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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
Read more about darkness as a motif in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.