then he invites them to go hunting with him. He gives them three hours' head start, plus food and a hunting knife. When three hours elapse he starts tracking them. He gives them three days; if they can elude him for three days, they win. If they refuse to play, he threatens to turn them over to Ivan, who was once "official knouter," or whip man, to the tsar. They all agree to the hunt rather than face Ivan. General Zaroff has not lost a hunt yet, he says. He shows Rainsford his dogs, "a dozen or so huge black shapes" with glinting green eyes. General Zaroff tells him the dogs are let out nightly and they prevent anyone from entering or leaving the château. Then he offers to show Rainsford his "new collection of heads." Rainsford declines the offer and goes to bed. That night he hears a pistol shot.

The Hunt

The next day at lunchtime, General Zaroff says, "Tonight we will hunt—you and I." When Rainsford refuses, General Zaroff reveals he means to hunt Rainsford. If Rainsford survives three days, General Zaroff will take him to the mainland and set him free. If Rainsford loses, he'll be killed. Rainsford is given food and a hunting knife, and after lunch he takes off, knowing General Zaroff will follow him in a few hours. At first he tries to put distance between himself and General Zaroff, but then he realizes General Zaroff will track him easily if he flees in a straight line. He starts looping back and forth, leaving a confusing trail. He climbs a tree and stays there all night, resting but not sleeping. Toward morning General Zaroff approaches, armed with a pistol. He looks around, but before he lifts his gaze and sees Rainsford up in the tree, he smiles, turns away, and leaves. Rainsford realizes General Zaroff is deliberately toying with him, keeping him alive to enjoy the hunt.

Rainsford leaves the tree. He finds a large dead tree and a smaller live one, and he goes to work on them, performing a task not explained to the reader. General Zaroff comes along and triggers the trap Rainsford has made. But General Zaroff leaps away just in time, and he receives only a glancing blow. General Zaroff calls out his admiration for Rainsford's skill in making a "Malay man-catcher."

When General Zaroff leaves, Rainsford goes on the run again. Night falls, and Rainsford finds himself in the "Death Swamp," which is full of quicksand. He has an idea, and he starts digging a pit in the wet earth. He then fills the pit with sharpened stakes. Hiding nearby, he hears the trap being sprung. But his "Burmese tiger pit" has not caught General Zaroff—only one of his dogs.

The next morning Rainsford wakes to the sound of General Zaroff's other hounds on his trail. He sees General Zaroff heading toward him, accompanied by Ivan and the dogs. Luckily he thinks of "a native trick he had learned in Uganda." He booby-traps a sapling with a knife. When the trap is sprung, it kills Ivan, not General Zaroff. The dogs start baying and Rainsford runs. He finds himself on a cliff, and he leaps into the sea. General Zaroff sits down to smoke, humming an opera tune.

That night General Zaroff has an excellent dinner with fine wine. Afterward he relaxes by reading ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE). He goes to his bedroom and locks himself in. As he turns on the bedroom light he sees Rainsford, who has been hiding in the bed-curtains. Rainsford explains he swam to the house, which was easier than coming through the jungle. General Zaroff congratulates him, saying, "You have won the game." Rainsford says he is "still a beast at bay." The general realizes Rainsford means to fight to the end. "One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds," says General Zaroff, and the other will sleep in General Zaroff's luxurious bed. The narrative then jumps to a point after the fight has ended. Rainsford decides "he had never slept in a better bed." He has won.

Analysis

Morality and Entertainment

General Zaroff has set up a game of "outdoor chess," a hunt in which the prey has the potential to outwit the hunter. It is morally reprehensible that General Zaroff sees murder in this light, as "rather fair sport." However, the story delivers exactly this entertainment: a perilous hunt with mortal stakes, in which moves are made on the basis of cunning rather than strength or speed. So that readers do not feel they are moral monsters themselves, author Richard Connell delivers up this entertainment with an amoral monster as the villain. General Zaroff is so morally depraved that he thinks killing human beings is a good way to solve his boredom problem. Rainsford even thinks the general may be "a devil." The depth of General Zaroff's evil justifies readers' pleasure in seeing Rainsford triumph over him. Many adventure stories and other forms of genre fiction work this way. In the movie Mad Max (1979), for example, the outrages visited on Max's wife and son justify the next hour or so of violent rampage as "Mad" Max seeks revenge.

Rainsford is not after revenge, but he is constrained by the rules of the game General Zaroff has set up. General Zaroff has not challenged Rainsford to a duel, which would be governed by rules that assume the equality of the two combatants. Instead General Zaroff is hunting Rainsford, and the rules are derived from the hunting code that developed in Europe in the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 CE). The hunting code governs the fair treatment of prey. It is considered unfair, for example, to lie in wait for deer at a salt lick, or to shoot ducks while they are sitting rather than on the wing. But the hunting code's idea of fairness has nothing to do with equality. It is fair to set a pack of dogs on one's prey, for example, as General Zaroff does to Rainsford. The monstrousness of these rules is quite apparent when they are applied to human prey in "The Most Dangerous Game."

Both Rainsford and General Zaroff have military experience. Rainsford served in World War I (1914–18); General Zaroff may also have done so, as he was an officer in the tsar's imperial army. But the two men appear to have drawn different moral lessons from the war. For General Zaroff, war explodes "romantic ideas about the value of human life." He does not believe a "modern and civilized" man needs to prize human life. Rainsford does not state his moral code explicitly in this exchange with General Zaroff, but he says his experiences in war do not make him "condone cold-blooded murder."

The only satisfying way to end this adventure story is to have Rainsford triumph over General Zaroff, a man so evil he might be "the devil himself." But to triumph, Rainsford cannot let General Zaroff live. It is part of the rules of the game that if General Zaroff loses, all he has to do is admit defeat. The defeated General Zaroff would still live, just as a hunter's life is not forfeited when his prey escapes him. If Rainsford declines to kill General Zaroff, he is playing General Zaroff's game, and thus in a way siding with the murderer. But if Rainsford kills General Zaroff, in some ways he still plays General Zaroff's game—except he has taken on the role of hunter. Connell suggests a moral ambiguity with the ending of the story. The killing itself is not described. Instead Connell shows Rainsford content, triumphant, and enjoying the pleasure of sleeping in General Zaroff's "excellent" bed. In this satisfaction, Rainsford is reminiscent of General Zaroff. He has literally taken his place, sleeping in his bed. Morally he may have taken General Zaroff's place as well, as he has become a murderer.

Similarities between Rainsford and General Zaroff

Rainsford and General Zaroff seem very different. General Zaroff kills human beings for sport, and Rainsford recoils from this, calling it murder. However, Connell subtly emphasizes their similarities. They are both hunters who travel the world in search of exotic game. They are similar in size, as General Zaroff remarks: "You'll find that my clothes will fit you, I think." Even their views on killing may not be far apart. General Zaroff subscribes to an odious social Darwinist philosophy, believing "the weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure." However, Rainsford believes something similar. He tells Whitney there are "two classes—the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters." The main difference at this point is Rainsford draws the lines differently. He sees all human beings as the "hunters" and nonhuman animals as the "huntees."

In the story Rainsford goes through a progression from killing animals to killing humans. His first trap, a "Malay man-catcher," strikes General Zaroff but does not kill him. His second trap, a "Burmese tiger pit," kills one of General Zaroff's "best dogs." His third trap, when he booby-traps a knife, kills Ivan, the servant. However, Ivan is something of a low-value target. This does not mean he has no value; his is a human life. But functionally he is not an important man and is not Rainsford's true enemy. Finally Rainsford traps his enemy, General Zaroff, in his own bedroom and kills him.

One way to read this progression is as Rainsford's progressive moral decay. In the course of the story he becomes more and more like General Zaroff, until he is finally willing to kill another human being. However, every one of Rainsford's stratagems, from the beginning, is intended to kill a human being. The "Malay man-catcher" and the "Burmese tiger pit" are intended to kill General Zaroff, as is the knife on the booby-trapped sapling.

Another way to view the progression is as Rainsford's self-liberation from the role of huntee to the role of hunter. When he arrives on the island, he asks for recognition: "I'm Sanger Rainsford of New York ... I fell off a yacht. I am hungry." He is announcing he is a fellow human being and thus deserves recognition and hospitality. General Zaroff makes a show of hospitality, but he ultimately does not recognize Rainsford as human. Instead he makes Rainsford into his prey, thus treating him like an animal. The rules of General Zaroff's game also make Rainsford into an animal. Human enemies might fight to the death. General Zaroff has set up a fight in which he will live, win or lose. By becoming a murderer, Rainsford takes back his humanity from General Zaroff.

Gothic Elements

In "The Most Dangerous Game," the atmosphere of dread, suggestion of supernatural evil, mysterious château, and exotic island setting have much in common with Gothic literature. This genre gets its name from the medieval castles and ruins that inspired the first Gothic novels, which were published in the 18th century. These novels often featured remote castles or monasteries—immense, towering, dreadful places with hidden passageways and trapdoors. The first such Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto (1765), by English writer Horace Walpole (1717–97). The "palatial château" of General Zaroff is squarely in this tradition. It is "set on a high bluff" over the sea, a brooding and gloomy sight with a "massive door with a leering gargoyle for a knocker." There is even a suggestion of the supernatural in the château: "About it all hung an air of unreality."

After the medieval-inspired Gothic novels, the next development was Gothic romance: sensational novels of horror and violence. These often featured exotic elements, as in English writer William Beckford's (1760–1844) Vathek (1786), which purports to have been translated from Arabic and concerns the exploits of a Muslim ruler. Likewise, in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Irish writer Charles Robert Maturin (1782–1824), the story begins with a foreign encounter. John Melmoth has contact with a Spanish sailor, triggering the revelation of the life of his ancestor, the titular Melmoth the Wanderer. "The Most Dangerous Game" also relies on exoticism to give a Gothic shiver to the story. Thus the main character Rainsford is a world traveler versed in constructing "Malay man-catchers" and "Burmese tiger pits."

Gothic novels then introduced elements of horror. Classic examples are Frankenstein (1818) by English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851) and Dracula (1897) by Irish writer Bram Stoker (1847–1912). In these novels the mystery and terror come from humankind's existential nature. "Existential" in this sense refers to human existence, especially a reckoning with why people exist and the fact of their mortality. (Existentialism is a branch of philosophy concerned with these matters, but it flourished in the mid-20th century and is not an influence on the Gothic novel.) For example, the monster in Frankenstein suffers great anguish, wanting to know why he was created and brought to life. "The Most Dangerous Game" shares these elements of supernatural horror and existential dread.

Even before Rainsford reaches the island, Connell suggests there is something supernatural about the place. The ship's captain tells Whitney, "This place has an evil name among seafaring men." The captain asks Whitney whether he feels the island's evil emanations, and Whitney, as he later says to Rainsford, felt "something like a sudden chill." General Zaroff can be seen as wrestling with existential dread—in his boredom he is asking, like the monster in Frankenstein, why human beings exist at all. However, General Zaroff comes up with a monstrous answer: "The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure." Part of the pleasure of reading "The Most Dangerous Game" is in the ambiguous way the story only partly resolves these Gothic elements. At the end it is unclear whether Rainsford has triumphed over the island's evil or succumbed to it.

The Most Dangerous Game Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Rainsford falls off a yacht and swims to shore.

Rising Action

2 Rainsford wakes up on an island.

3 General Zaroff begins hunting Rainsford.

4 General Zaroff approaches where Rainsford hides but leaves.

5 General Zaroff triggers Rainsford's trap but is not caught.

6 One of the dogs is caught in Rainsford's second trap.

7 General Zaroff releases the rest of the dogs.

8 A trap of Rainsford's kills Ivan.

Climax

9 Rainsford leaps into the sea.

Falling Action

10 Rainsford surprises General Zaroff in his bedroom.

11 Rainsford kills General Zaroff.

Resolution

12 Rainsford sleeps well in General Zaroff's bed.

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