Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1173
Essential Passage 1
“…Great sport, hunting.”
“The best sport in the world,” agreed Rainsford.
“For the hunter,” amended Whitney. “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.
“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. “This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”
Sanger Rainsford—a big-game hunter—and his companion Whitney are taking a yacht to South America to hunt along the Amazon. They pass what looks like a deserted island that the maps label “Ship-Trap Island.” Superstitious sailors avoid the island, afraid of some evil that is said to haunt it. Whitney and Rainsford discuss the joy of hunting. Rainsford believes it is the best sport in the world, though Whitney believes that is true only for the hunter: the hunted might not find it so enjoyable. Rainsford dismiss this comment as “philosophy,” stating that no one cares how a jaguar feels. Whitney, however, cannot give up the argument that the hunted do indeed have some measure of feeling about their status as prey, even if it is only the feeling of fear. Rainsford says that there are only two classes of beings in this world—the hunted and the “huntees.” He and Whitney are in the lucky position of being the hunters rather than the hunted.
Essential Passage 2
“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”
“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”
“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”
The general laughed with entire good nature. He regarded Raisnford quizzically. “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war—“
“Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder,” finished Rainsford stiffly.
Rainsford, finding himself under the hospitality of General Zaroff, a Cossack from Russia, at first is intrigued to meet someone who also enjoys big-game hunting. After having fled Russia following the Russian Revolution, Zaroff traveled the world looking for more exciting and challenging game. He eventually made his way to the Amazon, hoping that its fabled jaguars would provide him with enough sport to retain his interest, but they did not. With his wits and a high-powered rifle, Zaroff discovered that no animal is much of a challenge because an animal has instinct but no reason. Soon struck with inspiration, Zaroff believed he found a new animal to hunt, and it is for this reason that he has built his castle on a deserted island. Rainsford is intrigued as to the nature of this new prey, since no animal can match a man in intelligence. Zaroff disagrees, stating that there is one who can. Rainsford realizes that he is talking about hunting another human being and is horrified by the suggestion. Zaroff ridicules Rainsford, whom he thinks educated and sophisticated enough to have long abandoned any belief in the intrinsic value of a human life. Rainsford, however, states categorically that hunting a human is murder.
Essential Passage 3
General Zaroff did not appear until luncheon. He was dressed faultlessly in the tweeds of a country squire. He was solicitous about the state of Rainsford’s health.
“As for me,” sighed the general, “I do not feel so well. I am worried, Mr. Rainsford. Last night I detected traces of my old complaint.”
To Rainsford’s questioning glance the general said, “Ennui. Boredom.”
Then taking a second helping of crepes Suzette, the general explained: “The hunting was not good last night. The fellow lost his head. He made a straight trail that offered no problems at all. That’s the trouble with these sailors; they have dull brains to begin with, and they do not know how to get about in the woods. They do excessively stupid and obvious things. It’s most annoying. Will you have another glass of Chablis, Mr. Rainsford?”
Rainsford is almost in shock over Zaroff’s revelation that he hunts human beings for sport. He refuses the general’s invitation to go hunting with him that night. Instead, he retreats to the room appointed for him by Zaroff. Despite its luxury and comfort, Rainsford cannot sleep. He hears footsteps in the corridor, sees shadows moving about, notices gunshots in the distance. The next morning, General Zaroff does not appear. Rainsford does not see him again until lunch, dressed impeccably as a country squire. The general asks after Rainsford’s health and then admits that he is vexed by his old trouble—boredom. The hunt has become too tame once again. The previous night, he had successfully—easily in fact—stalked a sailor. He complains that sailors cannot seem to navigate on land, especially when surrounded by trees. Zaroff’s prey had not made any effort to dodge his tracker. Tracing the sailor's route was obvious and simple, says Zaroff. To challenge him, Zaroff needs something more than the wretched souls whom he has hunted thus far.
Analysis of Essential Passages
The theme of inhumanity and cruelty is presented at the beginning of the story as Whitney and Rainsford discuss the sport of hunting. To Whitney, the hunted have feelings, even if it is only the fear of pain and death. Rainsford, however, believes that they have no feelings of which the hunter needs to be concerned. This foreshadows his own situation as the prey of General Zaroff. Rainsford's rejection of the importance of the feelings of the hunted is also paralleled by General Zaroff. The general holds that modern civilization has no place for believing in the inherent worth of a single human life. For Zaroff, man is an animal, nothing more. As animals are hunted for sport without reproach, so may a man be hunted.
Inherent in Zaroff’s love for hunting is his desire for power. Life is for the strong, he says, and may be taken by the strong. It is the survival of the fittest in the most primal sense. He even believes that some animals are of more value than some classes of human beings: a thoroughbred horse, for example, is worth more than the “scum of the earth,” who may be treated cruelly with impunity.
By the end of the story, Zaroff has been bested by “the most dangerous game,” a man who is as crafty and as skilled as he is. The exact nature of Zaroff's death, presumably at the hands of Rainsford, is left unrecorded. He simply ceases to exist. Rainsford is shown as taking over Zaroff’s castle, but it is unclear if Rainsford had lowered himself to the inhumanity and cruelty exhibited by Zaroff.
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