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The Most Dangerous Game

by Richard Edward Connell

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What do Rainsford and Zaroff's words and actions reveal about Connell's view of human nature?

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The story "The Most Dangerous Game" is about two men who were shipwrecked on an island. The main character, Rainsford, was a hunter who hunted down many animals including bear in the Caucuses. While on this island he finds a man named General Zaroff and learns that he hunts humans for sport. Zaroff invites Rainsford to hunt with him and then tries to kill Rainsford when he refuses to participate in his game. The setting of the story takes place in an isolated wilderness.

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Sigmund Freud conveniently categorized the human psyche in the early part of the 20th century. His categories (although widely debated by subsequent psychologists) would seem to be a good way of explaining the views of human nature which are presented in Richard Connell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game." Freud...

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divided the psyche into the id, ego and superego. The id is primitive man out to indulge in whatever tends to satisfy his most impulsive needs. It is illogical and fantasy-oriented. In short, a person's id will seek to do whatever pleases it. The superego, on the other hand, is the nagging conscience which knows the difference between right and wrong. The superego's main function is to control the id, especially its impulses toward sex and aggression. Finally, the ego is a person's conscious personality. It is somewhat of a combination of the id and superego. It makes choices by weighing the need for satisfaction and the social norms which govern a particular behavior. Most importantly, the ego is capable of rational and realistic problem solving. When presented with a new situation, a new reality, it can modify its thinking and change.

In Connell's story, the reader is initially introduced to the superego in the form of Rainsford's hunting companion Whitney. Whitney argues there may be something inherently wrong with hunting and suggests the animals they hunt feel pain and fear. He seems to be implying that hunting is a cruel and indiscriminate sport. In contrast, Rainsford believes animals are put on earth to be hunted and there's no reason to care how they feel. This discussion between the two hunters foreshadows later events and precipitates a different way of thinking on the part of Rainsford in the second half of the story.

General Zaroff, raised an aristocrat and probably never denied anything in his life, is representative of the id. Even cold-blooded murder is not taboo if it provides pleasure for the general. From the time he was a small child, he killed things to please himself and was encouraged by his father to do so:

When I was only five years old he gave me a little gun, specially made in Moscow for me, to shoot sparrows with. When I shot some his prized turkeys with it, he did not punish me; he complimented me on my marksmanship. I killed my first bear in the Caucuses when I was ten.

Thus, it is not surprising that a man such as Zaroff would buy his own island in order to indulge in the ultimate hunting fantasy. When Rainsford accidentally arrives on the island, it is apparent that the general is interested in matching wits with Rainsford, a celebrated hunter in his own right. In fact, the general is seemingly giddy at the prospect: "Your brain against mine. Your woodcraft against mine. Your strength and stamina against mine. Outdoor chess!" Despite being quite cultured and sophisticated, Zaroff is the ultimate example of the id run amok. 

Finally, there is Rainsford, the ego, always assessing the real world and fighting against the power of the selfish id with help from the superego. Despite his earlier rejection of Whitney's assertion that hunting may be immoral, Rainsford is able to see through the general's murderous game. He instantly balks at Zaroff's suggestion that the two hunt together. Being in control of his primitive impulses, Rainsford accurately assesses that the general is a madman.

In the end, Rainsford, the ego, works through his problem and withstands the general's onslaught. He is hiding in Zaroff's bedroom in the story's last scene. He understands that he is still a "beast at bay" and that he must defend himself against the always dangerous Zaroff (the out-of-control id), despite the general's claims that Rainsford won the game. It is also implied that Rainsford may have a change of heart about hunting in the future, another example of the ego assessing the world and adjusting appropriately.

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