The Most Dangerous Game | Study Guide

Richard Connell

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The Most Dangerous Game | Themes


Animals and Humans

In the shipboard conversation at the start of "The Most Dangerous Game," Rainsford's friend Whitney asks him to consider the feelings of the hunted animal. Rainsford is incredulous. "Who cares how a jaguar feels?" he scoffs. Whitney thinks the animals they hunt have emotions and intellect; Rainsford claims they do not. So from the start, "The Most Dangerous Game" contrasts two views: animals and humans are fundamentally similar, or they are fundamentally different.

Author Richard Connell emphasizes the animality of the human characters in the story—in particular, of the evil human characters. Ivan is described as "a gigantic creature." General Zaroff's smile displays his "red lips and pointed teeth," as though he were a hunting dog. Part of the moral outrageousness of General Zaroff's hunt is that he treats human beings as though they were animals. He describes the sailors he hunts—"lascars [south Asian sailors], blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels"—as being worth less than "a thoroughbred horse or hound." People are also described as animals when Rainsford lands on the island and finds traces of some "large animal" that has been hunted and killed.

Rainsford and Whitney are not described as animal-like. And Rainsford is convinced of the absolute difference between humans and other animals. Animals do not reason, Rainsford claims. When he says there are only two classes, "the hunters and the huntees," Rainsford means human hunters and animal huntees. By the end of the story Rainsford still does not seem to have come round to Whitney's "soft" way of empathizing with animals' "fear of pain and ... death." This is despite Rainsford's having now been in the position of a hunted animal fearing pain and death. He clearly remains Connell's heroic figure.

Sanctioned and Unsanctioned Killing

Rainsford and General Zaroff are both hunters. They find it ethically untroubling to kill animals and mount their stuffed heads on walls, and they are not alone in this belief. The cultures they are from—American and European—approve of hunting as a sanctioned form of killing. General Zaroff, however, takes it further and hunts human beings. This is murder, as Rainsford says. "Civilized?" Rainsford scoffs at General Zaroff. "And you shoot down men?"

However, there are many instances in which civilized societies do permit the killing of human beings. In war, for example, soldiers are ordered to kill the enemy. In countries with capital punishment, the state is allowed to put convicted prisoners to death. In "The Most Dangerous Game," Connell arranges plot events so Rainsford must kill General Zaroff. Things happen in such a way that readers are able to root for Rainsford to kill General Zaroff, even if, as a matter of principle, they recoil from murder. At the end, if Rainsford does not kill General Zaroff, two things would happen. Rainsford would be tacitly accepting the rules of General Zaroff's murderous game, and the story would be dramatically unsatisfying.

General Zaroff sets the rules of the game, which has asymmetrical outcomes. If General Zaroff wins, he'll have done so by murdering Rainsford. If Rainsford wins, he will be sent to the mainland as a free man, and General Zaroff will live to hunt another day. This asymmetry is typical of hunting; the hunter and "huntee" are far from equal combatants. When General Zaroff explains the rules, he adds, "Of course, you, in turn, must agree to say nothing of your visit here." Rainsford replies he will "agree to nothing of the kind." This point is not resolved before the hunt begins. If Rainsford were to meekly accept at the end when General Zaroff admits defeat, then he would be tacitly accepting that General Zaroff has the right to hunt and murder human beings. If Rainsford were to play the game by General Zaroff's rules, he would be affirming General Zaroff's right to make the rules.

But if Rainsford were to call the authorities from the safety of the mainland, the story would be dramatically unsatisfying. General Zaroff would not receive his comeuppance until days or weeks later, and at the hands not of Rainsford, but of characters the reader has never met. Adventure stories don't end with the hero saying, "I've decided to let the authorities do their job." And by making General Zaroff so palpably evil, Connell eases the conscience of readers who root for his death at the hands of Rainsford.

Civilization and Savagery

When introducing his house and its amenities, General Zaroff says, "We try to be civilized here." This prompts immediate skepticism from Rainsford, who scoffs, "Civilized? And you shoot down men?" Indeed, throughout the story General Zaroff exhibits an ease with the products of high culture even while he plots murder. He enjoys champagne ("Veuve Cliquot"); he smokes perfumed cigarettes; he relaxes by reading the works of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE). General Zaroff has "the face of an aristocrat," and he has an aristocrat's problem: boredom. Civilization and savagery are contrasted in the character of General Zaroff. He has the outward trappings of civilization, but inwardly he is savage in the sense that he lacks the restraints typical of civilized human beings.

"The Most Dangerous Game" also suggests that civilization and violence go hand in hand in the process of colonization. White Europeans both, Rainsford and General Zaroff travel the world, sampling the lore and customs of indigenous cultures. Thus Rainsford learns "a native trick" in Uganda, and both Rainsford and General Zaroff know how to make a "Burmese tiger pit." Rainsford and General Zaroff do not merely travel the world; they travel the colonized world. Their journeys have been to places colonized by Europe: Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. Even General Zaroff's leisure reading refers to empire, as Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor.

In establishing colonies in Africa, the French believed they were on a "mission civilisatrice," or civilizing mission. In 19th-century England this idea was described as the "white man's burden"—the duty of Europeans to bring civilization to the nonwhite peoples of the world by building colonial empires. There is considerable crossover between the genre of adventure stories and the literature of the "white man's burden." English writer Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), author of such adventure classics as Kim (1901), also wrote a poem called "The White Man's Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands" (1899). This poem celebrates U.S. imperial expansion in its annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines in 1899. "The Most Dangerous Game" is not necessarily pro-empire. But its two main characters, Rainsford and General Zaroff, enjoy the fruits of civilization amid a backdrop of colonial domination. In this way, "The Most Dangerous Game" suggests that, in the words of 20th-century German literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), there is no "document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism."

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