Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” is widely anthologized in both high school literature and college introductory fiction courses largely because it offers a fine illustration of many of the potential conflicts that an author can incorporate into an compelling plotline: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself.
Initially set on board a steamer headed for South America, “The Most Dangerous Game” begins with a conversation between two hunters, Rainsford and Whitney, who are aboard the vessel and are nearing a dangerous stretch of water that shipping charts label as Ship Trap Island. Their discussion centers on their chosen sport, big game hunting, and whether wild animals have any fear when they are being stalked by humans.
Almost immediately the reader senses that Rainsford’s surroundings are threatening. The sea and the island’s negative reputation place him in jeopardy, which is heightened when he falls overboard while investigating the sound of three gunshots he hears from the deck of his ship.
Although he survives the fall, Rainsford is savvy enough to get to shore by following the direction suggested by the shots. However, upon his arrival at Ship Trap Island, the safety he anticipates is not evident; instead he is faced with a ragged jungle environment and evidence of a fierce struggle that has recently occurred there.
Ultimately, Rainsford makes his way inland and, to his surprise, he discovers a palatial chateau, which he initially feels is a mirage, but he eventually finds that the house is occupied by a General Zaroff, a military aristocrat with a deaf mute servant of extraordinary strength whose name is Ivan. Aware of Rainsford’s reputation for hunting expertise, Zaroff initially seems delighted to have him as a guest since he, too, considers himself a master of the hunt. Indeed, his feudal dining room is decorated with the heads of many of his animal kills, including elephants, tigers, and bears. As the two discover what they consider to be the most dangerous game animal, the reader begins to recognize that the general is far from humane in his pursuit of the sport.
Rather, as Zaroff recounts his career to Rainsford, it becomes clear that the general now finds lower animals less of a challenge. Bored with their ability to offer him competition, Zaroff had retreated to this isolated primitive jungle exclusively to hunt the only animal that reasons: men. Zaroff clearly expresses his belief that even his human prey are an inferior species—the weak of the world—but individuals whom he trains to make them competitive to his superior skills. He then offers the individual he hunts a game of cat and mouse. If Zaroff catches his prey, the individual loses (and dies); if the prey eludes him for three days, the individual is free to leave Ship Trap Island unharmed. However, such an escape has so far never been achieved by those whom he has hunted, and no one has succeeded in winning the game.
Clearly, after initially believing Rainsford’s conflict will be environmental in nature, readers now see that a man-versus-man conflict emerges as a primary emphasis of Connell. The intellectual and physical battle between the two men takes center stage, displacing the original struggle with the environment. Since Rainsford offers the general a much more challenging opponent than he has had previously, the game of wits is intriguing. For Zaroff, the hunt has become a plaything, and he toys with Rainsford as he tracks him nightly, at times intentionally letting him slip away from being captured and killed. Suddenly the word game no longer refers to animals but rather suggests an elaborate chess match whose loser forfeits his very life.
The story concludes with Rainsford forced to do battle with Zaroff. Though outnumbered (Zaroff has dogs and Ivan to help), Rainsford does not panic and uses the tricks of the hunting trade to outsmart his opponent. Nevertheless, the general discovers Rainsford during the first hunt and, preferring to extend the contest not to capture him, decides rather to enjoy what he believes will be his eventual triumph over a longer period. During the second encounter, Rainsford becomes more successful as he uses a Malayman-catcher at least to wound Zaroff. Thus the man-versus-man conflict intensifies, and the game becomes more complex. Though Rainsford claims the lives of both the general’s best hunting dog and Ivan, he is eventually trapped on a high cliff. Since retreat is impossible, he is then forced to seek refuge in the dangerous sea by jumping from his precarious location. While Zaroff believes he has again conquered even though he has not killed his prey personally, his opponent, Rainsford, returns later that night to claim victory, having proved successful not only in subduing his dangerous surrounding but in eluding his hunter and surviving for three days.
Surprisingly, as the story draws to a close, Rainsford is not content just to be free. Instead he proves that men (not wild animals) are indeed the most dangerous game by challenging his antagonist to a duel and winning. Though Connell deftly avoids showing Rainsford’s actual killing of his fellow man and his subsequent decision to feed the general’s body to his pack of hungry dogs, the author surely concludes that when pressed to desperation, man will resort to any means to stay alive. Consequently, it is evident that Rainsford, who initially revolted at the thought of violently attacking others, has struggled with his own value systems and eventually decided that self-preservation may require dire and even immoral action. His personal impulse toward morality at the beginning of the story is thus, at the story’s end, overcome by the necessity to survive, and his inner struggle introduces the third primary fictional conflict: man’s eternal struggle with himself.
Considered a plot-centered story, “The Most Dangerous Game” has rather static stereotypical characters including a noble heroic protagonist and a vicious and unsympathetic villain, but Connell’s ironic twist at the story’s end makes the story an appealing read, especially for those who prefer exciting series of events to complex character studies. It is a well-crafted narrative that lends itself well to basic analysis by younger and perhaps less experienced readers.