In his book, The Old Man and The Boy, author and big game hunter Robert Ruark wrote, “Hunting is the noblest sport yet devised by the hand of man… If you hunt to eat, or hunt for sport for something fine, something that will make you proud… But if there’s one thing that I despise it’s a killer… A man who takes pleasure in death for death’s sake…” Similarly, in “The Most Dangerous Game” Richard Connell tells the story of two men, Sanger Rainsford and General Zaroff. Both call themselves hunters, but as the story unfolds the line between “hunter” and “murderer” become blurred. Rainsford hunts big game because he believes hunting is the greatest sport in the world, but for Zaroff hunting is a means of challenging himself against the strongest, most dangerous game in the world. He soon realizes that the only prey that can bring him true satisfaction is the one that is able to reason, man. Throughout the events of the story, Connell’s use of conflict, mood, and symbolism reveal to the reader the central theme of hunting versus killing.
For a majority of the story Connell uses the conflict between Rainsford and Zaroff to reflect the theme by pitting the hunter directly against the killer. By analyzing this conflict, the reader is then able to decipher the key differences between the two hunters and judge which one is actually a murderer. From the moment that Zaroff reveals his intentions in hunting washed up sailors to Rainsford, there is immediate conflict between their clashing ideologies. While Rainsford believes that this crosses into the territory of murder, the cossack argues that hunting the one prey able to think, to reason, is what provides the greatest thrill. He attempts to reason by stating, “it supplies me with the most exciting hunting in the world. No other hunting compares with it for an instant. Every day I hunt, and I never grow bored now, for I have a quarry with which I can match my wits.” (Connell 7), but fails to get his point across to Rainsford. Following this interaction, the differences between the two are further illustrated when Zaroff sends Rainsford into the jungle to be hunted for three days. In the resulting sequence of events, Connell has the two men duke it out in a battle of wits. Rainsford’s use of traps and navigation skills that he’s picked up as a seasoned hunter allow him to stall out the Russian for the entirety of the time frame, and in the meanwhile manages to injure Zaroff’s shoulder and kill the general’s assistant Ivan along with one of his hounds. Zaroff acknowledges the other as a worthy match for him proclaiming, “Not many men know how to make a Malay mancatcher. Luckily for me I, too, have hunted in Malacca. You are proving interesting, Mr. Rainsford.” (Connell 13). Using conflict, Connell is able to convey the differences in mentality between the men to the reader. As we see, while Rainsford utilizes his intellect and will to survive the hunt, Zaroff uses more brute force and thirsts after his prey like a savage animal. This reflects the major theme of the distinction between hunting and killing by analyzing how each party thinks. Ultimately it shows what makes a hunter a murderer with the conflict displaying each man’s intent and morality behind the hunt.
Additionally the mood that Connell creates within his writing allow him to paint the setting along with Zaroff’s words and actions with a darker, more sinister light. Before Rainsford falls off his boat, his hunting partner Whitney describes to him rumors about an infamous ‘Ship Trap Island” occupying the waters they’re sailing. In this scene Connell creates a minor amount of tension, which intensifies when Whitney speaks on the uneasiness that he, and even the reader, can feel. He says to Rainsford, “Sometimes I think evil is a tangible thing–with wave lengths, just as sound and light have. An evil place can, so to speak, broadcast vibrations of evil.” (Connell 2). This instantly creates a foreboding sense of suspense that lingers throughout the whole story. When Rainsford is invited into Zaroff’s mansion the suspense that Connell created earlier doesn’t dissipate, but rather intensifies when interacting with the general. This suspense makes Zaroff’s amiable demeanor appear much more menacing than if it was otherwise not there. Furthermore when Rainsford is being chased down by the Russian, the suspense peaks as Rainsford. Using this mood Connell is able to show the reader the darker side of Zaroff without directly stating it. It creates a lens that the reader uses to view the events of the story as they take place. By using suspense Connell reveals the theme by depicting the general more as a ruthless killer than the noble hunter he claims to be.
The effective use of symbolism throughout the short story helps to portray what makes a man a hunter or a killer. Connell utilizes this device in order to depict Zaroff along with his island as what he intends them to represent, a bloodthirsty murderer and his trap. The most obvious symbol would be the island that these sailors wash up on as trap, such as one a hunter uses. The deliberate naming of this island as ‘Ship Trap Island’ makes it very clear that it is not to be trusted. It’s purpose for Zaroff also reflects this as it is used to lure sailors lost at sea and even has a lighthouse to act as bait. The second, most important, example of symbolism throughout the whole text is Connell’s use of the color red and blood. When Rainsford first falls off his boat, he falls into the ‘blood warm waters of the Caribbean’ (Connell 2), and when he washes up on the island the grass is also stained with blood. During Rainsford and Zaroff’s dinner, Connell details how the cossack showed ‘red lips and pointed teeth’ (Connell 4), like the fangs of a wolf. This alludes to Zaroff’s beastlike, predatory nature and how he hunts men as if he was a lion and they were gazelles. The difference between them, though, is that one kills out of necessity and one for pleasure. By using symbolism to impart to the reader the true meaning behind Zaroff and his island, Connell is able to portray his central theme. It shows how Zaroff disguises himself as a hunter of men by setting up a trap, but can’t help revealing his true qualities as a man who kills for his own satisfaction.
In ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ Connell uses conflict, mood, and symbolism in order to express the theme of hunting v.s. killing. With the conflict between Rainsford and Zaroff used to showcase the differences in how each man thinks, Connell paints a line between a hunter and killer. He also uses mood to further highlight Zaroff’s darker side along with using symbolism to reveal the general’s true character and his killer-like traits. Combined, these literary devices work in tandem with each other in order to show how even though Zaroff attempts to be a hunter, his motive and mentality toward the hunt betray his true nature. By the end of the story the reader is able to discern at what point a hunter turns into a killer. Stated best by Robert Ruark, the difference being that the killer is the, “man who takes pleasure in death for death’s sake”, who hunts for blood and not the sport.
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