Both Zaroff and Rainsford are former military men and avid hunters—in other words, they participate in socially-condoned killing. But Zaroff also participates in a kind of killing that is not socially accepted—hunting human beings for sport—the central plot point of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Zaroff insists that his actions are justified, and that he has been liberated from the silly “Victorian” sentiments about human life to which Rainsford remains captive. Rainsford, however (and, presumably, the reader), draws a hard line against killing other human beings for sport. While the reader might at first identify morally with Rainsford, by the end of the story, Rainsford has taken two more human lives. The moral complexity of these killings demonstrates that the line between socially acceptable violence (hunting, warfare, self-defense) and murder is blurry.
Both Rainsford and Zaroff approve of killing in some circumstances: they are avid, skilled hunters, and they both served in the military, which required them to kill other people. In these contexts, Connell demonstrates that killing is not just socially accepted, but also honorable or even fashionable. For example, when explaining his upbringing, Zaroff mentions his time as an officer in the Russian military, something “expected of noblemen’s sons.” Therefore, wartime violence was a social expectation and an indication of Zaroff’s noble class status, or his “civilized” background. Furthermore, Zaroff displays his hunting trophies (animal heads) in his dining hall and throughout his house, which shows that these relics of killing are socially fashionable, making Zaroff appear, paradoxically, more civilized to others.
While both of these aspects of Zaroff seem relatively normal to Rainsford, Zaroff and Rainsford do not draw the same boundary between acceptable and unacceptable killing. “Thank you, I'm a hunter, not a murderer," Rainsford says in response to Zaroff’s invitation to join the manhunt, indicating Rainsford’s strong feelings about the distinction between violence against people and animals. However, Connell suggests several times that this boundary is more porous than “civilized” people might like to think. Refuting Rainsford’s moral prohibition against killing humans in peacetime, Zaroff suggests that the line between wartime and peacetime killing isn’t actually significant; surely Rainsford’s experiences in the war must have cured him of “romantic ideas about the value of human life,” Zaroff says, hinting that his own experience of war is what blurred this boundary in him. Moreover, after Zaroff explains the hunt, he invites his guest to see his “new collection of heads” in the library. Readers are left to wonder whether these are human or animal heads, and with this ambiguity Connell has taken a fashionable habit and shown that it was always grotesque and brutal.
While Zaroff is unquestionably a serial murderer, Connell is less clear about Rainsford. By the end of the story, Rainsford has taken two human lives: Ivan’s and Zaroff’s (in addition to whoever he might have killed in the war). Rainsford killed Ivan in self-defense, and one could argue that he killed Zaroff in self-defense, too—even though Rainsford had “won the game” (hypothetically ensuring his own safety), it’s reasonable to conclude that Zaroff would have to die for Rainsford to be truly safe on the island. However, in the moment of his death, Zaroff was not threatening Rainsford, they were not at war, and they were not hunting animals—so the story’s final killing seems to suggest, in itself, that the hard line Rainsford tried to draw between acceptable and unacceptable killing was never as clear as he thought.
Condoned Violence vs. Murder ThemeTracker
Condoned Violence vs. Murder Quotes in The Most Dangerous Game
“Who cares how a jaguar feels?”
“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney.
“Bah! They've no understanding.”
“Even so, I rather think they understand one thing—fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.”
“Nonsense,” laughed Rainsford. “This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”
“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?
“I have but one passion in my life, Mr. Rainsford, and it is the hunt.”
“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.”
Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.
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.”
“It's a game, you see,” pursued the general blandly. “I suggest to one of them that we go hunting. I give him a supply of food and an excellent hunting knife. I give him three hours' start. I am to follow, armed only with a pistol of the smallest caliber and range. If my quarry eludes me for three whole days, he wins the game. If I find him,” the general smiled, “he loses.”
“Suppose he refuses to be hunted?”
“Oh,” said the general, “I give him his option, of course. He need not play that game if he doesn't wish to. If he does not wish to hunt, I turn him over to Ivan. Ivan once had the honor of serving as official knouter to the Great White Czar, and he has his own ideas of sport. Invariably, Mr. Rainsford, invariably they choose the hunt.”
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.