Sanger Rainsford and his friend Whitney are sailing on a yacht heading to the Amazon to hunt jaguars. It’s a particularly dark night, and Whitney explains to Rainsford the superstition surrounding an ominous place they are passing called Ship-Trap Island. He claims that not even cannibals would live there because it’s such an evil place.
The darkness of the evening immediately creates a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere and associates the island with a strong sense of dread. Even Whitney, a courageous hunter of jaguars, is afraid of the island. His comment about the cannibals suggests that it’s too wild and uncivilized even for barbaric people.
Between comments about the island, Rainsford and Whitney (who are both hunters) argue about whether animals experience thoughts and feelings. Rainsford concludes that animals understand nothing and that living creatures are divided into hunters and prey.
Here, Connell establishes one of the overarching themes of the narrative: predator vs. prey. Whitney’s questioning allows the reader a glimpse into Rainsford’s Darwinist worldview that the dominant species naturally prey on the weaker. By refusing to entertain notions about animals’ feelings, it is much easier for him to kill them for sport without guilt.
Rainsford stays on deck for a late-night smoke when he hears three gunshots in the distance. Leaning over the railing to investigate, he loses his balance and falls overboard. With the yacht sailing by without him, Rainsford swims to the mysterious island with the sounds of “animal” screams and gunshots to guide him.
The sound of gunshots coming from the direction of the island is the first hint that it is inhabited. The gunshot sounds pull Rainsford into the ocean away from the safety of his friends on the yacht. By demonstrating how cool-headed Rainsford remains in an emergency situation, Connell shows readers that he is experienced at survival and possesses impressive stamina to make it to the island. The gunshots and screams (sounds of violence) would make most people shrink away, but Rainsford is drawn to them, expecting that he will safety with another hunter.
Once on shore and rested, Rainsford investigates the jungle’s edge and finds blood-stained weeds and signs of a hunter, which, he reasons, indicate the island is inhabited. He walks along the jungle’s edge and seeing lights in the darkness, he assumes there must be a village. The lights guide him not to a village but an enormous mansion, which he takes for a mirage at first.
Rainsford assumes the blood in the grass is animal blood, and the evidence of a hunter outfitted with a pistol and hunting boots suggests civilized inhabitants, making Rainsford hopeful for food and shelter. The unexpected appearance of the mansion reinforces assumptions about the inhabitants; only people of high society could have a house like that. But such an estate suggests something more: it is a permanent dwelling that undoubtedly required an enormous effort to construct and maintain, indicating that the owner made a deliberate choice to live away from the rest of civilization.
Rainsford knocks on the front door, and a giant man opens it, pointing a gun at him. Rainsford tries to introduce himself to the man, who doesn’t respond. An older and more elegant man appears and introduces himself as General Zaroff and the large man as Ivan, his servant who is deaf and mute.
The loaded pistol is an unexpected and violent greeting from such an elegant place, warning Rainsford and the reader that the inhabitants might not be as civilized as their house would suggest. General Zaroff’s name reveals his military background, and the reader is led to wonder why an aristocratic general who lives on a remote island would need the services of a body guard who is unable to hear or speak.
Zaroff recognizes Rainsford’s name and welcomes the celebrated hunter into his home with clothing, lodging, and fine dining. Over an elaborate dinner, Rainsford admires Zaroff’s animal head collection, and the two men bond over their love of hunting. Zaroff explains how integral hunting is to his identity ever since his father, a wealthy Russian nobleman, encouraged his shooting skills.
Zaroff’s compliment to Rainsford tells the reader that Rainsford is such a talented hunter that he’s famous for it. In other words, he’s an expert killer. Discussing the killing of animals is considered a gentlemanly pastime, and from Zaroff’s story of his upbringing, the reader knows that hunting is encouraged in young boys, especially upper-class ones. But what Rainsford sees as bonding over a mutual love for hunting has a sinister dimension that he has yet to fully grasp.
Zaroff explains that he had to leave Russia because of his position as an officer in the former Czar’s military and searched for ways to occupy his time. Even his sole passion, hunting, became dull because it was too easy, so he “invented” a new animal to hunt.
Though exiled from his home country, Zaroff clearly had the resources to live wherever he liked, and he chose a remote island. Admitting that his “raison d’être,” or reason for existence, is hunting signals another red flag. Though many men would proudly declare that hunting is their favorite hobby, claiming that killing things is his purpose in life indicates the mind of a psychopath.
After Rainsford presses him, Zaroff explains that he prefers to hunt humans because unlike animals, humans possess the faculty of reason and are, therefore, more dangerous and exciting to hunt.
His long lead-up to revealing that he hunts humans demonstrates that Zaroff knows killing humans (outside of warfare) is socially unacceptable, and that he rejects society and its ethics. He enjoys hunting humans not despite but because of their capacity for feelings and rational thought. At the beginning of the story, Rainsford refuses to entertain the idea that animals feel anything—let alone that they are able to reason. As a foil to Rainsford, Zaroff openly declares his passion for hunting advanced, intelligent prey.
Shocked, Rainsford insists that Zaroff is committing murder, and refuses his invitation to participate in the manhunt. Zaroff responds by accusing Rainsford of sentimental notions about the value of human life, which are feelings he thinks Rainsford’s military experience should have erased. Zaroff then attempts to justify killing by stating that he’s hunting men who belong to society’s lowest ranks—outcasts and racial minorities.
Here Connell has the characters play around with the blurry ethical lines between socially condoned killing (hunting and warfare) and murder. Zaroff doesn’t see the distinction between killing men as a duty to country and killing them for sport and thinks Rainsford, as an experienced military man, should feel the same. Zaroff’s attempted justification reveals his extreme social Darwinist views: he sees those who are marked as socially “unfit” as fair game for his hunt.
Zaroff demonstrates for Rainsford how he stocks the island with fresh human prey by tricking ships to sail into the cliffs with guiding lights. He boasts about having electricity and trying to be civilized. Again, Rainsford is outraged. Defending his treatment of the shipwrecked men, Zaroff claims to treat them with consideration, and refers to their imprisonment as a “training school.”
Just as lights guided Rainsford, seeking safety, to Zaroff’s mansion, Zaroff lures sailors to their death with false safety lights. Zaroff’s ironic comment about having electricity and trying to be civilized parodies the concept of civilization, as he possesses all the trappings of civilization but none of the underlying humanity. Just as many euphemisms have been used historically to justify human rights violations of disenfranchised people, Zaroff calls his human slaughter house a “training school.”
The game, Zaroff explains, is that he gives the man 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 him for three days, he wins. Only one man has come close to winning, and then Zaroff used his hunting dogs.
Perhaps intending to sound fair, Zaroff reveals the hypocrisy both in his game and in social Darwinist ideology: the playing field is never even, and the circumstances never fair. Though he provides resources to the hunted men, they were never meant to stand a chance against him, and their inevitable failure just reinforces his belief that they were always inferior—and therefore justifiable prey.
Rainsford asks what happens if the men refuse to be hunted, and Zaroff explains that the men can choose to participate in his game or be handed over to Ivan, who was a professional torturer for the Russian Czar.
Again, Connell underscores the inequality of Zaroff’s game. Choosing between being hunted (with no hope of winning) or being tortured to death is not a choice at all.
Zaroff then offers to show Rainsford his new collection of heads, but Rainsford declines and retires to his room for the night, where he discovers he’s been locked in and cannot escape the house or the island.
Now knowing that Zaroff is a serial killer, the reader must wonder whether this collection is of animal or human heads. Suddenly, the familiar custom seems newly grotesque. Once in his room, Rainsford realizes that he is not in a fancy paradise, but rather a well-disguised prison.
The next day, Zaroff and Rainsford meet again for lunch, and Zaroff complains that last night’s hunt was boring because the man made obvious mistakes. Rainsford demands to leave the island immediately, but Zaroff insists they will hunt that night. Rainsford refuses to hunt with him, and Zaroff gives him the choice between being hunted or being given to Ivan. Excited to have pulled Rainsford into his game, Zaroff toasts to finally having an adversary worthy of his skills.
Zaroff blames the hunted man for his own death and for not providing enough entertainment in dying, much as social Darwinism blames minorities and the socially oppressed for not thriving in a system that is engineered to disadvantage them. Rainsford, perhaps unconsciously, also participates in the “othering” of social minorities by assuming he would receive preferential treatment as he is not one of “them.” By forcing Rainsford into his game, Zaroff demonstrates that, whatever the given pretense, his intention is simply to kill other men because he can.
When Rainsford asks what happens if he wins, Zaroff assures him that he can leave the island, but on the condition that he never tells anyone about his experiences there. Rainsford refuses those terms, and they agree to discuss it after the game’s end.
By now the reader has good reason to doubt Zaroff’s promise to return Rainsford to mainland should he win. Rainsford, an honest man, refuses the terms when he could have lied to protect himself, and Zaroff openly rejects social contracts, so there’s no reason to believe he would keep his word anyway.
Zaroff jumps into preparations for the hunt, even giving Rainsford tips about what shoes to wear and dangerous places on the island to avoid. He leaves to take a nap before pursuing Rainsford at dusk. Hunting is more fun at night, he says.
Knowing that the game is rigged in his favor, Zaroff arrogantly gives Rainsford survival tips. Probably as a psychological scare tactic, Zaroff confidently lets Rainsford know he will pursue him well-rested and with ease.
Rainsford makes his way through the jungle, doubling over his trail as a fox would, until he climbs into a large tree to rest once night falls. He feels secure and certain that Zaroff couldn’t have followed his trail.
Connell’s language as the hunt begins associates Rainsford with commonly hunted animals, making the central irony of the story explicit: the formerly celebrated hunter has become prey. Though never having been prey before, Rainsford mistakenly feels confident in his evasive abilities.
Zaroff finds Rainsford’s hiding spot almost at once. He never looks right at him but casually strolls just underneath him, smoking a perfumed cigarette, before leaving without a word. Rainsford realizes that Zaroff is toying with him, like a cat with a mouse, and feels true terror for the first time in his life.
Zaroff begins the hunt with another assertion of his thirst for power: he doesn’t just want to hunt Rainsford, he wants Rainsford to realize his superiority as the ultimate hunter. Rainsford gets the message and understands the fear of being hunted, something he previously denied that animals feel.
Running further into the jungle, Rainsford stops to craft a trap out of a dead tree. He succeeds in injuring Zaroff, buying himself more time while Zaroff tends to his wounded shoulder.
Finally realizing the severity of his situation and motivated by his fear, Rainsford becomes immersed in the game and starts fighting back.
Plodding on through the night, Rainsford accidently steps into quicksand but pulls himself free. The soft ground inspires him and makes a large pit with pointed sticks at the bottom. As he works he thinks about how he feels more desperate now than he did during the war.
Increasingly getting better at striking against his attackers, Rainsford shakes his hesitations about playing Zaroff’s game. He feels more desperate now than in the war because there are no rules for what he’s experiencing, and even in war there are some socially agreed-upon rules.
Waiting for Zaroff to fall into his trap, Rainsford momentarily feels victorious until he sees that the trap claimed only a hunting dog. Zaroff congratulates him on this score and goes home to rest, promising to return with the whole pack of hunting dogs.
When he realizes that Rainsford is more than a match for him, Zaroff immediately sways the game even further in his favor, signaling that for all of his posturing, Zaroff is a coward. For someone who makes a sport of hunting humans, it should come as no surprise that this man feels no compunction about breaking his word.
At daybreak, Rainsford wakes to the sound of baying dogs and sees Zaroff and Ivan drawing nearer. Considering his options, Rainsford creates another trap using a tree sapling and his hunting knife. Then he runs, understanding now how a hunted animal feels. The baying stops, and Rainsford pauses for a look. He sees that Zaroff remains standing, but the knife booby-trap has apparently killed Ivan. Rainsford flees again.
Rainsford has just killed a person outside of warfare, but neither he nor the reader is allowed a moment to think about this as he races off again. Ivan, a deaf and mute man, is treated more like a big guard dog in the story than a person, and the narrator treats his death like just another slain animal, leading the readers to question whether the narrator also subscribes, consciously or not, to social Darwinist ideology.
Reaching the edge of the jungle, Rainsford sees the mansion across the cove. Faced with the choice of risking the rocky waters below or waiting for Zaroff and his dogs, Rainsford jumps into the water.
Rainsford has come full circle back to his situation at the beginning of the story—falling into unknown waters. But this time, he’s swimming away from the gunshots and the hunter now that he’s at the receiving end of their violence.
Thinking Rainsford jumped to this death, Zaroff shrugs, takes a swig from his flask, enjoys a cigarette, and hums Madame Butterfly, an Italian opera, before returning home.
Again, Connell highlights Zaroff’s superficial civility. The opera Zaroff hums is about the human cost of self-serving behavior, but to Zaroff it merely sounds pretty.
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. He enjoys the material comforts of his mansion, reads some Marcus Aurelius, and goes to his bedroom.
Emphasizing Ivan’s treatment as subhuman, Zaroff thinks about his death as an inconvenience, not a moment for grief. He enjoys his material wealth only at a surface level; like Madame Butterfly, Zaroff doesn’t understand the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, whose writings famously advocated for strong ethical principles and avoidance of material indulgences.
Once locked into his room, Zaroff turns to see Rainsford standing next to his bed. Demanding to know how he 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 he had never slept in a better bed.
Just as Rainsford felt falsely secure in his hiding spot, Zaroff feels mistakenly safe in his mansion. As Rainsford presumably kills Zaroff, he experiences contentment and satisfaction. The reader might question Rainsford’s crossing of the ethical line he established at the beginning of the story. Perhaps it was in self-defense or vengeance, but Rainsford has just killed a man in his own home and then slept in his bed—and feels nothing but contentment. Connell could be suggesting that when men are separated from a social conscience and consequences, they devolve into brutal violence without remorse. Additionally, since Rainsford won Zaroff’s game and proved himself the fitter man, the reader must question whether the story is challenging social Darwinist ideology or supporting it. The ending of the story suggests that Rainsford may even take up Zaroff’s mantle as a hunter of humans.