Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The dominant technique of this story is that of ironic reversal. Not only does the plot contain reversals that challenge the surface meaning of the story, but also the characters, with their sometimes opposed, sometimes parallel visions of the world, establish expectations that are ironically reversed by the end of the story. The style intentionally directs the reader to think in terms of opposition: hunter versus hunted, strong versus weak, man versus animal, reason versus instinct, civilization versus brutality. However, these obviously opposed pairings disguise a greater complexity; the world is not really arranged so neatly. To be successful, the hunter must imitate the hunted, the man must act the animal, civilization must disguise its brutality.
The final irony, that Rainsford conquers a murderer by killing him, is a last trick on the reader, who has been led to believe that one of the values represented by half of each set of paired opposites is better than the other. No such certainty is possible in a story designed to challenge the conventional understanding of civilized behavior.
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American Interest in Central America and the Caribbean
By 1924, the year "The Most Dangerous Game'' was published, the United States was firmly committed to Latin American politics. Military concerns and economic interests, including banking, investments, and the exploitation of natural resources, tied American interests to Latin America and resulted in expansionist legislation. The Platt Amendment of 1901 provided for American intervention in Cuba in case an unstable new government failed to protect life, liberty and property; this was written into Cuba's constitution. In 1905 President Roosevelt urged European nations to keep out of Latin America. He believed the United States was the only nation that should interfere in their politics. This paternal, interventionist attitude was typical of much of the United States's Latin American foreign policy. Such policy, highlighted by the construction of the Panama Canal, created solely for the sake of American shipping and naval power, would continue to influence Latin American politics for decades to come.
Latin Americans have consistently wavered between supporting American foreign policy and rejecting it as intrusive, meddlesome, and overpowering. Indeed, America's and other first-world nations' continuous economic exploitation of Caribbean and Latin American countries has resulted in a crippling dependence on international trade. By often terrifying, scandalous means, Western companies have...
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"The Most Dangerous Game" is set sometime after the First World War on a remote, tropical island in the Caribbean, known by sailors as Ship-Trap Island. Among those sailors, it has a mysteriously ominous reputation and is given a wide birth by knowledgeable sea captains. Those passing near it sense an elusive, indefinable sense of evil. Ship-Trap Island is somewhat removed from the regular sea route between New York and Rio de Janeiro, but not so far to avoid the occasional passing ship. The island is covered with a dense jungle that extends all the way down to its treacherous, rocky shoreline. On one side of the island, a line of giant, jagged rocks, capable of sinking any ship that ventures into them, extends from the shore, lurking just below the surface of the sea. It is this line of rocks that gives Ship-Trap Island its name.
The protagonist in this narrative is a celebrated big game hunter named Sangor Rainsford. Rainsford and a friend are aboard a yacht enroute to Brazil to hunt the jaguar. On the deck of the ship alone, after midnight, Rainsford hears what he believes to be gunshots from the mysterious island they are passing. Standing on the railing and leaning out to listen more closely, he loses his balance and falls overboard. Unable to attract the attention of anyone on the rapidly retreating ship, Rainsford resolves to swim in the direction of the gun-shots, eventually pulling himself from the sea onto Ship-Trap Island.
On a high bluff...
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"The Most Dangerous Game," a gripping tale that pits man versus man in a South American jungle, includes elements that recall several literary genres, including Gothic, action-adventure, and horror.
In "The Most Dangerous Game," Richard Connell provides an ominous setting typical of the Gothic genre. Horrible sounds and dismal sights fill the background of this story, and the details become more frightening and typical of both the horror and action-adventure genres as the story progresses. When he falls off the yacht, Rainsford immediately finds himself in the "blood warm waters of the Caribbean sea"—an indication of worse things to come. He fights through the surf, listening to gunshots and the screams of dying animals he later finds out were humans. Rainsford passes over rocks that he could have "shattered against" only to leave "the enemy, the sea'' for "knit webs of weeds and trees." The environment is consistently malicious, dangerous, and unyielding.
At first, Rainsford believes the "lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upwards into the gloom" is a "mirage." The house is not a literal mirage, but its civilized facade is soon shattered in the ensuing violence. Rainsford encounters many of the foreboding indicators of a haunted mansion: the "tall spiked gate," the "heavy knocker" on the door gate that creaks, and the gigantic scale of the rooms decorated as if in "feudal times," The table large enough for...
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Richard Connell is a master of short narrative. He makes effective use of a number of literary devices traditionally associated with great short stories, including historical allusion, powerful foreshadowing, vivid imagery, and clever plot reversals. "The Most Dangerous Game" is written from the third person, omniscient point of view. In addition to meticulous observations, the narrative reveals Rainsford's thoughts and feelings throughout the story, further developing his character and adding to the intensity of the action and suspense.
Connell uses an old newspaper man's sensitivity to current affairs to give credibility to an incredible story. He uses frequent references to WWI and to the Russian Revolution to lend a sense of history to "The Most Dangerous Game." Many of the story's original readers were veterans of WWI and thus identified readily with Rainsford's musings about foxholes.
The social upheaval and eventual communist revolution in Russia captured the imagination of the world during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Newspaper headlines were filled with news of the Czar and the Communist Revolution. Connell uses this to his advantage, referring frequently to things his readers would recognize as Russian. Zaroff and Ivan, both obviously Russian names, are cast as Cossacks, notoriously loyal supporters of the Czar. To augment the authenticity of Zaroff and Ivan, an ethnic Russian dish, borsch, is on Zaroff's dinner...
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The morality of hunting is the primary issue of social consequence addressed by "The Most Dangerous Game." The author portrays hunters as compulsive killers who are intrinsically bloodthirsty and cruel. Both Zaroff and Rainsford seem to have an insatiable need to find greater and greater challenges and more and more creatures to kill. That Rainsford initially stops short of adding human beings to his catalog of desirable prey does little to separate him from the unapologetic Zaroff. In the end, Rainsford succumbs to the same temptation as Zaroff, quenching his hunter's need for ever greater adventure, ever higher danger, and ever greater satisfaction of the kill.
Readers who hunt for sport may take offense at being associated with Zaroff's bloodlust and murderous tendencies. Readers who oppose hunting and the killing of innocent creatures will find themselves identifying with the author's obvious condemnation of such sport.
In an effort to provoke reflection and debate, Connell singles out certain races and ethnic groups who were, at the time of writing, the subject of considerable prejudice by those opposed to immigration, both in the United States and in Europe. They were often treated as sub-human and denied the basic rights afforded other members of society. These people are the pawns in Zaroff's game. Believing himself superior to them in all respects, Zaroff refers to the unfortunate sailors he traps and hunts to death as the "scum of...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: Big game hunting in African and South American countries is popular with wealthy Europeans and Americans. In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt and his son kill 512 animals on an African safari.
Today: Most big game hunting in Africa and South America is illegal due to dwindling animal populations. The number of tourists visiting these areas, however, has reached record highs.
1920s: American foreign policy favors intervention in the governmental affairs of Caribbean nations.
Today: Despite decades of economic embargoes and other tactics on the part of the United States, Cuba remains controlled by Fidel Castro's communist forces. The United States regularly restricts refugees from Cuba and other poverty-stricken and unstable countries from entering the United States.
1920s: The Soviet Union, led by Vladimir Lenin, is established in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War. Private ownership of property and Christianity are banned, and the Cossacks—military forces loyal to the Tzar—are killed or deported. Economic conditions, however, fail to improve on a wide scale.
Today: The Soviet Union has been dissolved and the Russian president is elected by popular vote. Democratic and capitalistic economic reforms have failed to stem the widespread poverty, inflation, and lack of goods and services that affect the majonty of the people.
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Topics for Discussion
1. How did Rainsford's character change in the course of the story?
2. What is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted? Is hunting animals morally right?
3. Is it ever morally right to kill another human being? How is killing in a war different from what Zaroff did?
4. Does exposure to violence and killing make people less sensitive to those things and more likely to be violent or to kill?
5. Would sending a man like Zaroff to prison for murder change his moral attitude toward killing? How should murderers be punished?
6. Instead of returning to kill Zaroff, what other options did Rainsford have?
7. Could this sort of thing actually happen? What part of the world do you think a real-life Zaroff would choose for his "hunting lodge?" Why would he choose that location?
8. How is this story related to the animal rights movement? How might an animal rights organization use this story to support its cause?
9. How is this story related to the death penalty and legal abortion? What are the arguments for and against the institutionally sanctioned killing of human beings?
10. How is this story related to gun control legislation? What side do you believe Richard Connell would support? Why do you think that?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Imagine that Rainsford discovers Zaroff's diary and decides to add a final entry. What would it be?
2. How do laws governing the killing of animals for sport differ around the world? Compare and contrast hunting regulations on several continents. Why do you think there are so many differences?
3. Compare and contrast laws governing the killing of human beings around the world. Murder is a socially constructed idea and is understood differently by different people in different places. Discover laws that identify legalized killing—such as self-defense, euthanasia, and government execution. When is a soldier or policeman given the right to kill another human being?
4. How have ethical constraints against the killing of human beings changed over time? In what cultures have they changed the most?
5. Rainsford fought in WWI. What brought the United States into the war, and what was the experience like for the soldiers that fought it?
6. The Cossacks protected the Russian Czar during the social upheavals leading to the Russian Revolution. General Zaroff and Ivan were both Cossacks. Why might they have left Russia when they did?
7. Zaroff argued that "Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if need be, taken by the strong," to justify his killing. Explain the Darwinian theory to which this alludes. Did Zaroff misinterpret it? How did Charles Darwin arrive at his theory.
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Topics for Further Study
How does the author make the reader sympathize with Rainsford? How could Connell have written the story to have readers identify instead with General Zaroff?
After the hunt, do you think Rainsford will become more like General Zaroff? Why or why not?
When General Zaroff explains his love of hunting to Rainsford, he makes several racist statements. Do you think he does so because of the era in which he lives? Do you think Zaroff's racism reflects the author's own beliefs?
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"The Most Dangerous Game" gained significant recognition and popularity at the time it was written. A film version of the story was released in 1932, eight years after the story was originally published. The movie was distributed under two titles, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Hounds of Zaroff. Though the central theme of the story, the hunter becoming the hunted, was kept intact, the film's plot was somewhat different from that of the original story. The most notable difference was the addition of a female character who, along with her brother, teams up with Rainsford to defeat Zaroff. Two later films were also based on the stories: A Game of Death (1945) and Run for the Sun (1956). The story has had an extraordinary influence on the study of literature. Over the years, "The Most Dangerous Game" has found its way into countless literature textbooks, and many other stories, books, television programs, and movies have revisited Connell's compelling theme.
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"The Most Dangerous Game" was filmed by RKO in 1932. It was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel and produced by David O. Selznick and Meriam C. Cooper. It starred Joel McCrea as Rainsford, Leslie Banks as General Zaroff, and co-starred Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. Also known as The Most Dangerous Game in the World and The Hounds of Zaroff. 65 minutes, available on video.
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What Do I Read Next?
Moby Dick(1851), Herman Melville's classic adventure novel of a sea captain who hunts his nemesis, the great white whale, Moby Dick.
Heart of Darkness (1902) by Joseph Conrad. A novella about a man, Marlow, who enters the Belgian Congo in order to find Mr. Kurtz, a Western man who has succumbed to the dark forces of the jungle, built a fortress, and generated fear among the natives for his violent, messianic ways.
"The Bear" (1935) by William Faulkner. A short story in which Ian McCaslin is initiated into adulthood through the annual hunt of Old Ben, an elusive black bear.
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen, published in 1978. A National Book Award-winning account of the author's journey with zoologist George Schaller to the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayan mountains in search of the elusive snow leopard. His journey leads him to the center of Tibetan Buddhism, Crystal Mountain.
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For Further Reference
Dunleavy, Gweneth A. "The Most Dangerous Game." In Masterplots II: Short Stories, Series 4, Lon-Pro. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1986: pp. 1535-1537.
"The Most Dangerous Game." In Literature and Its Times, vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997: pp. 231-235. Includes a discussion on Darwinism and how it influences the story.
"The Most Dangerous Game." In Short Stories for Students, vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997: pp. 155-169. A thorough analysis with historical background and plot summary.
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