Rainsford falls off his boat, swims to the island, and finds Zaroff’s chateau because it is the only light on the island.
Rainsford had no intention of visiting Ship-trap Island. With a name like that, who would? He knew very little about it except sailors’ lore, none of it good. On the boat he learned that the island had a bad reputation, but no specifics, and certainly nothing about inhabitants. He fell off the boat by accident.
Upon landing on the island, things immediately got strange. He had heard gunshots, and found evidence of a large animal thrashing around in the brush—but a small caliber weapon shell.
"A twenty-two," he remarked. "That's odd. It must have been a fairly large animal too. The hunter had his nerve with him to tackle it with a light gun. It's clear that the brute put up a fight.
This is Rainsford’s first introduction to Zaroff, and what is going on here on this island. It is also foreshadowing for the reader that the “fairly large animal” is a human being, and the hunter is no ordinary hunter either.
Rainsford continues, and finds something else he clearly did not expect to see on this odd Caribbean island—a castle.
But as he forged along he saw to his great astonishment that all the lights were in one enormous building--a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom. His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau…
Clearly, Zaroff likes to make an impression. The house is so big and impressive that at first Rainsford thinks it is a mirage. When he goes in, he is impressed, and a little afraid, again. He sees what he calls a “giant” in Ivan, Zaroff’s huge bodyguard and assistant. Ivan clearly makes Rainsford ill at ease, and that is exactly his purpose. The fact that the man is mute does not help matters. It just makes him more intimidating.
Zaroff is described as having a “cultivated voice marked by a slight accent that gave it added precision and deliberateness.” He tries to be civilized, which is ironic considering his favorite pastime, but everything about him is imposing.
He was a tall man past middle age, for his hair was a vivid white; but his thick eyebrows and pointed military mustache were as black as the night from which Rainsford had come. His eyes, too, were black and very bright.
Rainsford notes that he is aristocratic, with the “face of a man used to giving orders.” Zaroff, who still introduces himself as “General” even though he has no army, invites Rainsford to dinner and provides his viewpoint on life. Eventually it dawns on Rainsford what is going on. By the time he realizes that if he cannot be the hunter, he has to be the prey, it is too late. He is going to play the game whether he likes it or not.
Rainsford is a trained hunter, and in fact has written many books on the subject. He is used to being in tough situations, and lives by instinct. His instincts completely fail him in this situation. He takes life by the reigns and just goes for it, survival being the ultimate objective no matter what. He never saw this coming. Ultimately, Rainsford is able to use his wits to outsmart Zaroff, but at what cost. He ends up becoming the very thing he despises. He tells Zaroff he is nothing more than “a beast at bay” right before he kills him, proving Zaroff’s point. We are no different from the animals.