The title immediately introduces the ironic implications of the story. The word “game,” in a tale about two hunters, signifies both the competitive nature of their sport and the victims of it. The most dangerous game is one in which the lives of the hunter and the hunted are equally at risk, and this occurs only when both are men. Rainsford presumes that hunting is a sport involving no more moral consequences than a game such as baseball; he further demonstrates his naïveté by assuming that his victims, big-game animals, have no feelings. These two beliefs, based as they are on Rainsford’s certainty that man is superior to animal, are challenged when he encounters General Zaroff, who has pushed the same ideas to their inhumane limits in his madness.
When Rainsford falls off a boat near Ship-Trap Island, he views the sea as his enemy and the island as his salvation, despite the curious rumors surrounding the place. In the same way, he sees safety in the chateau of General Zaroff. Looming unexpectedly over an otherwise deserted landscape, the chateau represents civilization and Rainsford’s hope of a return to New York. The image of civilization is confirmed when Rainsford meets the general, who wears clothes designed by a London tailor, drinks rare brandy, and serves gourmet meals on fine china. A man of refined taste, the general denies himself nothing, including the luxury of continuing his greatest passion, hunting. Rainsford, a skilled hunter himself, is intrigued. What kind of game, he wonders, can be hunted on an isolated island? When the general informs him that he stocks the island with the only animal that can reason, Rainsford is aghast to realize that Zaroff hunts men. This perversion of sport repels him, and he rejects the general’s defense of manhunting even as he is fascinated by the man’s madness.
Zaroff’s insanity has a logic that parallels Rainsford’s defense of hunting big-game animals. Asserting that “the weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure,” Zaroff finds justice in hunting the “scum of the earth.” Luring sailors and deserters to his island by means of lights that indicate a channel where none exists, Zaroff imprisons his prey for as long as it takes to get them into excellent physical condition. Most victims choose to be hunted, because their only alternative is to be handed over to Ivan, who prefers prolonged torture to a swift kill. Zaroff believes these men have no rights and no feelings; like Rainsford, he assumes superiority to anything he can outwit and conquer.
Rainsford finds his assumptions shattered when his refusal to hunt another man with Zaroff turns him into the hunted. As he fights to stay alive for three days (the span of Zaroff’s challenge), Rainsford feels the unreasoning fear of being trapped, and he saves his life by copying the instinctive behavior of hunted animals. He comes to recognize the inherent unfairness of Zaroff’s game, and indeed, of all hunting; with only a knife and meager provisions, he must fight a man who has guns, trained dogs, knowledge of the island, and a safe place to retreat for rest. Trying to use the island’s geography to his best advantage, Rainsford is ironically forced to return to the sea, his former enemy, in order to delude Zaroff into thinking that he has committed suicide. The final scene takes place in the most civilized setting, the locked bedroom where the general feels most secure.
In this last reversal of the plot, Rainsford refers to himself as “a beast at bay”; with nothing to lose, having trapped the general, Rainsford knows he must commit murder or be murdered. The scruples that prevented him from joining the general’s game in the beginning dissolve under the imperative to defend himself. This encounter between the two, conducted in the language of fencing, further confuses the distinction between sport and killing, civilization and uncontrolled brutality. Rainsford’s victory, within the terms that the general has defined, may be no victory at all: He decides to sleep the night in the general’s bed and finds it comfortable; the hunted has succeeded, but only by becoming like his hunter—if not as mad, at least as morally suspect.