What is the theme of "The Most Dangerous Game"?

The theme of "The Most Dangerous Game" is the morality of murder. Its main characters, Sangor Rainsford and General Zaroff, are both hunters, and Rainsford justifies killing by claiming that animals can't feel. This logic fails, however, when Zaroff starts hunting humans. In depicting the cruelty of hunting human beings, author Richard Connell raises the question, is murder of anything ever justifiable?

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The main theme of "The Most Dangerous Game" concerns the ethics of killing living beings. Both Sanger Rainsford and General Zaroff are accomplished hunters who enjoy shooting big game animals. Despite their similar views concerning the ethics of killing defenseless animals, the two main characters stand at opposite ends of the spectrum regarding the value of human life. Rainford's views regarding hunting align with society's accepted standards—he is fine with killing animals but also values human life and views hunting humans as unethical and morally reprehensible. In contrast, Zaroff has no qualms about killing "lesser" human beings and views the most dangerous game (i.e. killing humans) as an exciting sport.

Initially, readers may support Rainsford's views and find Zaroff's debased sport to be appalling. However, Connell subtly raises the question of whether taking a human life is ethical in some circumstances and challenges the reader to examine the ethics of killing living beings in general. Despite Rainsford's moral principles, he takes the lives of two people in the story. Rainsford's decision to kill Zaroff in hand-to-hand combat at the end of the story is particularly nuanced. The tables have turned in Rainsford's favor, and he has the opportunity to leave the island, but he kills Zaroff instead. The reader is forced to question whether his actions were justified.

Rainsford's frightening experience of avoiding Zaroff throughout Ship-Trap Island also raises the question of whether the socially acceptable sport of hunting is ethical. After all, Rainsford sympathizes with animals when he experiences the fear and pain of being hunted. At the end of the story, Rainsford even remarks that he feels like a "beast at bay." The reader is challenged to contemplate Rainsford's initial statement about the world being made up of "two classes—the hunters and the huntees" and assess the value of life in general. Therefore, the main theme Connell explores throughout the story concerns the complex ethics of killing a living being.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 10, 2020
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There are several themes for this short story, but most important among them would be the theme of cruelty and violence, the theme of morality, the theme of individual versus society, and the theme of revenge.

Cruelty and violence are manifest in that Zaroff and his crew purposefully lure people to their lair in order to hunt them down like animals.

Morality comes into play since Rainsford is a renowned hunter in his own right, and he recognizes Zaroff as the author of a book about hunting.  However, Rainsford sees Zaroff as immoral and his "recreational hunting" as murder.  It is not honorable in any way.

Individual versus Society comes into play as the society is Zaroff and the inhabitants and fellow hunters of the island.  They obviously work together to set up the hunt and to trap the hunted...the individual...who is fighting for his life in the ultimate game of survivor.

Revenge is obvious because Rainsford wins the game.  He does what he has to do in order to survive--kill or be killed.  The question is:  is it really revenge or is the result a necessary evil.  Did Rainsford premeditate his actions or was it pure instinct?  As the reader, you alone will have to come to your own conclusions.


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Violence and Cruelty is the main theme of “The Most Dangerous Game” “The violence of his malicious host, General Zaroff, initially shocks Rainsford, but as he fights to stay alive he becomes caught up in Zaroff's game. Zaroff attempts to justify his violence with civilized arguments. Issues of violence and cruelty in "The Most Dangerous Game" exist not only on a literal level but on a symbolic level as well. As Connell directs the reader to sympathize with Rainsford, the reader feels what it is like to be a hunted animal. The story also stimulates an array of questions surrounding the nature of violence. Zaroff seems to enjoy violence intensely and thoroughly. Yet another major theme is Revenge. The conclusion of "The Most Dangerous Game'' inspires many questions, including: Has Rainsford become a murderer just like General Zaroff? How has he changed, and why? Although he won the game, and General Zaroff appeared ready to set him free, Rainsford still killed Zaroff. Zaroff's murder, therefore, is not self-defense, as it would have been before Rainsford won the game. It is either an act of revenge or a killing for sport.

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I'd like to expand just a bit more on the theme of violence and cruelty. Zaroff enjoys the violence of his hunts for humans, and Rainsford is at first shocked by his knowledge of what Zaroff is doing. Rainsford is famous as a hunter of big game who has previously said that the animals feel nothing when being pursued and killed. Then the reader learns what it feels like to be a hunted animal through Rainsford's fight to stay alive. The author then asks the reader to compare the differences between hunting for animals and hunting humans. Each of us immediately respond that it's worse to hunt humans, but the author wants us to see the cruelty involved in the hunt for any animal, human or not.

Connected to the theme of violence and cruelty is the theme of revenge in the story. Rainsford kills Zaroff, even though Zaroff seems ready to set him free. Does Rainsford kill Zaroff because of what Zaroff put him through? Or, has playing this "game" turned Rainsford into the violent, cruel killer that Zaroff was? He could have had Zaroff punished for his crimes against humanity if he hadn't killed him. Why doesn't Rainsford immediately set the other men (Zaroff's prey) free to eat and to have a restful night's sleep as well? Rainsford knows how these other men feel because he went through the same thing. The theme of violence and cruelty extends beyond Zaroff's hunt for Rainsford. Is violence and cruelty like a contagious disease that spreads to Rainsford? These are the questions the author leaves us with.

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The most prevelant theme is that of violence and cruelty, both literally and symbolically.

Literally, against the animals have died in Zaroff's violent hunts and in the way he is trying to murder Rainsford. Symbolically, part of the terror of Connell's novel is the way the reader empathisizes with Rainsford, experiencing with the character the inherent cruetly in Zaroff's "hunt."

You can learn more about the themes, characters, and other literary elements of this novel by visiting the link below.

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