The main themes in "The Most Dangerous Game" are the distinction between humans and animals, the meaning of civilization, and the unreliability of sensation.
- The distinction between humans and animals: The story traces the line between humans and animals. Rainsford goes from a thinking of humans as superior to an arguably more balanced perspective.
- The meaning of civilization: Zaroff's peculiar combination of erudite cultivation and ruthless savagery calls into question the definition of a civilized person.
- The unreliability of sensation: Throughout the story, characters are left without the ability to perceive the world around them, often in richly symbolic ways.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Distinction Between Humans and Animals
The most prominent theme in Connell's story concerns the perceived line between animals and humans. This line is examined with regards to ethical questions around the hunting and killing of animals: Is it ethical for animals to be hunted? Are animals lesser beings who cannot think or feel to the extent that humans can? Is it any more ethical to kill animals than it would be to kill humans?
The trajectory of Raisnford’s views on these questions is ambiguous. It is unclear whether he has become a more open-minded person through having understood the fear that animals feel, or a worse one for having been encouraged to abandon his principles and kill Zaroff. At the beginning of the story, a debate ensues between Rainsford and his hunting companion, Whitney, who contends that even the jaguar can feel the fear of pain and the fear of death. Rainsford dismisses this idea as "soft." When he later encounters Zaroff and realizes that the general’s "most dangerous game" is man-hunting, he is horrified, saying that he is no "murderer" and will not take part in such a contest. However, Zaroff's argument is that it is actually more unethical to kill animals than it is to kill humans, because animals cannot reason. Hunting animals, according to Zaroff, is not a game at all, but simple killing, whereas hunting a rational human being poses a proper challenge against a foe who could reasonably win. Having shown Rainsford his collection of animal heads, he offers to show him his "new" collection of human ones, too. Rainsford declines, horrified by the idea. Rainsford is also perhaps unnerved by the fact that Zaroff seems to see little difference between the value of an animal life and the value of a human one.
It is difficult to unambiguously deem one viewpoint evil and the other good. Rainsford himself is a hunter, a man whose "sport" involves animal cruelty. It is arguably fitting that he should learn, through being hunted, how an animal feels when he stalks it to his death. Meanwhile, Zaroff has certainly killed animals in the past, but now he seems to feel that there is something distasteful about killing a being so less capable of reasoning than himself. At the end of the story, Zaroff is proven correct in his belief that a human could actually beat him at his own game. Meanwhile, Rainsford has overcome his scruples sufficiently to kill Zaroff; he has become a "murderer." But he has also potentially understood the cruelty he enacts on animals when he hunts them.
The Meaning of Civilization
The question of what constitutes a civilized person is prominent throughout the story. It is particularly embodied by the person and behavior of General Zaroff. A handsome and elegant man, Zaroff is a member of the aristocratic class. He comes from an entirely different sort of civilization than Rainsford. Zaroff is an exiled Cossack who fled Russia after the Revolution. Rainsford's initial feelings about Zaroff are that he is presentable, articulate, and cultured. Zaroff is depicted singing operatic passages to himself, and he relaxes by reading the works of Marcus Aurelius. His mansion has been built in a Gothic style, and, as he explains to Rainsford, he tries hard to remain civilized despite the fact that he is largely alone on the island. He dresses for dinner in evening clothes, is waited on by his manservant, and still eats the foods of his home country. He is, in many ways, a preserved relic of an aristocratic civilization that no longer exists.
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especially shocking to Rainsford, then, to discover that a man of Zariff’s character should be, as Rainsford thinks of it, a "murderer." But according to Zaroff, his beliefs about hunting humans rather than animals are fully in accordance with civilized values. He does not wish to be unsporting by hunting a defenseless creature that could not possibly win against him. At the same time, he makes damning judgments about the sailors who find their way to his island, calling them "the scum of the earth." He seems to place less value on the lives of so-called lesser humans than he does upon animals.
In his struggle against Zaroff, Rainsford uses the ingenuity of the many civilizations he has encountered, and he ultimately defeats the General using these tactics. It is interesting that, for all his elegance and self-possession, Zaroff's civility and coolness cannot actually triumph over Rainsford's gumption and resourcefulness.
The Unreliability of Sensation
The unreliable and limited nature of sensation is one of the themes that runs through the story and is often highly symbolic. When the reader first encounters Whitney and Rainsford, they are sailing through a darkness as thick as "velvet." The island lies in that darkness, and as Whitney notes, while Rainsford has "good eyes," there is still no possibility that he would be able to see it. The two are, effectively, sailing blind. Whitney, however, does supply Rainsford with information about the island, should he care to accept it. It is Rainsford's own fault that he chooses not to listen to these warnings—to close his ears against them—and thus fall into trouble. Even when he first sees Zaroff's house, he does not believe the evidence of his own eyes, thinking it a "mirage." In Rainsford’s case, his limited sensations are symbolic of his relative powerlessness and ignorance.
This theme recurs in the person of Zaroff's servant, Ivan. Ivan is a "gigantic" man of enormous physical strength, but Zaroff could have recruited such a man anywhere. At the end of the story, after Ivan has died, Zaroff worries about the possibility of replacing him. One can infer that Zaroff's greater concern is that another servant would not be as "mute" as Ivan, who can neither hear nor speak. Ivan responds to Zaroff's instructions unquestioningly, and what he actually feels about the situation, he cannot express, because he is unable to speak. Like a trained animal, he is subservient to Zaroff, mutely obedient. And his thoughts, whatever they are, remain beyond the understanding of others.