A "hero" is defined as...
...a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
With regard to this definition, "noble" is defined as...
…of an exalted moral or mental character or excellence.
In other words, noble qualities are honorable qualities.
From a literary standpoint, Ernest Hemingway described a hero as...
...a man who lives correctly, following the ideals of honor, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful.
Indeed, Sanger Rainsford has all of the qualities of a hero. The reader soon discovers Rainsford is in a stressful, chaotic and painful world when he is stranded on the uncharted "Ship-Trap Island."
Upon first meeting Zaroff, Rainsford believes he is in the company of a man of sophistication and male prowess: a mighty hunter in his own right. And General Zaroff is quite aware of what an accomplished hunter Rainsford is. However, before long Zaroff exposes his true character, suggesting that he and Rainsford take part in hunting "the most dangerous game"—human beings. Rainsford is appalled at the idea.
Hunting? Good God, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.
This is a clear indication of Rainsford's heroic character: he has high moral standards. He refuses Zaroff's suggestion outright.
[I do not] condone cold-blooded murder…I'm a hunter, not a murderer.
When Zaroff decides to hunt Rainsford because the younger man refuses to comply with the Cossack, we see other heroic characteristics: distinguished courage or ability. There is little doubt from the start of the hunt that Rainsford is a man with skills that cannot be ignored. When he knows he is to be hunted, he does not cower or beg for his life. Overcoming an initial sense of panic—for the situation is not only chaotic but insane—Rainsford starts to plan how he will evade Zaroff by leaving a trail so confused that Zaroff (he hopes) cannot follow.
Then Rainsford almost crushes the general with a trap. Even Zaroff is impressed.
Not many men know how to make a Malay man-catcher…You are proving interesting...
As he runs for his life, Rainsford shows his courage. Bravery is not be without fear, but to face fear and continue on.
I will not lose my nerve. I will not.
Rainsford exhibits almost superhuman endurance as he continues to crash through the jungle, fighting for his life.
Finally, as Zaroff relaxes, believing that Rainsford has met his death at the cliff, the young hunter demonstrates his excellent ability to throw the hunter off his path, showing up in the general's bedroom. The general expresses his surprise upon seeing him:
"Rainsford!" screamed the general. "How in God's name did you get here?"
"Swam," said Rainsford. "I found it quicker than walking through the jungle."
Rainsford displays many heroic characteristics: he has courage and ability; he is of excellent moral character; and, he follows the ideals of courage, honor and endurance.
As a counterargument, Sanger Rainsford is certainly brave, but not heroic since he exhibits no noble qualities.
- That he is not noble in heart becomes apparent in the exposition of Connell's narrative when Rainsford dismisses Whitney's sympathy for the prey by saying, "Who cares how a jaguar feels?" Further, as Whitney sympathizes with the fear that the hunted jaguar feels, Rainsford dismisses this understanding:
"Nonsense...This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes--the hunters and the huntees."
- Rainsford's Darwinian concept of the strong vs. the weak is anything but altruistic. In the end, he does not save anyone but himself, which is a survival skill; he commits no noble deeds; for, he exhibits no charity toward Zaroff when he confronts him in the chateau at the end, and he risks his life for no one.
- Nor does he exhibit any high morals. If he were a man of very high morals, he would have tried to survive the third day at the end of which General Zaroff, as an officer and Russian nobleman, would have honored his pledge of setting his prey free: "If my quarry eludes me for three whole days, he wins the game." Instead, he takes the aggressive position ("I am still a beast at bay" he tells Zaroff before drawing his sword and changing positions) and becomes the predator, killing Zaroff, defying his earlier words of decrying murder as "cold-blooded," now enjoying his slaughter as he decides "He had never slept in a better bed."
In addition, here are some considertions that were overlooked,
- When Rainsford comes from behind the curtain and talks to Zaroff, Zaroff concedes and says to Rainsford,"You have won the game," so if Rainsford were truly noble, he would accept this concession and not duel Zaroff.
(However, the fact that he does not just step out from the curtains and murder Zaroff immediately, does indicate integrity and noble virtue on Rainsford's part. Yet, he does duel Zaroff and kill him, leaving some ambiguity about his "heroic character")