On an especially dark night, Sanger Rainsford and his friend Whitney are sailing on a yacht heading to the Amazon to hunt jaguars. Whitney explains to Rainsford the superstition surrounding an ominous place they are passing called Ship-Trap Island. Between remarks about the island, the two men argue about whether animals experience thoughts and feelings, and Rainsford concludes that animals understand nothing and that living creatures are divided into hunters and prey.
Later that night, Rainsford hears gunshots in the distance and falls overboard while trying to investigate. He swims to the mysterious island, and the next morning, he finds blood-stained weeds and signs of a hunter, indicating that the island is inhabited. Walking along the jungle’s edge, he unexpectedly comes upon an enormous mansion. Rainsford knocks on the front door and meets a huge man armed with a pistol. An older, very elegant man appears and introduces himself as General Zaroff and the large man as Ivan, his servant who is deaf and mute. Zaroff recognizes Rainsford’s name and welcomes the celebrated hunter into his home.
Over an elaborate dinner, Rainsford and Zaroff bond over their love of hunting. Zaroff explains how integral hunting is to his identity, but says it became dull because it was too easy, so he “invented” a new animal to hunt. After Rainsford presses him, Zaroff explains that he prefers to hunt humans, because unlike animals, humans can reason and are therefore more dangerous and exciting to hunt. Shocked, Rainsford insists that Zaroff is committing murder and refuses his invitation to participate in the manhunt.
Still trying to win over Rainsford, Zaroff explains the game. He gives his “prey” hunting clothes, a supply of food, a hunting knife, and a three-hour head start. He follows with a small pistol, and if the hunted man eludes the general for three days, he wins. The man can choose to participate in his game or be handed over to Ivan, a professional torturer. Disgusted, Rainsford excuses himself for the evening, and Zaroff leaves for his nightly hunt.
The next day, Rainsford demands to leave the island immediately, but Zaroff insists they will hunt that night. Rainsford refuses to hunt, but eventually concedes when Zaroff gives him the choice between being hunted or being given to Ivan. Zaroff leaves for a nap, and Rainsford races off into the jungle.
Despite Rainsford’s three-hour lead and efforts to cover his trail, Zaroff finds his hiding spot almost at once, but then immediately leaves. Rainsford realizes that Zaroff is toying with him, and experiences true terror for the first time in his life. Running further into the jungle, Rainsford stops to craft a trap out of a dead tree and succeeds in injuring Zaroff and buying himself more time.
Plodding on through the night, Rainsford accidently steps into quicksand. The soft ground inspires him to make a large pit with pointed sticks at the bottom, but the trap only claims a hunting dog. Zaroff goes home to rest, promising to return with the whole pack of hunting dogs.
At daybreak, Rainsford wakes to the sound of baying dogs and sees Zaroff and Ivan drawing nearer. He quickly creates another trap and then runs, understanding now how a hunted animal feels. Looking back, he sees that Zaroff remains standing, but the booby-trap has apparently killed Ivan. Reaching the edge of the jungle, Rainsford sees the mansion across the cove and jumps into the water. Zaroff returns home, thinking Rainsford jumped to this death.
While eating dinner that evening, Zaroff feels annoyed about having to replace Ivan and that Rainsford didn’t stick around to fight or be killed. After locking his bedroom door for the night, Zaroff turns to see Rainsford standing next to his bed. Zaroff demands to know how Rainsford got there. Rainsford says he swam. Zaroff congratulates Rainsford on winning the game, but Rainsford refuses the victory and tells Zaroff to ready himself. The story closes with Rainsford deciding that he had never slept in a better bed.