What is the moral or lesson in "The Most Dangerous Game"?

The primary moral or lesson of the story concerns the distinction between hunting, murder, and self-defense. Sanger Rainsford recognizes that hunting animals and killing someone in self-defense is justifiable and sometimes necessary. However, the maniacal General Zaroff does not value human life and finds no distinction when it comes to taking the life of an animal or human. The main lesson of the story is that killing can be justified in certain scenarios, but murdering cannot.

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One could argue that the primary lesson or moral of the story concerns the distinction between hunting, murder, and self-defense in regards to the way humans justify the act of killing. Before landing on Ship-Trap Island, Sanger Rainsford lacks sympathy for the animals he hunts and has a relatively callous...

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One could argue that the primary lesson or moral of the story concerns the distinction between hunting, murder, and self-defense in regards to the way humans justify the act of killing. Before landing on Ship-Trap Island, Sanger Rainsford lacks sympathy for the animals he hunts and has a relatively callous worldview, which justifies hunting. Rainsford tells Whitney,

The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.

Rainsford feels that hunting is justified because as a human, he is superior to animals. Rainsford recognizes that animals lack intellect but does not acknowledge that they experience fear and pain. General Zaroff holds a similar worldview but believes there is no distinction between hunting and murder. After the general informs Rainsford that he hunts humans throughout the island, Zaroff justifies murder by telling him,

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.

Rainsford is disgusted by Zaroff's confession because he values human life and understands the difference between hunting and murder. Rainsford responds to Zaroff's outrageous claim by saying, "Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder." Rainsford's worldview recognizes humans as superior beings and he finds it morally reprehensible to take another human life. After surviving the most dangerous game, Rainsford feels like a "beast at bay" and ends up killing Zaroff in a duel.

Although Rainsford's violent actions seem to undermine his morals regarding the distinction between hunting and murder, one could argue that he is acting in self-defense and understands that Zaroff would never stop murdering defenseless humans. To prevent Zaroff from taking his life or murdering anyone else, Rainsford feels justified by acting in self-defense. Overall, Connell explores the morals attached to the ways humans justify killing, which is only acceptable in self-defense and hunting.

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I would argue that the overriding lesson of the story is that human beings are more than just animals, whatever General Zaroff might think. According to him, humans are simply a superior species of animal; nothing more, nothing less. And this species is itself divided between allegedly higher and lower specimens. (No prizes for guessing which subdivision Zaroff thinks he belongs to).

However, even the good guy of the story, Rainsford, appears to share Zaroff's repellent world view. His triumphant killing of Zaroff indicates that he too has internalized the morally reprehensible idea that human beings are just superior animals and that he, as one of the strongest specimens, is thereby entitled to take the life of an inferior specimen (i.e., General Zaroff).

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Richard Connell's classic short story "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924) regards Sanger Rainsford's escape from General Zaroff's game of hunting shipwrecked sailors on his private island. Rainsford initially fails to elude Zaroff but succeeds in killing Zaroff's henchman and one of his dogs. Rainsford eventually dives off a cliff into the sea before surprising Zaroff at his own chateau, thus winning the game.

The principle theme of "The Most Dangerous Game" is humanity's justification for murder. Rainsford argues that animals may be hunted because they cannot feel: when Rainsford's companion Whitney wonders how the jaguar feels about being hunted, Rainsford says "Bah! They've no understanding" (Connell). Zaroff, however, agrees that humans have reason and understanding, but he doesn't affirm the value of human life. While dining with Rainsford, Zaroff says, "I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war--" (Connell). Since this story was composed around 1924, Zaroff is most likely referring to World War I. The war has desensitized Zaroff to the value of human life and has led him to believe that the strong may dominate the weak. This notion allows him to murder those trapped on his island while preserving his civilized and sophisticated atmosphere.

At the story's end, Zaroff tells Rainsford that he has won the hunt and will be set free. Rainsford, however, tells Zaroff that he is still "a beast at bay," and Rainsford proceeds to kill him (Connell). Though Rainsford before argued against killing humans, he murders Zaroff without necessity. With this, the story establishes humanity's ability to commit and justify murder in the face of our moral and civil understanding. The lesson of the story is thereby to warn of the instability of humanity's morality.

For more information about "The Most Dangerous Game," please check out the eNotes guide linked below!

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There can be more than one moral or lesson in “The Most Dangerous Game” because it is a story with many themes.  One moral is that you should never underestimate your opponent.  Both Rainsford and Zaroff fall victim to doing this, and they both pay the price.

Rainsford finds himself stranded on an island, and he meets the strange inhabitant.  When he first meets General Zaroff, he does not realize that the man is thinking of hunting him.  He enters his house, has a meal with him, and has a conversation with him before realizing that he is in danger. 

Rainsford scoffs at his hose, and Zaroff responds.

The general shrugged his shoulders and delicately ate a hothouse grape. "As you wish, my friend," he said. "The choice rests entirely with you. But may I not venture to suggest that you will find my idea of sport more diverting than Ivan's?"

Rainsford is shocked when he realizes that Zaroff plans to hunt him.  He did not really consider what Zaroff was capable of.  Now he has to play his dangerous game.  Rainsford finds himself Zaroff’s prey because he did not stop to consider what kind of person Zaroff was.  He underestimated his opponent and paid the price.

 

Now, how does General Zaroff underestimate Rainsford?

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