Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Two ethical questions seem to dominate this story. First, what is the moral distinction between murder and such forms of killing sanctioned by society as self-defense during war? To kill at all, the story implies, the killer must first believe in his superiority to the victim. Rainsford’s belief that animals cannot feel and the general’s conviction that they cannot reason provide convenient justification for both men in their lifelong careers as hunters. However, the smugness of their attitude is demonstrated to be dangerous to both of them. Rainsford is forced to play the hunted and must rely on the instinctive behavior of animals to survive (indeed, his vision of himself as a beast at bay justifies the murder of Zaroff), and Zaroff has been driven into madness by the extremity of his sense that no animal is equal to his prowess as a hunter. Rainsford, who fought in World War I and claims not to condone “cold-blooded murder,” has nevertheless learned to kill efficiently enough to fool the general and trap him in his own bedroom. There is certainly a suggestion at the end of the story that any experience with killing—through sport, soldiering, or self-defense—contributes to the idea that the victor deserves to survive and makes the idea of murder conscionable.
A second question raised by this story is how successful civilization really is at controlling or diverting the instinctive, often brutal, behavior of man. Zaroff, who appreciates the...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
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