A Short Story by Richard E. Connell (1893-1949)
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Type of Work and Year of Publication“The 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
The 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).Setting
The 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 island.
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
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
It 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.
“Sailors have a curious dread of the place, Whitney says. “I don’t know why. Some superstition—”
Because the night is moonless, neither man can see the island, about four miles away.
After arriving in Brazil, the two men are scheduled to travel up the Amazon for jaguar hunting.
“The best sport in the world,” Rainsford says.
“For the hunter, not the jaguar,” Whitney replies.
"Don't talk rot, Whitney. You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels."
When 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 the ship’s crew has been nervous all day about coming so near it. Even Captain Neilsen, a tough old Swede, is jumpy.
After 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.
The 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 pointed towers.
He 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 Rainsford.
He 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 Cossacks. After 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 island.
They 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.
When Rainsford says animals cannot reason, Zaroff says that “there is one that can.”
Rainsford now realizes that his host hunts and kills humans. Shocked, he says, “Great guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”
Zaroff 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—"
Rainsford finishes Zaroff's sentence: "Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder."
"I'll 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. Rainsford."
“Thank you, I’m a hunter, not a murderer,” Rainsford says.
In an apparent attempt to justify his pastime, Zaroff says he usually hunts only the “scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships—lassars, blacks, 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.
Zaroff 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 flogging instrument.
“Invariably, Mr. Rainsford, “they choose the hunt,” Zaroff says.
His dogs prowl the grounds in the evening and through the night to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the château.
After 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.
Though tired, Rainsford has trouble falling asleep. Toward morning, he dozes off but awakens a short while later when he hears gunfire in the distance.
At a luncheon later, Zaroff says his nocturnal hunt was disappointing, for 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.
After 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 evening.
In the bush, Rainsford tries to put the greatest possible distance between 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 sleep.
Near 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. Rainsford exhales 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 log.
Zaroff 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 injured shoulder—but will be back.
Rainsford 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.
By 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."
At 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.
When 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.
That 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 back to the château.
"I am still a beast at bay," Rainsford says. "Get ready, General Zaroff."
The 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." . . .
He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.
At 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 of them—about hunting big game:
Whitney: Great sport, hunting.After 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 quarry.
After 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 frightened animals.
After 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 his bed.
Rainsford has graduated to killing a human. The question now is this: Has Rainsford become another Zaroff?
soup. Also called borscht.
It 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 soul.
The 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 château, 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.
Study 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?