The Most Dangerous Game
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Reason versus Instinct
Pitting Rainsford and General Zaroff against each other in the hunt allows Connell to blur the line between hunter and prey, human and animal, to suggest that instinct and reason are not as mutually exclusive as people have traditionally thought. Writers and philosophers have traditionally placed human intellect and the ability to reason above the bestial instincts of wild animals, which have no moral compulsions and act solely to satisfy their own needs. Reason, therefore, transforms mere animals into people and allows them to live together in functioning societies. Connell first blurs the dichotomy between reason and instinct through Rainsford’s friend Whitney, who asserts that animals instinctively feel fear and then confesses that Captain Neilson’s description of Ship-Trap Island has given him the chills. Without realizing it, Whitney admits that his perception of the island has sparked a sense of dread in him, just as perceived danger induces fear in an animal.
Connell further turns the table on the idea that reason exists apart from instinct by reducing the gentleman hunter Rainsford to the role of prey in General Zaroff’s sadistic hunt. Rainsford comes to realize that all creatures, including people, rely on fear and their instinct to survive to avoid pain and death, just as Whitney had originally argued. Nevertheless, Rainsford remains calm in spite of his fear and works methodically to evade death and even defeat Zaroff. Despite his desire to kill his pursuers, however, Rainsford keeps his perspective and continues to value human life, therefore remaining more man than beast. In contrast, the genteel General Zaroff reveals himself to be more animal than human by rationally concluding that people are no different from other living creatures and by ruthlessly hunting men to satisfy his inner bloodlust. Zaroff’s and Rainsford’s cool rationality and calculating cunning throughout the entire hunt belies the fact that each man acts only according to instinct, one to survive and the other to kill.
The Effects of War
Although Rainsford and Zaroff have similar backgrounds and are both wealthy hunters, they have radically different interpretations of their wartime experiences. Zaroff tells Rainsford about his days slumming in the Russian army, a brief dalliance commanding a Cossack cavalry division that ultimately distracted him from his love of the hunt. He nevertheless conveniently retains the title of general in a nod to his thirst for power over other individuals’ lives. Connell also suggests that Zaroff’s martial experiences altered him and allowed him to think of other people as worthy prey. The general’s inflated ego, disdain for humanity, and sadistic thrill at inflicting suffering all stem from seeing life through the sights of a rifle. Zaroff finds Rainsford’s outrage naïve, primly Victorian, and overly puritan. Rainsford, however, remembers the grueling, harrowing aspects of warfare. He recalls desperately digging trenches with insufficient tools while on the European frontlines in World War I. The sense of desperation and powerlessness that his war years instilled in him revisit him during his three-day trial on the island.
The Color Red
The color red permeates the story to highlight the blood, violence, and death on Ship-Trap Island. In the beginning of the story, for example, Rainsford falls off his yacht into the “blood-warm waters” of the sea, symbolically marking him as a target of future violence. Upon reaching the shore, he discovers a crushed patch of weeds “stained crimson.” As Rainsford moves deeper into the interior of the island, the color red becomes more directly linked with the bloodlust of General Zaroff, from the crimson sash his body guard, Ivan, wears to the steaming bowls of red borscht he serves Rainsford. Connell refers to the general’s “red-lipped” smile twice, at one point extending the description to include a flash of Zaroff’s pointed, fanglike teeth. Connell focuses less on the color red as soon as the hunt begins to emphasize Rainsford’s level-headedness and foreshadow his ultimate triumph over Zaroff.
The darkness that shrouds Ship-Trap Island accentuates the shadowy recesses that lie beyond the reach of logic and reason. As Whitney and Rainsford converse on the deck of the yacht in the opening passages, the moonless sultry night surrounds them with its “moist black velvet.” Disoriented and isolated after falling overboard, Rainsford swims in the direction of the gunshots, the first of many such times on the island when he must rely on other senses to navigate the pitch-blackness that surrounds him. The darkness that envelops the island not only instills foreboding terror, but it also hints at the dementia that has lead Zaroff to hunt people. Interestingly, Connell contrasts this darkness with false beacons of light that draw unsuspecting victims to the island like moths to a flame. Rainsford, for example, heads toward the “glaring golden light” of Zaroff’s chateau soon after awaking on the island. Similarly, the electric lights lining the channel to Ship-Trap Island appear to warn passing ships of the treacherous shoals and rocks, but they actually shipwreck more sailors for Zaroff to hunt. As a result, these false beacons only make the prevailing darkness more penetrating and foreboding.
Teeming, wild, and ungovernable, the jungle serves as a powerful symbol of Zaroff’s tangled psyche and the chaos within the island. The “snarled and ragged” growth shrouds the island, concealing Zaroff’s grotesque hunt from the rest of the world. The jungle is also an emblem of restriction and Rainsford’s loss of control because it impedes his effort to return to civilization. The morning he awakens on the island’s shore, for example, he can see no way through the tangled of trees and undergrowth before him. During the hunt, claustrophobia overtakes him as Zaroff closes in for the kill. Ultimately, Rainsford must free himself from this thorny physical and mental space and does so by rejecting the jungle altogether in favor of the sea.
Ship-Trap Island symbolizes a similarly uncharted region where the laws governing normal human discourse don’t exist. Here, General Zaroff’s plays out his homicidal whims unchecked, unimpeded, and a world apart from Rainsford’s comfortable life of privilege and ease. In many ways, the island is an antiutopian society under the rule of a tyrant seeking to exterminate other people instead of sustaining them. The autocratic Zaroff, without any compassion or regard for human life, exerts absolute control over everything. Isolated, the island is a realm of wild, uncontrollable, and unspeakable desires recklessly pursued without any sense of morality. Subject to legend and superstition, the island is an unconscious embodiment of fear, abstract and impalpable, just like the chill and shudder that Whitney feels as the yacht first sails by.