General Zaroff

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Last Updated on August 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

Extended Character Analysis

General Zaroff is the wealthy, hunting-obsessed owner of Ship-Trap island. He identifies himself as a Cossack—a member of a Russian ethnic group that remained loyal to the Russian monarchy and comprised the majority of its military force. He and Ivan fled Russia after “the debacle,” implied to be the 1917 February Revolution, which overthrew the Russian monarchy. General Zaroff and Ivan were both supporters of “the White Czar”—Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia.

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Despite having fled Russia, General Zaroff makes great efforts to maintain his veneer of aristocratic civility, serving borscht for dinner and importing other amenities from his home country. When Rainsford first encounters Zaroff, Zaroff is a charming and gracious host. He presents himself as a dignified, educated, and aristocratic man. However, his outward presentation contrasts with his internal penchant for violence and cruelty. Connell uses this contrast to suggest that the trappings of civilization do little to suppress humanity’s more violent tendencies. Indeed, big-game hunting was a fashionable pastime amongst the upper classes, suggesting that the pervasive trophy hunting culture of the early 20th century may actually promote and normalize violence.

As Zaroff and Rainsford talk over dinner, Zaroff reveals that he believes he was born to be a hunter. Hunting is his passion, and his growing boredom with big-game hunting resulted in his decision to hunt humans. He claims that humans are the only animals capable of reason and therefore make the best game. The challenge posed by hunting another rational creature reinvigorated Zaroff’s love for hunting.

Zaroff possesses a skewed sense of morality that highlights the flaws in Rainsford’s beliefs. Both men believe that hunters are inherently superior to their prey and that there exists a natural hierarchy that places rational, intelligent hunters over instinct-driven animals. However, while Rainsford still maintains a distinction between humans and supposedly inferior animals, Zaroff has come to view himself as the ultimate hunter and all other beings as potential prey. When Rainsford insists that Zaroff is a murderer, Zaroff argues that he is simply a hunter who has graduated to more challenging prey. Having read Rainsford’s book about hunting, Zaroff implies that the only difference between them is age and experience. This implication highlights Rainsford’s hypocrisy: both Rainsford and Zaroff justify violence by dividing the world into arbitrary hierarchies. The only real difference is that Zaroff’s hierarchy classifies other humans as reasonable game.

As Zaroff hunts Rainsford, he showcases considerable tracking skills. Zaroff seems to relish in the hunt, allowing Rainsford to escape on multiple occasions in order to prolong his own enjoyment. However, it is Zaroff’s playful and relaxed approach to the hunt that ultimately becomes his undoing. Whereas Rainsford is fearful and desperate to survive, Zaroff has grown complacent in his belief that he is the best hunter. Zaroff showcases his pleasure at having finally met a worthy opponent when he smiles at Rainsford’s final challenge. Rainsford has proved himself a match for Zaroff, driven as he is to new heights of cunning and savagery by primal fear.

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Sanger Rainsford