Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
Most Dangerous Game” is short story of adventure
and suspense that conveys
a serious message. It was published in Collier's
magazine on January
19, 1924. It won Richard Connell his second O.
Henry Award for short fiction.
The Title: a Double Meaning
word game in the title of the story has
two meanings: (1) human
beings as Zaroff's quarry and (2) the
competition, or game, between the
hunter (Zaroff) and the hunted (Rainsford and
other human quarry).
action takes place shortly after the First
World War. The story opens in
the Caribbean on a Brazil-bound yacht and
continues on a mysterious Caribbean
Rainsford: American big-game hunter and
author who saw action in France
in the First World War. He exhibits no pity or
sympathy for the animals
he hunts. Then, ironically, he himself becomes
a hunted animal after he
arrives on a mysterious island. Rainsford is
the story's protagonist, or
main character. Whether his experience on the
island changes his attitude
toward hunted animals is open to
big-game hunter from an aristocratic family in
the Crimea, a Ukraine peninsula
that was part of Russia until recent times.
Zaroff is bored with killing
typical game such as tigers, elephants, asnd
water buffalo. Instead, he
hunts the ultimate trophy animal: man. Zaroff, a
Cossack, commanded a cavalry
division in the Russian army until the
bolsheviks revolted in 1917 and
installed a communist government that abolished
aristocracy and the class
system. Zaroff went off then and established a
new world for himself on
a remote Caribbean island. There he maintains
his aristocratic lifestyle
in his palatial home while pursuing his barbaric
hobby. One might call
him a civilized savage.
partner of Rainsford.
servant and hunting partner. Like Zaroff, he is
a Cossack. Ivan is a giant,
the biggest man Rainsford has ever seen. Because
he is a deaf mute, Ivan
hears no evil and speaks no evil but simply does
of the yacht taking Rainsford and Whitney to
Brazil. He is referred to
but plays no active role in the story.
of the San
Shipwrecked sailors held captive in Zaroff's
cellar. The general plans
to use them as quarry. They play no active role
in the story.
Michael J. Cummings...©
is late evening. Two big-game hunters, Whitney and
Rainsford, survey the
Caribbean from a yacht bound for Brazil. Whitney
points to the right, to
the location of a mysterious island.
have a curious dread of the place, Whitney says. “I
don’t know why. Some
the night is moonless, neither man can see the island,
about four miles
arriving in Brazil, the two men are scheduled to
travel up the Amazon for
best sport in the world,” Rainsford says.
the hunter, not the jaguar,” Whitney replies.
talk rot, Whitney. You're a big-game hunter, not a
philosopher. Who cares
how a jaguar feels."
their conversation returns to the nearby island,
Rainsford asks whether
its bad reputation is due to cannibals. Whitney says
even they would not
live in the place, which is called Ship-Trap Island.
“But it’s gotten into
sailor lore, somehow,” he says, pointing out that
ship’s crew has been nervous all day about coming so
near it. Even
Captain Neilsen, a tough old Swede, is jumpy.
the men say good night, Rainsford smokes a pipe in a
lounge chair on the
afterdeck. Suddenly, he hears gunfire from the
direction of the island.
Three shots. Rainsford jumps up for a look. Unable to
see anything, he
climbs onto the rail for a better view. His pipe
strikes a rope and falls
from his mouth. When he reaches for it, he loses his
balance and plunges
into the sea. Water fills his mouth when he tries to
cry out. After ripping
off his clothes, he swims for the yacht and shouts,
but it speeds ahead
and in a few moments disappears.
shots. Rainsford begins swimming in the direction from
which they came.
On and on he swims. At length, he hears an anguished
cry, then another
shot—a pistol shot, he believes. After ten more
minutes of swimming, he
reaches the shore. Dense jungle lies before him.
Exhausted, he tumbles
down, falls asleep, and does not awaken till the
afternoon of the next
day. He is refreshed but hungry. Walking along the
shore, he stops at a
patch of crushed underbrush. There is blood, and he
finds an empty cartridge
and the footprints of the hunter. He follows them
along a cliff. As darkness
settles over the island, he sees lights on top of a
bluff. To his astonishment,
they are coming from a majestic château with
opens a tall iron gate, climbs stone steps, and lifts
and drops the knocker
on the door two times before a gigantic man, bearded
to the waist, answers.
He is pointing a revolver at his visitor, who
identifies himself as Sanger
Rainsford of New York City and says he fell off a
yacht and needs food.
Another man in evening clothes comes to the door and
says it is a great
honor to welcome such a celebrated hunter as
notes that he has read Rainsford’s book on hunting the
snow leopards of
Tibet, then introduces himself as General Zaroff. He
is tall and handsome,
with white hair and a mustache. Zaroff motions to the
giant, who is deaf
and dumb, to put away his weapon. Both men are Russian
receiving instructions from Zaroff, the big man,
called Ivan, takes Rainsford
to a large bedroom and outfits him with clothes, then
escorts him to an
oak-paneled dining room. On the walls are mounted
heads of lions, elephants,
moose, cape buffalo, and other big game—all
outstanding specimens. Elegant
china, silver, crystal, and linens grace the table at
which Zaroff and
Rainsford drink champagne and eat borsch and filet
mignon. When Zaroff
says hunting is the passion of his life, Rainsford
observes that he has
always believed the cape buffalo to be the most
dangerous big game. Zaroff
tells him he is wrong, saying that he hunts “more
dangerous game” on the
enjoy another drink as the general tells Rainsford
about his hunting days
as a child on his father’s lands in the Crimea and
about his military service
as commander of a division of Cossack cavalry. He also
says he has hunted
in America, India, East Africa, and South America.
Because hunting big
game eventually became too easy for him, posing no
challenge, he decided
to find a new animal to hunt. After he found it, he
bought the island,
built the château, and dedicated himself to
hunting the new beast
in the island’s jungles. It is an animal that can
reason, Zaroff says.
Rainsford says animals cannot reason, Zaroff says that
“there is one that
now realizes that his host hunts and kills humans.
Shocked, he says, “Great
guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”
laughs and says, "I refuse to believe that so modern
and civilized a young
man as you seem to be harboring romantic ideas about
the value of human
life. Surely your experiences in the war—"
finishes Zaroff's sentence: "Did not make me condone
wager you'll forget your notions when you go hunting
with me," Zaroff says.
"You've a genuine new thrill in store for you, Mr.
you, I’m a hunter, not a murderer,” Rainsford says.
an apparent attempt to justify his pastime, Zaroff
says he usually hunts
only the “scum of the earth: sailors from tramp
Chinese, whites, mongrels.” He uses a small-caliber
pistol. At a window,
he presses a button that turns on lights out at sea,
indicating a channel
where there are actually jagged rocks. When a ship
steers toward the lights,
the rocks wreck it and Zaroff harvests surviving
crewmen for his hunts.
At that very moment, a dozen men from a small Spanish
ship, the San
Lucar, are in his cellar.
provides his quarry food, a hunting knife, and a
three-hour start before
beginning his pursuit. If the quarry survives three
days, he wins the game.
If Zaroff finds the quarry before the end of three
days, the quarry dies.
Zaroff says he never lost a game, although he had to
loose his dogs on
a man who almost eluded him. Anyone who refuses to
participate in the game
is turned over to Ivan for sport of a different kind.
He notes that Ivan,
besides being incredibly strong, is an expert at
handling the whip as a
Mr. Rainsford, “they choose the hunt,” Zaroff says.
dogs prowl the grounds in the evening and through the
night to prevent
anyone from entering or leaving the château.
inviting Rainsford to hunt with him the next day,
Zaroff suggests that
his guest get a good night’s sleep. Zaroff himself
will not be sleeping;
he will be hunting.
tired, Rainsford has trouble falling asleep. Toward
morning, he dozes off
but awakens a short while later when he hears gunfire
in the distance.
a luncheon later, Zaroff says his nocturnal hunt was
his quarry was too easy to find. When Rainsford
expresses a wish to leave
the island, Zaroff informs him that he will be the
next quarry. If he wins
the game, Zaroff says, a sloop will take Rainsford
back to civilization.
Because Rainsford is outnumbered and has no weapons,
he has no choice but
to take part in the game.
Zaroff advises him to avoid a swamp with quicksand in
the southeast corner
of the island, Ivan brings Rainsford hunting clothes,
moccasins, a knife,
and a sack of food. Zaroff will not follow until the
the bush, Rainsford tries to put the greatest possible
himself and Zaroff. However, after two hours, he
realizes his strategy
would only take him to the sea. So he runs a trail
full of twists and turns.
At night, he climbs a tree and rests on a branch,
although he does not
morning, the cry of a bird alerts him to movement in
the bush. Peering
down through thick leaves, he sees Zaroff examining
the ground. When the
general’s eyes travel “inch by inch up the tree”
Rainsford holds his breath.
Zaroff then lowers his eyes, smiles, and turns back.
and wonders why the general smiled. After climbing
down, he walks three
yards to a dead tree leaning against another tree.
Working quickly with
his knife, he sets a trap, then hides behind a
returns, following Rainsford’s trail of crushed grass
and broken twigs.
When he comes into contact with the trap, he jumps
backward, sensing danger,
but not far enough. The dead tree swings out and
strikes him on the shoulder.
The general recovers and congratulates Rainsford for
knowing how to make
a Malay mancatcher. He says he is leaving to treat his
will be back.
continues to plod through the bush, even when it is
dark, until he steps
in quicksand. With a mighty pull, he free his foot.
Backing up about four
yards, he digs a pit shoulder-high. Then he makes
sharpened stakes from
saplings, plants them in the pit, covers the pit with
brush and weeds,
and hides behind a stump.
and by, Rainsford hears Zaroff approaching and even
smells the breeze-blown
smoke of his cigarette. A moment later, he hears the
brush cover on the
pit give way, followed by a cry of pain. But as
springs from his hiding
place, he sees Zaroff standing back from the pit with
a portable lighting
device. In the pit is one of his dogs. Zaroff says, “I
think, Mr. Rainsford,
I’ll see what you can do against my whole pack. I'm
going home for a rest
now. Thank you for a most amusing evening."
dawn, Rainsford hears the faint sound of barking dogs.
He climbs a tree
on a ridge and sees Zaroff. With him is Ivan, pulled
along by the dogs
on a leash. After sliding down the tree, Rainsford
sets another trap: a
knife affixed to the top of a sapling drawn back and
tied down with grapevine.
Movement releases the sapling and whips the knife
forward. Rainsford then
runs for his life.
A short while later,
the barking ceases. Something has happened, Rainsford
thinks. Again he
climbs a tree to view his pursuers. Zaroff stands but
Ivan is down, a victim
of the trap. Rainsford shinnies down the tree, runs,
and arrives at a precipice
about twenty feet above the sea. He jumps.
Zaroff reaches the precipice with the dogs, he shrugs,
sits down, swigs
brandy from a flask, and hums music from Puccini’s
opera, Madame Butterfly.
evening, Zaroff eats a good dinner, laments the loss
of Ivan, regrets the
escape of Rainsford, reads from Marcus Aurelius in his
library, and goes
to his bedroom.
There, he is surprised to see Rainsford, who had swum
to the château.
am still a beast at bay," Rainsford says. "Get ready,
general bows and says, "I see. Splendid! One of us is
to furnish a repast
for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very
excellent bed. On guard,
Rainsford." . . .
had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.
the beginning of the story, Rainsford exhibits a
hardhearted attitude toward
the animals he hunts. His conversation with
Whitney aboard the yacht reveals
his feelings—or lack
hunting big game:
Great sport, hunting.
Rainsford falls overboard and swims to General
Zaroff’s island, Zaroff
exhibits the same kind of callousness toward his
favorite prey. But in
Zaroff's case the prey is human. Shipwrecks that
Zaroff causes provide
him a constant supply of "game." Shocked, Rainsford
expresses moral indignation
at the general’s murderous pastime. Zaroff counters
that Rainsford will
change his mind when he participates in a hunt. But
what Rainsford does
not immediately realize is that he will be the
The best sport in the world.
For the hunter, not the jaguar.
Don't talk rot, Whitney. You're a big-game hunter,
not a philosopher. Who
cares how a jaguar feels.
Perhaps the jaguar does.
Bah! They’ve no understanding.
Even so—I rather
think they understand one
thing—fear. The fear
of pain and the fear
Nonsense. This hot weather is making you soft,
Whitney. Be a realist. The
world is made up of two classes—the hunters
and the huntees.
Zaroff releases Rainsford into the jungle the next
day, Rainsford becomes
like the animals he hunts, mere game, and no doubt
begins to appreciate
what Whitney had told him aboard the ship about the
inhumanity of hunting
Rainsford sets traps that kill one of Zaroff’s
tracking dogs and Zaroff’s
gigantic sidekick, Ivan, he escapes his pursuers by
jumping into the ocean
from a precipice. That evening when Zaroff goes to
bed, Rainsford comes
from behind a curtain and confronts the general,
saying, “I am still a
beast at bay.” And the beast then kills the hunter
and sleeps soundly in
graduated to killing a human. The question now is
this: Has Rainsford
become another Zaroff?
soup. Also called borscht.
dwelling resembling a castle.
range running southeast from the Black Sea to the
or Pole skilled at horsemanship.
that was part of Russia until recent times.
Paris music hall famous for presenting operettas,
pantomimes, musical comedies,
acrobatic acts, and vaudeville.
of lascar, a sailor from India or Southeast
Asia serving aboard
a European ship.
Tragic opera by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).
referring to inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula,
which includes Malaysia
and part of Thailand; (2) noun designating an
inhabitant of the Malay Peninsula.
Roman emperor from AD 160-180.
resort and gambling Mecca in Monaco on the
Mediterranean coast of Southern
hard to control.
Wins the Game?
appears that Rainsford wins the game. However, close
examination of the
ending leaves the question open. The key sentence to
consider is this one
spoken by Rainsford: “I am still a beast at bay.”
Referring to himself
as a beast may suggest that he has corrupted
himself, like Zaroff. After
he kills Zaroff—apparently in a knife duel—he sleeps
in Zaroff's bed, as
if he is Zaroff. In losing his life, Zaroff
may have won Rainsford's
success of "The Most Dangerous Game" depends in
large part on building
suspense. In executing this task, the author wastes
no time. In the first
fifty words, he establishes the existence of a
mysterious island with an
ominous name, Ship-Trap Island. Sailors dread it. He
then shrouds the island
in the "thick warm blackness" of a "moonless
Caribbean night," imagery
that suggests hidden evil. A few paragraphs later,
the main character,
Rainsford, hears a gunshot coming from the direction
of the island, falls
overboard while standing on the ship rail to look
for the source of the
shot, and swims to the island, where he finds thick
jungle and, of all
things, a splendid château on a bluff. At the
first person to greet Rainsford is a giant, the
biggest man Rainsford had
ever seen. What happens next? That is the question
the author wants the
reader to ask as he unfolds his tale.
Questions and Essay Topics
1. Do you
believe the author
of "The Most Dangerous Game" intended the story
partly as an indictment
of hunting or cruelty to animals?
2. Write an
and contrasting Rainsford and Zaroff.
purpose does Whitney
serve in the story?
4. Why did
5. Write a
profile of Rainsford or Zaroff.
are often presented
in world literature as mysterious or foreboding
places. Write an essay
discussing how other authors use island settings to
develop their themes.
Examples of stories in which action takes place on
islands are Homer's
William Golding's Lord of the Flies,
Daniel Defoe's Robinson
and William Shakespeare's The Tempest.