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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,032 words.)