As the story of an aristocrat who hunts the shipwrecked men that wash ashore on his private island, “The Most Dangerous Game” challenges the idea that highbrow pastimes and aristocratic society are synonymous with being civilized or moral. The term “civilized” usually refers to highly-developed culture and refined behavior, as well as an ability to live in peaceful communities, but the aristocrat Zaroff does not meet this definition—despite his refinement and social position, General Zaroff has an innate tendency towards brutal, uncivilized violence. This tendency suggests that cultural refinement alone does not make a person “civilized.” Through Zaroff’s—and later, Rainsford’s—actions on the remote island, Connell suggests that the fragile bonds of community can keep people from violence, but once exposed to certain behaviors or situations even civilized people often descend into brutality.
Most of Connell’s short story takes place in a remote, ominous place away from “civilization.” Despite Zaroff’s claims to have brought civilization to a wild island, the reader quickly learns that the story’s most monstrous creature dwells not in the jungle, but rather in the mansion, strutting around in gentleman’s tweed. After confessing his enthusiasm for hunting people, Zaroff explains to Rainsford how he replenishes his island with human prey by tricking passing ships into steering towards a rocky trap. As he describes his intricate and barbarous plan, he then adds—unprovoked, in response to nothing—“Oh, yes…I have electricity. We try to be civilized here.” This comment clearly parodies of the notion of being “civilized,” as he has just admitted to his routine cruel violence towards other human beings.
Zaroff also tries to seem “civilized” by regularly demonstrating his upper-class education. He knows French, Russian, and English, and he hums bits of Madame Butterfly and reads Marcus Aurelius for leisure. However, his actions demonstrate he does not truly understand those works. Madame Butterfly warns against the human cost of self-serving behavior, and Marcus Aurelius is perhaps best known for Meditations, a work of stoic philosophy that emphasizes avoiding material indulgences and maintaining strong ethical principles. While “civilization” is typically marked by a blend of refined culture, empathy for others, and ethical principles, Zaroff shows that he has only the trappings of civilization, but not the underlying humanity.
Zaroff lives on a remote island with only his servant Ivan, presumably some house staff, and his occasional prisoners. In many ways, he exists as an island himself. He tethers himself to no one, experiencing no human bonds. Even his most loyal servant, Ivan, he keeps at an arm’s distance much like his hunting dogs. Ivan’s role is more akin to a giant guard dog; he follows orders, intimidates prisoners, and hunts holding the leash of Zaroff’s dogs, grouping him together with them in the reader’s mind. When Rainsford’s trap kills Ivan, Zaroff feels annoyed at having to replace him, not grieved over the human loss. He expresses more sadness at losing his favorite hunting dog, Lazarus, than Ivan.
During their initial meeting, Rainsford observes that Zaroff’s “smile showed red lips and pointed teeth,” the first clue that Zaroff is a loosely veiled predator who views other men not as people, but as prey. Though he feels disgusted with Zaroff’s behavior at first, as Rainsford becomes immersed in the island, a place void of civilized community, he also resorts to violence. At the end of the story, Rainsford stands face-to-face with Zaroff for the final fight, not in the jungle but in Zaroff’s mansion. In an environment that serves as a testament to human achievement, the two men share the singular goal of ending the life in front of them, reflecting to each other and the reader the innate brutality of men without community—and perhaps at the heart of all men.
Rainsford’s role as a flawed hero demonstrates that it doesn’t take long for the fragile bonds of community to crumble, and without them, Connell suggests, men will devolve into violence. Through Connell’s exploration of human nature, the reader finds that true civilization requires empathy and a sense of community, and the lack of those qualities can reduce a man, however well-educated and wealthy, to the most basic of predatory animals.
Civilization and Community ThemeTracker
Civilization and Community Quotes in The Most Dangerous Game
“The old charts call it ‘Ship-Trap Island’[…] A suggestive name, isn't it? Sailors have a curious dread of the place. I don't know why. Some superstition—”
“Where there are pistol shots, there are men. Where there are men, there is food,” he thought. But what kind of men, he wondered, in so forbidding a place?
Bleak darkness was blacking out the sea and jungle when Rainsford sighted the lights. He came upon them as he turned a crook in the coast line; and his first thought was that he had come upon a village, for there were many lights. But as he forged along he saw to his great astonishment that all the lights were in one enormous building—a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom. His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows.
“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general, “So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.’”
“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.
“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”
Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships—lassars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels—a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them.
"Watch! Out there!" exclaimed the general, pointing into the night. Rainsford's eyes saw only blackness, and then, as the general pressed a button, far out to sea Rainsford saw the flash of lights.
The general chuckled. "They indicate a channel," he said, "where there's none; giant rocks with razor edges crouch like a sea monster with wide-open jaws. They can crush a ship as easily as I crush this nut." He dropped a walnut on the hardwood floor and brought his heel grinding down on it. "Oh, yes," he said, casually, as if in answer to a question, "I have electricity. We try to be civilized here.”
The general was playing with him! The general was saving him for another day's sport! The Cossack was the cat; he was the mouse. Then it was that Rainsford knew the full meaning of terror.
The general made one of his deepest bows. "I see," he said. "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.