The protagonist, Sanger Rainsford, is an adventurous big-game hunter who confronts the nature of life and death for the first time in his life during his few frightening days on Ship-Trap Island. Calm and composed, Rainsford coolly handles any challenge, be it falling overboard in the middle of the night or having to swim several miles to reach the shore. He’s survived numerous near-death experiences, from fighting on the frontlines during World War I to hunting dangerous animals in some of the world’s most exotic locales. Rainsford’s wartime experiences have reinforced his ultimate belief in the primacy of human life and the respect it deserves. Only during Zaroff’s relentless final pursuit does Rainsford truly feel fear and his own primal instinct to survive.
The long-term ramifications of Rainsford’s harrowing ordeal remain indeterminate and unresolved, however, because Connell purposefully chooses to leave any transformation in Rainsford’s character uncharted. Although Connell suggests that Rainsford now empathizes with the creatures he has hunted in the past, it is uncertain whether he will discontinue hunting in the future. On one hand, Rainsford could possibly abandon hunting altogether or at least approach it with a new respect for his prey. Conversely, Rainsford’s ability to sleep so soundly after killing Zaroff may suggest that he has become even more ruthless or hasn’t undergone any significant transformation at all.
General Zaroff’s refined mannerisms conceal a maniacal desire to inflict suffering and death for his own amusement. In many ways, Zaroff considers himself a god who can snuff out life as he pleases. Zaroffs’s madness stems from a life of wealth, luxury, and militarism, which inflate his ego and sense of entitlement and impose few limits on his desires. Zaroff began hunting at an early age when he shot his father’s prized turkeys and continually sought out bigger game in his family’s tract of wilderness in the Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea. Commanding a division of Cossack cavalrymen in Russia, meanwhile, familiarized Zaroff with the horrors and atrocities of warfare. His bloodlust and passion for hunting eventually prompted him to hunt men, the most cunning and challenging prey he could find.
Accustomed to death, General Zaroff has lost the ability to distinguish men from beasts, suggesting that he has slipped into barbarism and lost his humanity. The sanctioned violence of his youth and early manhood drained the general of his empathy and capacity to make moral judgments. His passion for the hunt and love of the refined, meanwhile, led him to devalue human life. In fact, Zaroff even praises his thoroughbred hounds over the lives of the sailors he hunts. Connell describes Zaroff’s sharp pointed teeth and smacking red lips to dehumanize him and highlight his predatory nature. Ironically, Rainsford discovers that General Zaroff is far more repulsive than the “scum” he disdainfully hunts, devoid of all emotion and humanity despite his seeming gentility.