Zaroff personifies the social Darwinist extremism that plagued much of the early 20th century. Social Darwinism is a term used to describe the ideologies that became popular in the late 19th century applying Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to human society. These ideas quickly escalated into extremism when societies and governments, following British philosopher Howard Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest,” started labeling certain humans as socially unfit (usually racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities, among others) and treating them as subhuman. Social Darwinist extremism led to eugenics programs across Europe and the U.S. in which procreation was encouraged in socially “fit” people (usually white, able-bodied, and middle-to-upper class), and the “unfit” were sterilized by force and/or in secret. Sometimes, the socially unfit were rounded up and killed. These extreme social views eventually culminated in the Holocaust with Nazi Germany’s mass genocide of Jews, racial minorities, Romani people, the disabled, and homosexuals. In “The Most Dangerous Game,” Connell explores extreme social Darwinism on a small scale on Ship-Trap Island.
Zaroff seems to embody the philosophy of social Darwinism, as he attempts to justify his hunting of men by stating, “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?” He believes, in other words, that ethics are moot and human life is no more sacred than anything else in the natural world—all that matters to him is strength, and therefore strength is a justification for any behavior. As a well-educated, wealthy aristocrat, Zaroff believes himself to be of the highest caliber of natural existence, and because of this, Zaroff feels justified in hunting those he sees as less fit, be they human or animal. Rainsford seems to disagree, but by playing the game, he arguably becomes implicated in these extreme ideas as well—and Connell suggests that he may have already been complicit even before coming to the island.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some European countries and the U.S. participated to varying degrees in eugenics programs to rid their societies of the physically and mentally “unfit.” Government agencies framed these actions not as murder or human rights violations, but as a duty performed for the betterment of humanity, strengthening the human race by making sure only the fit survived. Zaroff, a Russian and man of European taste and elegance, embodies the logic of such programs. He claims that the people he hunts aren’t fully human anyway, saying, “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." To him, the killing isn’t murder because those he hunts are already socially marked as unfit. This logic lays bare the moral emptiness of eugenics and social Darwinism. Unlike government eugenics programs, Zaroff has no need for the pretense that he’s making the world a better place through his actions; he’s honest about the fact that he kills others because strength is his guiding principle, not morality.
From Zaroff’s game, it’s also clear how the logic of social Darwinism can easily become an excuse to dehumanize marginalized peoples (as it has been throughout history). Instead of proclaiming outright hatred for others, proponents of social Darwinism can simply say that those too weak to survive can be justifiably eradicated. This logic is even more perverse considering that Zaroff’s victims, like many marginalized peoples, are not given a fair chance. Zaroff has years and years of experience hunting and killing, he is fully armed, and the game is played at his home, an island he knows intimately. His prey—who are often weakened when they wash ashore—are simply given a three-hour head start. While Zaroff believes that anyone he is able to kill is necessarily weaker than he is (therefore justifying their death), the terms of the game are clearly rigged in his favor, much like the way society fosters and protects dominant groups while blaming those without resources for their difficult lives.
Connell complicates the story’s ethical lines, however, when he implicates Rainsford in these ideas by having him kill to survive, and essentially taking Zaroff’s place at the end of the story. The first person the reader can assume Rainsford kills is Ivan, but this killing is quickly glossed over. For the entirety of the story, Connell describes Ivan as more beastlike than human—the reader is first introduced to Ivan as “a gigantic creature” who is deaf, mute, and like all of the Cossack “race,” according to Zaroff, something of a “savage.” The reader isn’t given time to consider the ethics of Ivan’s murder because he, a brutish and disabled man, was never presented as fully human either. Intentionally or not, here Connell also calls into question societies (and readers) that may condemn eugenics programs but still participate in social Darwinist ideology by placing less value in the lives of marginalized people. Further, by the end of the text, the reader must reevaluate if there is any hero in this story at all, and consider that perhaps Rainsford is something of a villain as well. Rainsford rid the world of serial killer by being the better killer. Because Rainsford succeeds only within the survival-of-the-fittest system, and ends up sleeping in Zaroff’s bed, seemingly taking his place, the reader must ask whether the story actually challenges the ideology of social Darwinism, upholds it, or pessimistically suggests that though morally empty, it is simply the way the world works.
Extreme Social Darwinism ThemeTracker
Extreme Social Darwinism 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.”
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.
“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 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.