The title immediately introduces the ironic implications of the story. The word “game,” in a tale about two hunters, signifies both the competitive nature of their sport and the victims of it. The most dangerous game is one in which the lives of the hunter and the hunted are equally at risk, and this occurs only when both are men. Rainsford presumes that hunting is a sport involving no more moral consequences than a game such as baseball; he further demonstrates his naïveté by assuming that his victims, big-game animals, have no feelings. These two beliefs, based as they are on Rainsford’s certainty that man is superior to animal, are challenged when he encounters General Zaroff, who has pushed the same ideas to their inhumane limits in his madness.
When Rainsford falls off a boat near Ship-Trap Island, he views the sea as his enemy and the island as his salvation, despite the curious rumors surrounding the place. In the same way, he sees safety in the chateau of General Zaroff. Looming unexpectedly over an otherwise deserted landscape, the chateau represents civilization and Rainsford’s hope of a return to New York. The image of civilization is confirmed when Rainsford meets the general, who wears clothes designed by a London tailor, drinks rare brandy, and serves gourmet meals on fine china. A man of refined taste, the general denies himself nothing, including the luxury of continuing his greatest passion, hunting. Rainsford, a skilled hunter himself, is intrigued. What kind of game, he wonders, can be hunted on an isolated island? When the general informs him that he stocks the island with the only animal that can reason, Rainsford is aghast to realize that Zaroff hunts men. This perversion of sport repels him, and he rejects the general’s defense of manhunting even as he is fascinated by the man’s madness.
Zaroff’s insanity has a logic that parallels Rainsford’s defense of hunting big-game animals. Asserting that “the weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure,” Zaroff finds justice in hunting the “scum of the earth.” Luring sailors and deserters to his island by means of lights that indicate a channel where none exists, Zaroff imprisons his prey for as long as it takes to get them into excellent physical condition. Most victims choose to be hunted, because their only alternative is to be handed over to Ivan, who prefers prolonged torture to a swift kill. Zaroff believes these men have no rights and no feelings; like Rainsford, he assumes superiority to anything he can outwit and conquer.
Rainsford finds his assumptions shattered when his refusal to hunt another man with Zaroff turns him into the hunted. As he fights to stay alive for three days (the span of Zaroff’s challenge), Rainsford feels the unreasoning fear of being trapped, and he saves his life by copying the instinctive behavior of hunted animals. He comes to recognize the inherent unfairness of Zaroff’s game, and indeed, of all hunting; with only a knife and meager provisions, he must fight a man who has guns, trained dogs, knowledge of the island, and a safe place to retreat for rest. Trying to use the island’s geography to his best advantage, Rainsford is ironically forced to return to the sea, his former enemy, in order to delude Zaroff into thinking that he has committed suicide. The final scene takes place in the most civilized setting, the locked bedroom where the general feels most secure.
In this last reversal of the plot, Rainsford refers to himself as “a beast at bay”; with nothing to lose, having trapped the general, Rainsford knows he must commit murder or be murdered. The scruples that prevented him from joining the general’s game in the beginning dissolve under the imperative to defend himself. This encounter between the two, conducted in the language of fencing, further confuses the distinction between sport and killing, civilization and uncontrolled brutality. Rainsford’s victory, within the terms that the general has defined, may be no victory at all: He decides to sleep the night in the general’s bed and finds it comfortable; the hunted has succeeded, but only by becoming like his hunter—if not as mad, at least as morally suspect.
Discuss the various ways that color is used to set a mood in the story. How does such visual language add to the development of the setting?
The story contrasts the darkness of the island with the bright lights of the mansion. The lack of light surrounding the island also serves as an easy means for making a trap for unsuspecting sailors. In addition, Zaroff is described as having white hair with a black beard, black eyebrows, and black eyes. The color contrasts of Zaroff's features hint at his divided psyche.
Is there a difference between hunting humans and animals? Why or why not?
A complete answer would take a position, either there is or is not a difference between hunting humans and hunting animals. An detailed explanation of the selected position should reference differences in cognition, morality, ability to communicate, and understanding of the idea of sport among other things. Ultimately, one of the largest differences, as referenced by Zaroff in the text, is the ability of humans to reason.
“The Most Dangerous Game” gives very little indication of the time during which it is set. What details in the story reveal the time period? Why is such knowledge important for obtaining a deeper understanding of the story?
The fact that Zaroff and Ivan had to escape Russia due to the overthrow of the Czar gives some indication of the time period. In addition, the music and cultural references that Zaroff makes hint at what was popular during the time period in which the story was set. Knowing the time period provides historical context and allows for a deeper understanding of the characters' backgrounds.
Describe examples of zoomorphism and anthropomorphism used in the story. How do they help build the reader’s understanding of the characters?
At the beginning of the novel Whitney raises the question of whether or not a jaguar has an understanding of hunting. Rainsford feels that the jaguar has no understanding. Whitney, in this scene, could be considered by Rainsford to be anthropomorphizing the jaguar. As far as zoomorphism, there are numerous examples of self comparisons (on the part of Rainsford) to animals.
Is General Zaroff a credible character? Could such a situation unfold in today’s society? Why or why not?
Answers to this question will vary based on the reader's opinion. However, at least one of the following should be addressed-- the isolation of the island, the feasibility of large numbers of people disappearing without an investigation, bans on hunting, advanced technologies to avoid traps like those set up by Zaroff around Ship-Trap island, etc.
How does the fact that the story took place on an island contribute to the story?
The island is a physical metaphor for the isolation and removal of this situation from mainstream society. The rules and customs of the surrounding world do not necessarily apply. Moreover, its location, in the middle of a thick, dark jungle, gives the story a certain mystique.
Do you agree with Zaroff's belief that "instinct is no match for reason"? Why or why not? In what ways does Rainsford demonstrate both instinct and reason during the hunt?
In order to answer this question the reader has to take a stance-- either reason or instinct reigns supreme to the other. The strength and pitfalls of each characteristic should be examined. In addition, examples can be drawn from Rainsford's actions during various parts of the hunt (i.e. the construction of traps, previous knowledge of hunting, etc).
Do you think that the story is a commentary on the ethics of hunting? Why or why not? What moral positions could be drawn out from the text?
A complete answer should cite the position of one of the character's in the novel, e.g. Rainsford, Zaroff, or Whitney. If citing Whitney, one might argue that there is a case to be made against all hunting. Zaroff would undoubtedly fall on the side of pro-hunting. Rainsford, on the other hand, starts off with a very pro-hunting position that morphs as he experiences life as prey.
Describe the ways in which Zaroff's character is oxymoronic.
Zaroff lives in a beautiful estate in the middle of a wild jungle. The juxtaposition of civilization with untainted land is reflective of his character. He partakes in the finest of food, wine, and clothing, yet has a barbaric way of approaching the sport of hunting. Interestingly enough, Zaroff does not view his position to be barbaric because he allows the men who he hunts a great deal of comfort prior to the beginning of the game.
The title "The Most Dangerous Game" can be read in two different ways. Describe them and how they relate to the story.
Game can be read as either describing a sport or a hunted animal. In the former, reference is made to the game into which Rainsford finds himself thrust-- a life or death game of hunt. The latter relates to Zaroff's desire to hunt the most dangerous animal of all, the human.