What happens in The Most Dangerous Game?
- Hunter Sanger Rainsford washes up on the shore of an island owned by the wealthy General Zaroff. Rainsford sees evidence of someone hunting large game on the island. Zaroff claims he has been importing game for his hunts.
- Rainsford soon realizes that Zaroff has been hunting humans for sport. When he refuses to join Zaroff on a hunt, the General turns against him.
- Zaroff informs Rainsford that he will be hunted for the next three days. If Rainsford survives, he will be returned to the mainland, provided that he promises to tell no one of what happens on the island.
- Rainsford hides deep in the woods, where he sets several traps to outsmart Zaroff. Eventually, he decides to jump back into the sea to escape. Rainsford then sneaks into Zaroff’s quarters and kills him, turning the tables on hunter and prey.
The title immediately introduces the ironic implications of the story. The word “game,” in a tale about two hunters, signifies both the competitive nature of their sport and the victims of it. The most dangerous game is one in which the lives of the hunter and the hunted are equally at risk, and this occurs only when both are men. Rainsford presumes that hunting is a sport involving no more moral consequences than a game such as baseball; he further demonstrates his naïveté by assuming that his victims, big-game animals, have no feelings. These two beliefs, based as they are on Rainsford’s certainty that man is superior to animal, are challenged when he encounters General Zaroff, who has pushed the same ideas to their inhumane limits in his madness.
When Rainsford falls off a boat near Ship-Trap Island, he views the sea as his enemy and the island as his salvation, despite the curious rumors surrounding the place. In the same way, he sees safety in the chateau of General Zaroff. Looming unexpectedly over an otherwise deserted landscape, the chateau represents civilization and Rainsford’s hope of a return to New York. The image of civilization is confirmed when Rainsford meets the general, who wears clothes designed by a London tailor, drinks rare brandy, and serves gourmet meals on fine china. A man of refined taste, the general denies himself nothing, including the luxury of continuing his greatest passion, hunting. Rainsford, a skilled hunter himself, is intrigued. What kind of game, he wonders, can be hunted on an isolated island? When the general informs him that he stocks the island with the only animal that can reason, Rainsford is aghast to realize that Zaroff hunts men. This perversion of sport repels him, and he rejects the general’s defense of manhunting even as he is fascinated by the man’s madness.
Zaroff’s insanity has a logic that parallels Rainsford’s defense of hunting big-game animals. Asserting that “the weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure,” Zaroff finds justice in hunting the “scum of the earth.” Luring sailors and deserters to his island by means of lights that indicate a channel where none exists, Zaroff imprisons his prey for as long as it takes to get them into excellent physical condition. Most victims choose to be hunted, because their only alternative is to be handed over to Ivan, who prefers prolonged torture to a swift kill. Zaroff believes these men have no rights and no feelings; like Rainsford, he assumes superiority to anything he can outwit and conquer.
Rainsford finds his assumptions shattered when his refusal to hunt another man with Zaroff turns him into the hunted. As he fights to stay alive for three days (the span of Zaroff’s challenge), Rainsford feels the unreasoning fear of being trapped, and he saves his life by copying the instinctive behavior of hunted animals. He comes to recognize the inherent unfairness of Zaroff’s game, and indeed, of all hunting; with only a knife and meager provisions, he must fight a man who has guns, trained dogs, knowledge of the island, and a safe place to retreat for...
(The entire section is 1,529 words.)