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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?
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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