General Zaroff is a sadistic, epicurean lunatic. He enjoys killing, which should be obvious from the fact that he had been a Russian general and must have been responsible for the slaughter of many thousands of men in battles. He is thoroughly selfish and lives for his own pleasure. His principal pleasure is not just in killing human beings but subjecting them to psychological torture by giving them a faint hope of escape. Without his refined manners, gourmet tastes, and luxurious home, Zaroff would come across as nothing but a monster. The author of the story had to give him the offsetting traits of culture and epicureanism in order to humanize him. No doubt Zaroff is extremely intelligent. In this respect he resembles his "guest" Sanger Rainsford. They are both intelligent, well-educated men of the world. They even seem to like each other in some strange way. This is because each man recognizes himself in the other, as if each is looking at his own reflection in a mirror. What each recognizes is the love of killing--although Rainsford has never thought of killing another human being until he met Zaroff.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about killing wild animals in his book Green Hills of Africa (1935) and notably in two short stories: "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Hemingway had a gift for making the reader identify with the killer, making the reader feel the pleasure it could be in killing an animal, especially a dangerous one. Hemingway especially loved bullfighting because there was a great deal of pain inflicted on the bulls and finally death by the sword of the matador; but at the same time there was some danger to the men who were doing the killing, as well as to the unfortunate horses of the mounted picadors.
It was Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, who popularized the subject of big-game hunting. He wrote about his own adventures in Africa right around the turn of the century. At that time it was a rich man's sport, and people did not feel much pity for the animals because few of the animals were killed. Now with all the trophy animals on the endangered species list a great many people feel that killing animals for pleasure is disgusting. Therefore a contemporary reader's attitude towards General Zaroff would be different from when the story was published in 1924.
The characterization in the short story "The Most Dangerous Game" is of great importance to the understanding of the story. Zaroff is a "Cossack". He is an elitist who loves the finer things in life, shown in the way he had adorned his home, the clothes he wears, the wine and liqueur he drinks, and the food he eats. This elitism is also shown in his lack of respect for human life. He hunts people because they afford "good sport". He states this when he says that "life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift?"
Zaroffs personality is very bloodthirsty and inhumane. His passion for hunting shows his bloodthirst, so much that hunting an animal is no longer a challenge.
"Simply this: hunting had ceased to be what you call `a sporting proposition.' It had become too easy. I always got my quarry. Always. There is no greater bore than perfection."
The general lit a fresh cigarette.
"No animal had a chance with me any more. That is no boast; it is a mathematical certainty. The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason. When I thought of this it was a tragic moment for me, I can tell you."
Also, General Zaroff is a very inhumane person. He doesn't care about life, and is very cruel. The fact that he will hunt a person just goes to show how truly cruel he is.
Rainsford's bewilderment showed in his face.
"I wanted the ideal animal to hunt," explained the general. "So I said, `What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?' And the answer was, of course, `It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason."'
"But no animal can reason," objected Rainsford.
"My dear fellow," said the general, "there is one that can."
"But you can't mean--" gasped Rainsford.