Analysis of "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell is one of the most famous short adventure stories ever. It was popular when it was first published in 1924, and has remained widely-read ever since.
At around 8,000 words, it's on the longer side for a short story. Despite this, the story doesn't drag. It has mystery, tension and some exciting action scenes.
This article starts with a summary, then looks at theme, character, irony and the title.
Summary of The Most Dangerous Game
Rainsford and Whitney are shipmates on their way to the Amazon for a hunting expedition. Their yacht is near "Ship-Trap Island", a mysterious place that sailors dread. It's too foggy for them to see it.
They talk about hunting. Whitney thinks it's a great sport, but believes it's not so great for the animals—they understand the fear of pain and death. Rainsford loves hunting and believes animals have no understanding or feelings about it.
Whitney brings up the island again, hoping they've passed it. The crew, including the captain, was on edge today because of it.
Whitney goes to bed. Rainsford goes up to the afterdeck to smoke a pipe. In the darkness and silence he hears three gun shots. He goes to the railing, straining to see anything. His pipe falls. He reaches for it, loses his balance and falls overboard.
He desperately swims after the yacht and cries out. It disappears into the mist.
Rainsford orients himself in the direction of the shots and steadily swims in that direction. He hears the scream of an animal in distress, and another gunshot soon after. He continues swimming toward the sounds.
After ten minutes of swimming, he reaches the shore. He drags himself out of the water. Exhausted, he collapses into a deep sleep.
When he wakes up, it's late afternoon. His energy is renewed but he's hungry. There's jungle all around with no path. He walks along the shore. He finds an empty cartridge. The underbrush is disturbed, like an animal thrashed about in it. He sees human footprints and follows them.
It's getting dark. He sees lights from a palatial mansion. He enters the gate and goes up to the door. He uses the knocker. A huge man with a long beard opens the door. He points a gun at Rainsford.
Rainsford identifies himself and explains his situation. The huge man doesn't react. He stands at attention as a man in formal clothing approaches. The man greets Rainsford. He recognizes his name, having read one of Rainsford's hunting books.
The man, General Zaroff, is past middle-age and has an aristocratic bearing. The large man, Ivan, puts away his pistol and leaves. He can't hear or speak. They're both Cossacks.
Ivan returns. He leads Rainsford to a bedroom where he changes into some of Zaroff's clothes. Then Rainsford is brought to a dining room with a large table. The room is adorned with the heads of various animals.
The table is arranged elegantly. They eat rich food and have fine drinks. Zaroff watches Rainsford closely. Zaroff reads every hunting book he can find. Hunting is his one passion.
Rainsford remarks on the head of the Cape buffalo. It charged Zaroff and fractured his skull before he succeeded in killing it. Rainsford thinks the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous animal to hunt. Zaroff disagrees. He has stocked his island with an even more dangerous game.
Rainsford wants to know what it is. Zaroff talks about his childhood as a hunter, his time in the army, and his time hunting after leaving Russia. He became such an expert hunter that it started to bore him. This was a major blow to him, but he figured out how to fix it. He invented a new animal, one that could reason.
Rainsford is bewildered. Eventually, he realizes what Zaroff is talking about. He's shocked. He tells Zaroff this is murder. Zaroff explains the propriety of hunting humans. He wants Rainsford to join him in one of these hunts.
The island stays stocked with game because storms often cause shipwrecks nearby. Zaroff also has lights set up to direct unsuspecting boats into the rocks. He has about a dozen men in his cellar right now.
For the hunt, Zaroff gives his prey some food, a hunting knife and three hours head start. He then pursues, armed only with a small pistol. If the prey can elude him for three days, they're free to go.
If they refuse to participate, they're turned over to Ivan. No one refuses.
Zaroff has never lost. Only once did he even have to use his dogs. They patrol the grounds at night, for security.
Zaroff wants to show his new collection of heads. Rainsford excuses himself for the night. He rushes to bed, but can't fall asleep. As he starts to doze off close to morning, he hears a faint gunshot.
Zaroff and Rainsford meet at luncheon. Zaroff's hunt was boring. Rainsford wants to leave immediately. Zaroff gives him the choice: hunt with him or be turned over to Ivan.
Zaroff looks forward to the competition. He warns about the quicksand on the southeast corner of the island. Zaroff retires for a nap. He'll pursue at dusk. Ivan provides Rainsford the supplies.
He plunges through the jungle for two hours just to gain some distance. He then leaves an intricate trail for Zaroff. Night falls. He climbs a tree to rest and hide. Toward morning, Zaroff approaches his position, winding through the bush. He stops near the tree and smokes. He looks up the tree but stops before reaching Rainsford's position. He smiles and walks off.
Rainsford realizes Zaroff is saving him for another day of hunting. He's terrified, but steels himself for a new day.
He finds a fallen tree in the woods. He takes out his knife and works on it. When he finishes, he hides nearby.
Zaroff returns later, tracking the trail through the jungle. His foot touches a branch that triggers the dead tree. It falls toward him. He leaps out of the way. It doesn't crush him, but it does glance off his shoulder, injuring it. Zaroff laughs, congratulates Rainsford on his trap, and says he'll be back when his wound is attended to.
Rainsford flees until after dark. The ground becomes soft; he realizes he's reached the quicksand. In front of it, he digs a deep hole. He sharpens some hard saplings into stakes and puts them in the hole, points up. He covers it with weeds and branches. He hides behind a nearby tree.
Zaroff approaches the position quickly. Rainsford hears the cover breaking and a cry of pain. He looks out, but Zaroff still stands by the hole. His dog fell into the trap. Zaroff commends Rainsford. He goes home for a rest.
At daybreak, Rainsford wakes to the sound of a pack of hounds. He climbs a tree. He sees Ivan with the dogs, and Zaroff close behind. Rainsford ties his knife to a springy sapling and ties that down with a vine. He takes off through the jungle.
The baying of the hounds stops suddenly. Rainsford climbs a tree. The knife had snapped into Ivan.
He dashes through the trees again, and comes to the shore. There's a twenty foot drop. Across the cove, he can see the mansion. He jumps in the water.
Zaroff reaches the shore with the dogs. He sits down and has a drink and a cigarette.
Back home, Zaroff has his dinner. He's annoyed with two things—having to replace Ivan, and that he didn't kill his prey. He reads and then goes to his bedroom.
When he turns on the light, he sees Rainsford standing there. He swam across the cove.
Zaroff congratulates him on winning the game. Rainsford warns Zaroff that the contest isn't over for him. Zaroff bows. He says the loser will be fed to the dogs, while the winner will sleep in his bed.
It's the best bed Rainsford has ever slept in.
Theme: The Morality of Hunting for Sport
One of the major themes of the story is established in the opening conversation between Rainsford and Whitney. The story would work just fine without this scene, so it should set up something important.
Besides creating a sense of mystery and foreboding about the island, it let's us know what lesson Rainsford, and the reader, might learn.
Rainsford calls hunting the best sport in the world. Whitney qualifies this by saying it's best for the hunter, not the jaguar, who might feel bad. Rainsford dismisses this as nonsense, saying "They've no understanding."
Whitney says they know "The fear of pain and the fear of death." Again, this is laughable to Rainsford. What's more, he doesn't seem to care either way, saying "The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees." He's glad he's one of the hunters.
Rainsford soon finds his role reversed as he's being hunted like an animal. Of course, every normal person can agree that hunting humans is immoral, as Rainsford does, saying "what you speak of is murder."
This definite distinction that Rainsford makes is put to the test by his plight. He's put in the place of the animals he hunts.
Throughout his flight, we're let in on some of Rainsford's feelings:
- He's anxious after running for two hours, saying "I must keep my nerve. I must keep my nerve." He gives himself a similar reminder at least two other times.
- When he realized Zaroff was toying with him, he "knew the full meaning of terror."
- He has to force "the machinery of his mind to function" through his fear.
- He feels terrible dread as Zaroff closes on him: "He lived a year in a minute."
Of course, the fact that Rainsford is terrified does nothing to settle the question of what an animal feels. These are feelings experienced by a human. But the reversal would certainly make Rainsford, and the reader, consider the possibility that a hunted animal also feels dread and terror.
We also note that Rainsford's ability to reason is what saves him at every turn. If an animal does indeed feel a comparable fear, their situation seems all the more unfair, as they have no hope of reasoning their way out of it.
At the end, Rainsford identifies as an animal, saying "I am still a beast at bay." His reason is still functioning, but his survival instinct is paramount. He's ready to do whatever is necessary to win. It seems he has a newfound understanding for his prey's feelings.
1. Does Rainsford become like General Zaroff?
Some readers might think that Rainsford's killing of Zaroff at the end was mere revenge. After all, he had won the game; he's was free to go. They think that he is now going to stay on the island, taking Zaroff's place as a hunter of people. I think this interpretation depends on ignoring an important piece of information.
Eluding Zaroff for three days wasn't the only condition for release. The other was that Rainsford couldn't tell anyone about Zaroff's activities on the island.
When Rainsford rejects this condition, Zaroff says "Oh, in that case— But why discuss that now? Three days hence we can discuss it . . ."
This condition is non-negotiable for Zaroff. He's made it clear that hunting is his life, and the hunting he gets on his island is the only kind that can satisfy him. Rainsford isn't going to be allowed to leave, even if he wins the game.
This is why Rainsford must kill Zaroff. He's "still a beast at bay," that is, he's still cornered at this point. He doesn't win his freedom until Zaroff is dead.
It's also noteworthy how Rainsford orchestrated his final confrontation with Zaroff. He didn't attack him by surprise, which seemed perfectly in his rights after the treatment he received. He made his presence and intentions known. There's no indication he had a weapon. It was an "honorable" fight, which Zaroff acknowledged by bowing and saying "On guard." Their final fight has undertones of a gentleman's duel.
2. Does the fact that Rainsford doesn't release the captives imply that he's planning to stay and hunt them?
This is a point that seems to support the view that Rainsford has changed for the worse. However, I don't think we can be sure, or even think it's likely, that Rainsford didn't release the captives.
The fact that the narrative omits any mention of this doesn't mean the prisoners weren't released, either that night or the next day. I think the omission is simply to preserve the suspense of the ending. Connell saves the reveal of Rainsford's triumph until the second last word of the story. This suggests he was intentionally creating an effect. This effect would have been lost if any other of Rainsford's actions had been detailed, either that night or in the coming days.
3. Is there any irony?
- Rainsford feels lucky to be one of the hunters, but his luck soon changes.
- When he falls overboard, Rainsford swims to the "safety" of the island. He later returns to the "danger" of the sea to win the game.
- Zaroff's chateau, attire, furnishings and accessories are elegant and civilized while he is barbaric.
4. What is the meaning of the title?
There are at least two ways to take the title in the context of the story.
First, "game" can refer to a hunted animal. Rainsford, Whitney and Zaroff have all hunted big, dangerous game. Rainsford considers the Cape buffalo to be the most dangerous game. To Zaroff, the most dangerous game is one that can reason, man.
Zaroff also views the hunt as a "game", a competition between opposing players with set rules. He directly calls his hunts games, and also indicates this throughout his contest with Rainsford by awarding him points for effective play. This is the most dangerous game that Zaroff is willing to play, and it's almost certainly the most dangerous game his captives will ever play.