Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” is a story about humanity, violence, and revenge between two hunters. The character that is hunted not only survives, but it is thought that he even becomes just like the man who hunted him. I believe that when the hunted character finishes the hunter he is vanquishing an enemy of wartime not transforming into the hunter.
The story begins with Sanger Rainsford falling off of a yacht after hearing the sounds of pistol shots from a nearby island. Earlier, he had chided his hunting partner when, for a moment, he considered the feelings of the prey. Safely on shore, Rainsford sleeps until the afternoon and then tracks the hunter to his spatial home on the island. Almost shot by Ivan, the manservant of the manor, Rainsford meets General Zaroff, who knows Rainsford as a hunter and has read a book he had written about hunting snow leopards. Zaroff is excited to have a hunting partner and he explains that after becoming bored with hunting animals, he wanted to hunt the only one that could reason. Rainsford is appalled and does not sleep. He dozes as the sun begins to rise only to hear the “faint report of a pistol” (Connell, 1924) . At the meal that day, Zaroff admits that he is bored again and tells Rainsford that he is to be hunted. Zaroff seems destined to win as he outsmarts Rainsford at every turn, including only slightly wounding his shoulder in a trap that was meant to kill him. Finally a desperate Rainsford flings himself off of a cliff, and Zaroff goes home to dinner. He is dissatisfied because he felt that Rainsford cheated and proceeds to get very drunk. As he retires for the evening, he encounters a wild Rainsford in his room. He admits defeat, but Rainsford seemingly takes his revenge in blood.
While the appeal of big-game hunting has waned in recent decades, many people in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania still love to hunt. In Waynesburg one can see any number of deer, coyote, and other sorts of game hanging from front porches during the season. In 1924, the attitude that hunting for sport was something cruel or in need of regulation was probably laughable. So why does Richard Connell decide to give his main character the chance to see things from the hunted’s point-of-view? It begins with the conversation that Rainsford has with Whitney, when Rainsford dismisses the sentiment that hunting is not sport for the hunted. His cavalier attitude in this regard contrasts greatly with the emotions he will be feeling 48 hours hence.
When Rainsford emerges on the island, in a manner that hints at baptism or at least rebirth, after some rest he is immediately in the thick of things. His actions here define his character in a very robust way. He has a cool head in the face of these impossible circumstances, following the sound of gunshots and the trail of the shooter, unknowing whether or not he was friend or foe. His skill is shown as he very quickly locates the precise location of the kill and easily picks up the trail of the hunter, alone on the island he has no need to cover his tracks. Despite Ivan’s hostile greeting and the ominous surroundings of first the jungle and then a spatial museum of animal corpses, General Zaroff is introduced and seems to be an affable and civilized fellow for a Cossack.
I have always been impressed by the dialogue in the dinner scene. Rainsford is first enraptured by the man, in awe of his luck to have landed on the island of such a man. Then as he discovers what exactly it is that Zaroff does on the island, while desperately clinging to etiquette and not wishing to offend his host, Rainsford inexorably excuses himself. On the other side of the table, it seems that Zaroff, probably already feeling the seeds of boredom with his human prey, thinks perhaps that having another hunter at his side will bring back some of the enjoyment for him. Imagine for a moment that Rainsford had been keen to go along with the hunt or pretended as such? I imagine that Zaroff would have had a wonderful time laughing at Rainsfords inexperience hunting man, especially at the time of the kill. Yet, I imagine that he would grow bored again and Rainsford would end up on the other end of the hunt anyway. Nonetheless, Zaroff is offended by Rainsford’s reaction and holding onto that offense in his mind, Zaroff knew that the danger he sought could be found at the hands of another expert hunter.
After the hunt begins, Rainsford’s reticence to harm another human being dissipates totally once he realizes he cannot hide from the General and must defend himself. The portion of the story detailing the time Rainsford spends in the woods is some of the most suspenseful writing I have ever read. First exposed to this story in junior high we read it as a group, but I raced ahead of the reader because I had to know what happened. In that initial read-through, I missed how Rainsford transformed from a reasonable, moral being into the vengeful, bloodthirsty person we see at the end of the piece. Rainsford experiences fear the entire time. One can almost not help but hear his staggered breath as he flees through the jungle. We feel his pounding heartbeat in our own chests as he hides from Zaroff, doubly so with the anticipation of the springing of the traps. Connell’s descriptions of his fear are where the change in Rainsford happens, specifically when he compares what is happening to Rainsford to what happened in France during World War I and when he writes, “At daybreak Rainsford … was awakened by a sound that made him know that he had new things to learn about fear” (Connell, 1924). Was this a commentary on how the war had changed Connell or other veterans he knew? My experiences and those of my comrades during my time in Iraq have changed my perception of this part of the story.
War changes all who have the misfortune to find themselves so involved, and World War I was a brutal, savage conflict. Once Rainsford taps back into those emotions and feelings from when he was dug into the trenches in France, Zaroff becomes the enemy. When fighting a large uniformed force, the atrocities men commit against each other are, for lack of a better term, less personal. Looking into the eyes of one of the Kaiser’s men, an American soldier might see someone his own age or younger merely following orders like himself and too duped by his government to see that they are the “bad guys.” In Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan there are no uniforms, it’s very personal. Rational, moral people will commit actions against their characters with revenge in their hearts and consequences be damned. This is the change that takes place in Rainsford.
Since the days of
high school English, I had always felt that Rainsford, a hunter himself, was,
through his fear, seduced by the power of victory and perhaps he was more like
Zaroff than he dared admit. Especially
when the focus of the omniscient third-person narrator shifts focus to Zaroff,
the first time he is alone with the reader.
While I still believe that this is a way to show that the hunter has become
the hunted, I no longer think that this is because Rainsford has become like
Zaroff himself. Zaroff is a general, a
rank worn by an officer of the military and Rainsford has come to see him as an
enemy combatant. Before I imagined that
the next morning he descended into the dungeon to select a new man to
hunt. It is now my belief that Rainsford
awakes, releases the prisoners, and like any veteran that survives a battle for
his life, tries to put the experience behind him. Rather than hunting men, I believe that
Sanger Rainsford may have never hunted another living thing again.
Connell, R. "The Most Dangerous Game." Classic Short Stories. B&L Associates, Bangor, Maine, U.S.A., Web. 19 Nov 2009. <http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/danger.html>.