By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Most Dangerous Game’ is a classic adventure story, first published in 1924. It is now the story for which its author, Richard Connell (1893-1949), is best-remembered, and critics and reviewers have drawn comparisons between ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ and Suzanne Collins’s bestselling Hunger Games series, because both narratives are about people hunting, and being hunted, in a life-or-death competition.
You can read Connell’s story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Most Dangerous Game’: plot summary
On a yacht in the Caribbean, Sanger Rainsford is a hunter famed for his skills, preparing for a hunting trip up the Amazon in South America with his friend Whitney, who tells him about some strange superstitions involving a nearby island.
That night, Rainsford hears gunshots and falls into the sea. He swims for the shore, and hears the strange cries of an animal he is unfamiliar with and realises it is being hunted. When he makes it to the shore, he collapses and falls asleep, but once he wakes he realises he is hungry and begins to search for people on the island he has washed up on.
What he discovers initially baffles him. There are cartridges left over from the hunt which he heard, but the hunter was using a small gun to hunt a large animal. So he goes on a hunt himself, following the footprints of the hunter until he sees lights and comes to ‘a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom’.
He knocks at the door of this chateau, and Ivan, a black-bearded giant of a man who cannot speak, opens the door to him. He goes to shoot Rainsford, who is saved when another man, General Zaroff, arrives. Zaroff, who is more cultivated than Ivan, has read one of Rainsford’s hunting books. He apologises to his guest for Ivan’s behaviour and provides Rainsford with food and a change of clothes. Both he and Ivan are Cossacks: Russian and Ukrainian horsemen known for their military skill.
Over dinner, Zaroff tells Rainsford that he hunts big game on the island. He also tells him that ordinary animals have ceased to be a challenge for him, so he has started hunting the one animal capable of reason: human beings. Because he has the power of reason, man is ‘the most dangerous game’ of all. The island is known as ‘Ship Trap’ because ships are often run aground on its shores, providing Zaroff with fresh ‘game’. If a man refuses to be part of the hunt, Zaroff turns him over to Ivan.
That night, Rainsford has difficulty getting off to sleep, and once he begins to doze he hears a pistol shot in the jungle. The next day, he demands to leave the island, but Zaroff tells him that they haven’t gone hunting yet – and Rainsford is going to be the next game Zaroff hunts. If Rainsford can survive for three days in the jungle, Zaroff will allow him to leave the island, on condition that Rainsford tell nobody about Zaroff’s hunt. Rainsford reluctantly accepts these terms.
He is given some supplies and leaves the house with a three-hour head start on Zaroff, who then begins to hunt him. He tries various tricks to outwit his enemy, doubling back on his own tracks to obscure his path, and hiding up in a tree. But Zaroff finds him with ease, though refuses to announce that he has done so. Rainsford realises that Zaroff is toying with him.
He decides to lay a trap for Zaroff involving a tree which, if disturbed, will fall on him. However, Zaroff’s lightning-quick reflexes save him from death, and only his shoulder is injured. He tells Rainsford he will go and have his wound dressed before returning to the hunt.
Coming upon an area of quicksand, Rainsford lays another trap: a pit containing sharp stakes, concealed by a mat of weeds and branches covering the hole. But one of Zaroff’s dogs activates the trap instead. Rainsford hears the baying of the rest of the hounds, and attaches his knife to a tree, hoping that Zaroff will be wounded by it. Instead, the knife kills Ivan.
He now has only one chance: to jump into the sea, escaping the island, and hope for the best. Zaroff, meanwhile, is back at his chateau, cursing the fact that Rainsford has escaped. He retires to bed but, when he switches on a light, there is a man waiting behind the curtains: Rainsford. Zaroff tells him he has won the game, but Rainsford tells him that he is still a ‘beast at bay’ and the hunt is not over yet. Zaroff accepts this, and the two men prepare to fight.
That night, Rainsford sleeps in Zaroff’s bed.
‘The Most Dangerous Game’: analysis
Connell’s story ends with Rainsford, the hunted, vanquishing his hunter, Zaroff, and sleeping in the bed of the man who had stalked him as his prey. But ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ concludes on a decidedly ambiguous note. What happened during that ellipsis (‘“One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.”…’)? And why did Rainsford, having jumped into the sea, then head back to the chateau in order to kill Zaroff?
We are invited to presume that Rainsford has fought, and killed, Zaroff and claimed the latter’s bed as his victory prize. But the fact that he chooses Zaroff’s bed, out of the many beds in the vast chateau, raises some interesting questions. Does he plan to replace Zaroff as the chief hunter of the island, luring those unwitting sailors to the ‘Ship Trap’ of the island in order to use them for sport? Has he got a taste for the ultimate hunt and does he now, too, plan to hunt ‘the most dangerous game’, man?
Although ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ is a well-paced and engaging adventure story, we should not let this fact lead us to conclude that this is all the story is: an action-packed piece of entertainment. For in some respects, Connell’s tale can be analysed as a kind of allegory for the predatory and cutthroat elements of human nature.
Some sixty-five years before ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ was written, Charles Darwin had shown how all animals are locked in a bloody and desperate struggle for survival: one animal hunts another for food, two animals of the same species fight to the death over a potential mate, animals tears each other apart in their competition for limited food sources.
Although Darwin’s initial book on evolution, On the Origin of Species (1859), did not discuss man, the implications of his theory of natural selection were plain enough to most readers. Humankind is not separate from other animals, but a part of the animal kingdom. Man is just a more cultivated and civilised animal, who is capable of making and wearing fine clothes (as Zaroff does) and enjoying fine food and champagne (again, see Zaroff).
But underneath this ‘cultivated’ veneer – and it is worth remembering that Connell’s third-person narrator uses this very word to describe Zaroff’s voice – man is still an animal, with primal drives. And these drives include the urge to hunt and kill prey.
The setting of ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ also bears out this interpretation of the story as an allegory for man’s primal nature beneath his ‘civilised’ exterior. By having his adventure tale take place in the deepest jungle on a South American island, Connell sends his New Yorker protagonist, symbolically, back into a more primitive and barbaric past. At one point during dinner, Zaroff comments to his guest that they ‘do our best to preserve the amenities of civilization here’; by implication, this is an uncivilised place by its very nature.
Both Zaroff and Rainsford represent different aspects of the hunter. Both men are highly skilled at what they do, but for Zaroff, hunting is a ‘game’ (as the double meaning of the story’s title cleverly conveys, man is ‘the most dangerous game’ but he is also playing ‘the most dangerous game’). It is something he enjoys so much that he is prepared to place himself in danger, turning men into his prey precisely because their reasoning capacity makes them ‘dangerous’, as he tells Rainsford.
For Zaroff, then, the danger – the risk to his own safety – is part of the thrill of hunting. And it would be easy to argue that, in Rainsford, he finally meets his match. But this is not quite the case. In fact, he easily tracks down Rainsford, despite the New Yorker’s best attempts to cover his tracks (literally) before taking refuge up in a tree.
Zaroff quickly finds him, however. He could have dispatched his prey there and then, but his undoing is not Rainsford’s cunning as such, but his own hubris: Zaroff thinks he will be able to outsmart and vanquish the other man every time, and so leaves him in the tree for the time being. By playing with his prey in this way, Zaroff provides Rainsford with the chance to escape, and he does this by jumping into the sea and then finding his way back to the chateau.
In the last analysis, then, Connell’s story is about modern man as a primitive hunter with the primal drive to turn others into his prey. It would be easy to cast Zaroff as the more bloodthirsty man and Rainsford as the unwitting hunter in the story (he starts off as prey and must become predator in order to survive), but as the story progresses, Rainsford becomes more and more violent himself: killing, first, one of Zaroff’s dogs, then Ivan, and finally, Zaroff himself.