"The Most Dangerous Game" is a 1924 short story by Richard Connell in which Sanger Rainsford must fight for his life while being hunted for sport.
- After washing ashore on an island, big-game hunter Rainsford realizes that General Zaroff, the island's owner, hunts humans for sport, having grown bored of hunting animals.
- Zaroff decides to hunt Rainsford, hoping that Rainsford's experience as a hunter will make him more challenging prey.
- Rainsford hides in the woods, where he sets several traps to outsmart Zaroff, all of which fail.
- Desperate, Rainsford fakes his own death and sneaks into Zaroff’s quarters.
- The two men duel, and Rainsford emerges victorious.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1299
At the beginning of “The Most Dangerous Game,” two hunters, Whitney and Rainsford, are sailing on a yacht at night and discussing a large island they are passing. Whitney says that the large island, invisible in the darkness, is known as "Ship-Trap Island" and is the subject of sailors’ superstitions. He dismisses this as nonsense, however, and the pair begin to discuss hunting. Whitney expresses some sympathy for hunted animals, noting that they must surely feel fear, but Rainsford says this is "soft" of Whitney and that he should be a realist and recognize that there are two "classes" of beings in the world: “the hunters and the huntees.” Rainsford declares that they should both count themselves lucky to be hunters, rather than the converse.
Whitney returns to the question of the island, saying that a "chill" has afflicted him in the past when drawing close to the island. When Rainsford dismisses this feeling, Whitney declares that he is going to bed, leaving Rainsford to smoke his pipe alone on the afterdeck.
The silence of the night is suddenly broken by the sound of a gun being fired three times. Rainsford goes to the rail, trying to see through the darkness what has caused the noise. He climbs up onto the rail and inadvertently drops his pipe overboard. When he leans out to get it, he falls from the boat and into the Caribbean Sea. Helpless, he watches the yacht speed away from him and, although he shouts, nobody hears him.
When the yacht has disappeared into the darkness, Rainsford begins swimming in the direction from which the sound of shots had come. As he swims, he hears the call of another animal and another pistol shot. Eventually he reaches a rocky shore and, pulling himself up onto flat ground, collapses and sleeps until late afternoon the next day.
Telling himself that there must be men on the island somewhere, he gets up and begins walking. As he goes, he finds evidence of hunting: patches of blood, trampled undergrowth, and a .22 cartridge, which he considers a rather light caliber for hunting animals. By the time he sees the lights of a house, it is almost dark, and at first Rainsford thinks he is seeing things. But the house—a large Gothic mansion—is real, and when Rainsford knocks on the door, it is opened by a "gigantic" bearded man. Rainsford introduces himself as Sanger Rainsford of New York City, and says that he has fallen from a yacht and is hungry.
The man levels a revolver at him, seemingly unmoved by Rainsford's words. At this juncture, however, a second man, in evening clothes and with a precise accent, arrives and welcomes him to his home. He introduces himself as General Zaroff and says that he has read Rainsford's book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet.
Zaroff is a refined and handsome man with white hair. He explains that the large man, Ivan, is deaf and dumb and is a Cossak, as Zaroff himself is. He then offers Rainsford clean clothes and a dinner of borscht. Rainsford finds the general affable and polite.
Zaroff explains that hunting is his passion and that he reads all books on the topic published in English, French, and Russian. He then says that he hunts "dangerous game" on this island, which he stocks for the purpose. Rainsford assumes he means tigers, but Zaroff declares that there is no real danger or thrill in tigers. He promises that he and Rainsford will have "capital hunting" together but will not specify which game he hunts.
Zaroff explains that he has hunted from early childhood, both before and after his departure from Russia after the Revolution. Eventually hunting became boring for him, because it was no longer "sporting." He always won, animals having no chance against him. So he invented a new animal to hunt. He knew that the ideal animal must "be able to reason." When Rainsford objects that no animal can reason, Zaroff’s response makes it clear to Rainsford that he means he hunts humans.
When Rainsford protests that this is murder, Zaroff tells him that he is naive, even Puritan. Zaroff says he hunts "the scum of the earth." Ships beach on the island, and the stranded crews compose Zaroff’s quarry. Zaroff has even rigged up a contraption with lights which indicates a channel where there isn't one, thus causing more shipwrecks. The men he keeps are trained in the cellar. At the start of each hunt, Zaroff sends out a man with a supply of food and a hunting knife, offering a three hours’ start. If the man eludes Zaroff for three days, he wins, but nobody has eluded him yet. Anyone who refuses to be hunted is given to Ivan instead, and nobody has chosen that option. Zaroff also keeps a number of dogs to help him.
Rainsford retires to bed rather than accept Zaroff's invitation to see his collection of heads. However, he cannot sleep. At breakfast, Zaroff says that his hunt last night was dull, because the sailor he was chasing had a "dull brain." Rainsford says that he would like to leave the island, but Zaroff refuses, saying that tonight he will hunt Rainsford. Zaroff says that if Rainsford eludes him for three days, he will take him back to the mainland.
Ivan appears and provides Rainsford with the promised hunting clothes, rations, and knife. Rainsford is determined to keep his "nerve" and sets off to confuse Zaroff with a winding trail, aping the tactics of the fox. He then climbs up into a tree, sure that Zaroff will not find him. However, after a night in the tree, Zaroff does arrive. Seeing Rainsford, he smiles at him, and then leaves, and Rainsford realizes that he is being toyed with like a mouse by a cat.
He sets off again and puts together a "Malay mancatcher," a trap which succeeds in injuring Zoraff's shoulder slightly. Zoraff calls out that he is impressed by Rainsford’s tactic and that he is returning temporarily to have his wound dressed. Rainsford continues running until darkness falls. At this point, inspiration strikes. Rainsford remembers digging himself into trenches in France during World War One. Now he digs himself a pit and fills it with sharpened stakes. He hears Zaroff arrive, and then a cry as something falls into the pit, but Zaroff announces that it was one of his dogs and thanks him for an “amusing evening.”
Rainsford wakes the next morning to the baying of hounds, which terrifies him. He climbs a tree, and sees Zaroff and Ivan, with the dogs, approaching. In panic, he remembers a Ugandan trick he once learned. He fastens his knife to a "springy young sapling," ties it back, and hides. This trap succeeds in spearing and killing Ivan.
Rainsford keeps running. He runs until he sees a gap in the trees through which he can leap into the sea. Zaroff follows him but stops when he sees what Rainsford has done. He is disappointed, thinking that Rainsford has committed suicide. He is irritable about the thought of replacing Ivan, and he tries to console himself with some fine reading and wine. When he retreats to his bedroom, however, Rainsford is hiding in his bed.
Rainsford says that he has swum around the island to get here, and Zaroff declares that he has won the game. But Rainsford says he is "still a beast at bay" and tells Zaroff to ready himself.
Zaroff says that whoever loses the fight will become "a repast for the hounds," while the other will enjoy his excellent bed. After an ellipsis, the story ends as Rainsford sleeps in, and approves of, Zaroff's bed, indicating that he has defeated Zaroff.
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