Three topics in the story are the strong versus the weak, the value of life, and the danger of becoming the thing you feared.
First of all, in the beginning of the story, Whitney and Rainsford discuss the concept of weak and strong in terms of hunting animals. Rainsford says that animals do not have feelings, and Whitney disagrees. He says that hunting is fine for the hunter, but 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.
This conversation foreshadows Rainsford becoming the prey instead of the hunter. As the hunter, he was always the strong one in the hierarchy—the top of the food chain. However, when he lands on Zaroff’s island, he becomes the weak one. Zaroff is in charge, and the game is played by his rules. Rainsford is the weak one, and he is playing the prey.
The theme here is that life is made of the weak and the strong. Zaroff proclaims his life philosophy to Rainsford.
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.
If you are strong, then good for you. If you are weak, someone stronger will take advantage of you.
Next, the story explores the value of life. Rainsford begins by proclaiming that a jaguar’s life is less valuable than a human’s. He later experiences what the jaguar must feel when he himself is prey, but in the beginning of the story he discounts the jaguar’s life completely.
“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. … The world is made up of two classes--the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters. …?"
He is not quite right about this, of course. When Rainsford comes to Zaroff’s chateau and is invited to dinner, the topic of conversation is whether hunting humans is acceptable. Zaroff claims that if the humans are inferior it is all right to kill them, but Rainsford calls it murder. That is when he gets the lecture about life being lived for the strong.
"But they are men," said Rainsford hotly.
"Precisely," said the general. "That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. So they are dangerous."
To Zaroff, the men have value only in the entertainment they provide to him. They have no choice in whether or not to play the game. Rainsford sees the value of human life in our being innately human, but to Zaroff we have value only if we win, and we win if we are clever. That’s why the winner of the game gets to go free. He has proven his value. If he loses, he loses, because has no value.
Finally, that brings us to becoming the thing you feared. Rainsford accuses Zaroff of murder. He stands on principle. He does not believe in murder, and he has to be forced to play the game as prey because he will not play as predator, hunting alongside Zaroff. However, when he wins, he becomes the thing he hates—a murderer. He enters Zaroff’s house, and kills him.
It was not necessary to kill him. Rainsford had won the game, and Zaroff was going to let him go—that was the agreement.
The general sucked in his breath and smiled. "I congratulate you," he said. "You have won the game."
Rainsford did not smile. "I am still a beast at bay," he said, in a low, hoarse voice. "Get ready, General Zaroff."
Rainsford kills Zaroff, and sleeps well that night because he does not feel any trouble with his conscience in his decision to kill the general. He basically has become General Zaroff. If he had felt any remorse, we would know. Notice that the story has essentially no falling action or resolution here. Rainsford comes in, fights Zaroff, apparently kills him and sleeps like a baby. No conscience here!
You become the thing you hate when you give up your principles. Zaroff turned him. He twisted his mind, over the course of the game, and ate away at his emotions until there was not enough left of the civilized Rainsford. Perhaps he was so traumatized by the experience that it transformed him, or perhaps it stripped him down to who he really was.
In this story, we have a unique tale of two men on an island fighting for their lives. It is a suspenseful and unusual tale that depicts the darker side of human nature, and reminds us that we are not that far removed from the animals. The next time you decide to go hunting, remember that.