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There are several moral lessons, or themes, in this story. Rainsford learns a lesson about human nature, but so does Zaroff.
All life has value. General Zaroff believes that valuing life is old-fashioned. This attitude is of course immoral. Every person has a right to be treated as human, no matter where they come from.
"One does not expect nowadays to find a young man of the educated class, even in America, with such a naive, and, if I may say so, mid-Victorian point of view.”
Actions have consequences. Rainsford acts foolishly when he falls into the water. He also is foolish when he assumes Zaroff won't make him play the game. In addition, Zaroff is foolish to assume that Rainsford will play by the rules.
Rainsford did not smile. "I am still a beast at bay," he said, in a low, hoarse voice. "Get ready, General Zaroff."
Never underestimate people. Rainford underestimates Zaroff, and Zaroff underestimates Rainsford. In the end, Rainsford is able to win because he was underestimated.
Even lurks everywhere, and it is your responsibility to root it out. Rainsford could not leave the island, even if he won the game. He had to take care of Zaroff, and the only way to rid humanity of this evil was to kill him.
There are a few morals that can be examined from reading Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." Many lessons taken from stories can be subjective depending on the reader's personal experiences and understanding of the world. However, here are a few to consider:
Just because someone seems to be civilized doesn't mean that he or she also values civilization's rules of conduct. General Zaroff is not what he first seems when Rainsford meets him. Rainsford is treated with the best hospitality a rich man like Zaroff can offer. Zaroff claims the following:
"We do our best to preserve the amenities of civilization here. Please forgive any lapses. We are well off the beaten track, you know. Do you think the champagne has suffered from its long ocean trip?"
Not only is Zaroff one who can afford champagne and a lovely mansion on an island to live in, but he has impeccable hospitality skills. His mannerisms are kind and generous. He offers his guests fresh clothes and pajamas, quality food, and a comfortable bed to sleep in. However, such civilized hospitality and "amenities" come with an uncivilized cost--the guest's life as he becomes Zaroff's hunted quarry.
If a person is not careful, in extreme cases he or she can succumb to animalistic instincts to kill or be killed. Unfortunately for the famous hunter, Sanger Rainsford, he becomes one of Zaroff's game pieces in his hunting game. After three days of being hunted like an animal, Rainsford seems to turn into one. The trauma of being forced to act like a hunted animal somehow changes him from a decent human being who would not kill another human to a "beast at bay." As a result, Rainsford challenges Zaroff to a final battle as follows:
"'I am still a beast at bay,' he said, in a low, hoarse voice. 'Get ready, General Zaroff.'
'. . . Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.'"
Rainsford apparently forgets the fact that he said would never kill another human being, and he eventually turns on his predator, Zaroff.
Arrogance and pride in one's expertise can lead to drastic and radical ends. Both Rainsford and Zaroff exhibit arrogance and pride in being expert hunters. Such traits and mentalities can lead people to think in terms of extremes. For example, Rainsford shows arrogance and pride when he tells Whitney the following:
"This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes--the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are the hunters."
Ironically, Rainsford's absolute belief about life is put to the test when he becomes a "huntee." General Zaroff also shows his arrogance and pride when he states the following:
"My whole life has been one prolonged hunt . . . for a time [I] commanded a division of Cossack cavalry, but my real interest was always the hunt. I have hunted every kind of game in every land. It would be impossible for me to tell you how many animals I have killed."
Again, irony plays its hand against Zaroff when he also becomes a "huntee." Rainsford flips Zaroff's game upside down at the end of the story when he goes from being hunted to becoming the hunter. Unfortunately, Rainsford can not devise a plan to save himself that would not require killing Zaroff. Thus, Rainsford proves that he believes there are only hunters and "huntees" in the world because that is the only conclusion he comes to in the end.
What goes around comes around. This cliche applies to both Rainsford and Zaroff because both men, as shown above, make arrogant comments that place themselves higher than others in the world--animals or humans alike. Each man feels as though he is safe in the world because he is a hunter rather than one to be hunted. Consequently, each man suffers unexpectedly as one being hunted, which doesn't end well for either of them. Rainsford seems to transform into something animalistic or inhuman, and Zaroff dies at the hand of his quarry.
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