Early in the story, Rainsford's traveling companion expresses empathy for the fear of a jaguar being hunted. Rainsford laughs the thought off, claiming "The world is made up of two classes -- the hunters and the huntees." After he discovers General Zaroff's secret, Rainsford is faced with the logical conclusion of that philosophy:
"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? If I wish to hunt, why should I not?"
(Connell, "The Most Dangerous Game," fiction.eserver.org)
Zaroff is saying, in essence, the same thing as Rainsford, but taken to the extreme of the idea. If man is a reasoning animal in a world of hunter and prey, then man is just as acceptable to hunt as animals are. If a man -- Zaroff -- is powerful enough to capture and hunt men, he should be able to by virtue of his strength and by Rainsford's own admission. The moral distinction between man and animal is, in Zaroff's opinion, unimportant; only in civilization do humans create laws to prevent the strong from taking their rightful place.
"The best sport in the world," agreed Rainsford.
"For the hunter," amended Whitney. "Not for the jaguar."
"Don't talk rot, Whitney," said Rainsford. "You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?"
"Perhaps the jaguar does," observed Whitney.
"Bah! They've no understanding."
"Even so, I rather think they understand one thing--fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death."
"Nonsense," laughed Rainsford. "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 hunters. Do you think we've passed that island yet?"
The previous scene I have provided comes from the beginning of the story. Rainsford is discussing hunting with his friend, Whitney, prior to falling off the ship and landing on the island. It emphasizes Rainsford's feelings about hunting. The theme of the story is understanding the definition of cruelty. At the beginning of the story, Rainsford doesn't feel that there is much cruelty in the hunting of animals, but when he learns the secret of Zaroff's hunts his feelings change. Once he becomes the hunted, Rainsford's feelings change and he is better able to relate to the animals he himself hunts. Rainsford now understands the fear of pain and death. The end then leaves us wondering if Rainsford will change his ways or ultimately take Zaroff's place as this experiance may have changed for the worse.
Full text of the story can be found at the provided site below: