The dominant technique of this story is that of ironic reversal. Not only does the plot contain reversals that challenge the surface meaning of the story, but also the characters, with their sometimes opposed, sometimes parallel visions of the world, establish expectations that are ironically reversed by the end of the story. The style intentionally directs the reader to think in terms of opposition: hunter versus hunted, strong versus weak, man versus animal, reason versus instinct, civilization versus brutality. However, these obviously opposed pairings disguise a greater complexity; the world is not really arranged so neatly. To be successful, the hunter must imitate the hunted, the man must act the animal, civilization must disguise its brutality.
The final irony, that Rainsford conquers a murderer by killing him, is a last trick on the reader, who has been led to believe that one of the values represented by half of each set of paired opposites is better than the other. No such certainty is possible in a story designed to challenge the conventional understanding of civilized behavior.
Two ethical questions seem to dominate this story. First, what is the moral distinction between murder and such forms of killing sanctioned by society as self-defense during war? To kill at all, the story implies, the killer must first believe in his superiority to the victim. Rainsford’s belief that animals cannot feel and the general’s conviction that they cannot reason provide convenient justification for both men in their lifelong careers as hunters. However, the smugness of their attitude is demonstrated to be dangerous to both of them. Rainsford is forced to play the hunted and must rely on the instinctive behavior of animals to survive (indeed, his vision of himself as a beast at bay justifies the murder of Zaroff), and Zaroff has been driven into madness by the extremity of his sense that no animal is equal to his prowess as a hunter. Rainsford, who fought in World War I and claims not to condone “cold-blooded murder,” has nevertheless learned to kill efficiently enough to fool the general and trap him in his own bedroom. There is certainly a suggestion at the end of the story that any experience with killing—through sport, soldiering, or self-defense—contributes to the idea that the victor deserves to survive and makes the idea of murder conscionable.
A second question raised by this story is how successful civilization really is at controlling or diverting the instinctive, often brutal, behavior of man. Zaroff, who appreciates the cultural opportunities of society (evident in his clothing, food, and the snatches of opera that he hums at bedtime), has perverted the civilized convention of the game and sportsmanship to achieve insane, self-indulgent ends. His idea that “life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if need be, taken by the strong” is in some measure reinforced by the society that has given him tremendous wealth and sanctions his passion as a hunter.
Rainsford, too, is the moral victim of a society that directs men to amuse themselves by intentionally risking death. The ease with which he oversimplifies the world into the hunters and the hunted parallels Zaroff’s satisfaction with a world consisting of the strong and the weak. Forced to play the hunted for a time, Rainsford may learn empathy for the victim, but he never questions the dualistic thinking that allows him only to kill or be killed. The story thus forces the reader to question the civilization that assumes that man needs to kill, and at best will only provide him with equally brutal alternatives to murder...
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rather than insist on more creative responses to conflict.
"The Most Dangerous Game" is set sometime after the First World War on a remote, tropical island in the Caribbean, known by sailors as Ship-Trap Island. Among those sailors, it has a mysteriously ominous reputation and is given a wide birth by knowledgeable sea captains. Those passing near it sense an elusive, indefinable sense of evil. Ship-Trap Island is somewhat removed from the regular sea route between New York and Rio de Janeiro, but not so far to avoid the occasional passing ship. The island is covered with a dense jungle that extends all the way down to its treacherous, rocky shoreline. On one side of the island, a line of giant, jagged rocks, capable of sinking any ship that ventures into them, extends from the shore, lurking just below the surface of the sea. It is this line of rocks that gives Ship-Trap Island its name.
The protagonist in this narrative is a celebrated big game hunter named Sangor Rainsford. Rainsford and a friend are aboard a yacht enroute to Brazil to hunt the jaguar. On the deck of the ship alone, after midnight, Rainsford hears what he believes to be gunshots from the mysterious island they are passing. Standing on the railing and leaning out to listen more closely, he loses his balance and falls overboard. Unable to attract the attention of anyone on the rapidly retreating ship, Rainsford resolves to swim in the direction of the gun-shots, eventually pulling himself from the sea onto Ship-Trap Island.
On a high bluff overlooking the sea, sits a single enormous structure with tall towers. The architecture of the building is cold and forbidding. An iron gate and stone steps lead up the side of the cliff to large, heavy doors. It is the residence of General Zaroff, a rich and eccentric Russian aristocrat in exile. Upon his first sighting of the building, Rainsford describes it as a "palatial chateau." Later, Rainsford discovers that the interior of the structure is as sophisticated and refined as any of the finest residences in Europe or America. Inside the residence, Rainsford finds grand marble steps, enormous high-ceilinged rooms, elegant furnishing, richly paneled walls, luxurious draperies and all the comforts associated with an elegant and sophisticated lifestyle.
A generator on the island provides electricity, not only for lighting the chateau, but also to power a trap. Extending out along the line of dangerous rocks is a series of electric lights arranged in such a way as to mimic the marking of a channel and the pretense of safe passage through the rocks. In fact, they lead directly into the rocks, and any ship foolish enough to fall into the trap is ripped open and sunk, forcing the crew to swim to the island, where they are taken prisoner by General Zaroff. In the cellar of the chateau is a prison that General Zaroff calls his "training school." In it, men from ships that have been caught in Zaroff's trap are treated for their injuries, fed well, and prepared physically to be hunted by Zaroff. In a large, locked courtyard, Zaroff keeps an army of hungry, ferocious dogs.
"The Most Dangerous Game," a gripping tale that pits man versus man in a South American jungle, includes elements that recall several literary genres, including Gothic, action-adventure, and horror.
In "The Most Dangerous Game," Richard Connell provides an ominous setting typical of the Gothic genre. Horrible sounds and dismal sights fill the background of this story, and the details become more frightening and typical of both the horror and action-adventure genres as the story progresses. When he falls off the yacht, Rainsford immediately finds himself in the "blood warm waters of the Caribbean sea"—an indication of worse things to come. He fights through the surf, listening to gunshots and the screams of dying animals he later finds out were humans. Rainsford passes over rocks that he could have "shattered against" only to leave "the enemy, the sea'' for "knit webs of weeds and trees." The environment is consistently malicious, dangerous, and unyielding.
At first, Rainsford believes the "lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upwards into the gloom" is a "mirage." The house is not a literal mirage, but its civilized facade is soon shattered in the ensuing violence. Rainsford encounters many of the foreboding indicators of a haunted mansion: the "tall spiked gate," the "heavy knocker" on the door gate that creaks, and the gigantic scale of the rooms decorated as if in "feudal times," The table large enough for "two score men," and the ominous "mounted heads of many animals—lions, tigers, elephants, moose, bears; larger or more perfect than Rainsford had ever seen" add to the fearful, medieval horror setting. The wild jungle outside, complete with a "Death Swamp," echoes the adventure genre. Connell sets the "game'' in a dangerous wilderness of quicksand, wild seas, fallen trees, mud and sand, and rocky cliffs.
Point of View
"The Most Dangerous Game'' features an omniscient third-person narrator. The narrator describes things from Rainsford's perspective for most of the story but breaks away toward the end to follow General Zaroff back to his "great paneled dining hall,'' to his library, and then to his bedroom. A possible reason for this shift in perspective may be that Connell wants to illustrate how the hunter, Zaroff, has become the hunted.
Connell structures "The Most Dangerous Game" tightly and concisely to complement the story's action. He writes with an often abbreviated style that rapidly moves the reader along through the plot. Twists and turns proceed with little description; this emphasizes those moments when the narrative slows down and tension is generated. The story features a classic device of the horror genre: the moment in which time slows down, and a second seems like an hour. Many words are used to describe a short interval of time, so the reader's experience of time slows down and the moment acquires a greater importance in relation to the remainder of the text. Examples of this include when Rainsford falls in the water and when he waits for the general in the tree.
In contrast, Connell takes a different approach at the end of the story. Having stretched out intense moments throughout the story, including the involved description of General Zaroff's return, Connell quickly describes the final confrontation. He grants it only a few paragraphs of sparse dialogue before ending the scene abruptly with "He had never slept in a better bed." By describing none of the final battle, Connell stretches the suspense as far as he can. He waits until the last two words of the story to reveal the survivor with: "Rainsford decided."
Richard Connell is a master of short narrative. He makes effective use of a number of literary devices traditionally associated with great short stories, including historical allusion, powerful foreshadowing, vivid imagery, and clever plot reversals. "The Most Dangerous Game" is written from the third person, omniscient point of view. In addition to meticulous observations, the narrative reveals Rainsford's thoughts and feelings throughout the story, further developing his character and adding to the intensity of the action and suspense.
Connell uses an old newspaper man's sensitivity to current affairs to give credibility to an incredible story. He uses frequent references to WWI and to the Russian Revolution to lend a sense of history to "The Most Dangerous Game." Many of the story's original readers were veterans of WWI and thus identified readily with Rainsford's musings about foxholes.
The social upheaval and eventual communist revolution in Russia captured the imagination of the world during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Newspaper headlines were filled with news of the Czar and the Communist Revolution. Connell uses this to his advantage, referring frequently to things his readers would recognize as Russian. Zaroff and Ivan, both obviously Russian names, are cast as Cossacks, notoriously loyal supporters of the Czar. To augment the authenticity of Zaroff and Ivan, an ethnic Russian dish, borsch, is on Zaroff's dinner menu, and the general's ancestral home is placed in the Crimea.
The story's verisimilitude is further enhanced by Connell's choice of setting. The Caribbean was close enough to be almost familiar, but far enough away to be exotic and mysterious. Regular newspaper coverage chronicled a procession of grand hunting safaris and famous big game hunters. After all, had not President Roosevelt just returned from just such an expedition where he had been charged, not unlike Zaroff, by an angry cape buffalo?
These allusions also serve to reinforce the story's irony and social contrast. During the 1920s, people filed into movies to see the biggest stars of the day slogging down jungle trails, elephant guns in hand, following comfortably behind an army of native porters dutifully carrying silver tea services, mosquito netting, and all the comforts of home. Ironically, they also cheered as Tarzan, the prototype animal rights activist, ripped rifles from the hands of wouldbe killers, saving countless innocent animals from a certain date with the taxidermist.
The plot of "The Most Dangerous Game" is skillfully paced and carefully guided by Connell's use of foreshadowing. The discussion between Rainsford and Whitney hints early that the story might focus on the morality of hunting. Careful diction and elaborate imagery rapidly build an atmosphere of danger and menace. Both the crew and passengers aboard Rainsford's yacht seem preoccupied with the island they are passing, making repeated references to its mystery and its ominous reputation. Readers suspect that Ship-Trap Island will play a major role in the story long before Rainsford falls overboard. Connell goes out of his way to present Zaroff as the consummate gentleman, leading the reader to assume that he must be hiding some insidious secret. Readers are also provided with a myriad of gentle hints pointing toward Rainsford's eventual reversal of roles from master hunter to frightened prey. Connell uses foreshadowing to draw readers into the story and to built suspense and intensity in the final stages of the hunt. He teases readers with a false climax, making it appear that Zaroff is victorious when he walks directly up to the tree where Rainsford is hiding. However, when Zaroff walks away and Rainsford climbs down out of the tree, the reader senses that some form of reversal has begun, but must continue to read to discover just how the plot will evolve. Connell treats readers to a true "cliff hanger" when Zaroff's ferocious dogs pursue Rainsford to the edge of a precipice overlooking the island's rocky shore. Rainsford, with nowhere else to run, leaps into the sea. In the end, when Rainsford kills Zaroff, many readers are surprised. However, careful reading reveals many clues pointing to that outcome. Readers can trace a steady erosion of Rainsford's sense of morality from the moment that he met Zaroff.
The atmosphere of mystery and the rich texture of the physical setting are both enhanced by Connell's skilled and generous use of imagery. In addition to careful and effective diction, Connell makes frequent use of metaphor, simile, and personification to enhance his elaborate imagery. In the opening paragraphs, Connell personifies the "dank tropical night" as "palpable," pressing "its thick, warm blackness in upon the yacht." He uses simile to augment the visual, tactile impression adding, "It's like moist black velvet," referring to the night air and describes the stillness of the sea as being "flat as a plate glass window." Examples such as these are found throughout the story, describing characters, establishing mood, and adding fine detail to the exotic setting. Strong imagery draws readers into the atmosphere of the story and allows them to experience the characters, the action, and the setting more vividly and more personally. Such powerful imagery is more common to poetry than short narrative, but Connell uses it masterfully, constructing an elaborate sensory framework within which to stage his story.
Connell keeps the narrative interesting by keeping the reader guessing. Woven into the story are a series of contradictions and reversals that add interest and intrigue to the story. These reversals impact all aspects of the story—setting, characters,and plot.
Rainsford suffers several such reversals. At the beginning of the story, he is calm, comfortable, and in complete control. Suddenly he finds himself in the sea, alone and lost—his plight unknown to his friends. After struggling onto Ship-Trap Island and finding his way to Zaroff's mansion, he once again finds himself in control and in the lap of luxury.
The most dramatic reversal occurs when Zaroff sends Rainsford out to be hunted. Suddenly, and with tremendous irony, the famous big-game hunter finds himself the object of the hunt, running for his life and hiding like an animal.
Midway in the hunt, Zaroff tracks Rainsford down, but instead of bringing the game to its logical end by killing Rainsford, Zaroff turns and walks away, presumably to prolong the hunt. After this, Rainsford adopts a more aggressive posture, becoming a hunter again, setting traps and plotting the death of his new quarry: Zaroff. In the end, Rainsford once again finds himself in control, relaxing in the comfort of Zaroff's bed, surely plotting his next hunt.