Adventure stories hook the reader with fast-paced tales of danger.
In this lesson, you’ll learn more about a classic adventure story involving a ruthless hunter and the deadly island where he lives.
Take a moment to imagine a story. The story has a hero, caught on an island full of deadly traps. On this island, people hunt each other down for the amusement of the owner of the island, who offers up a great prize to anyone who can survive. Did you picture a blockbuster movie with an arrow-slinging main character? Movies like The Hunger Games borrow heavily from an adventure story published in 1924, Richard Connell’s ‘The Most Dangerous Game’.
Summary: The Hunt Begins
Our story begins with our main character, Sanger Rainsford, standing on a boat’s deck late at night talking with Whitney, a fellow passenger. Rainsford, an accomplished big game hunter, is looking forward to tracking the cunning jaguars in the Amazon and says that this will be the ‘…best sport in the world.’ Whitney counters that it’s ‘great sport for the hunter, ‘.
..not for the jaguar.’ Whitney goes on to argue that animals do have some sense of understanding, even if it’s just enough intelligence to fear pain and death.
Rainsford has zero sympathy for his prey, and in an ironic moment, he drops his pipe, gets accidentally knocked from the boat and ends up on the infamous Ship Trap Island, where sailors sometimes go but never return. He eventually finds civilization on the island, a mansion, and he meets its owner, General Zaroff, along with his servant Ivan.Ivan is a hulking Russian thug; imagine a deaf-mute Andre the Giant with a beard.
Zaroff, though, is worse. He was once a Russian military leader from an aristocratic family. Zaroff invested his money well, and when the communists took over, Zaroff beat it to his private island where he could indulge his passion for hunting.If you couldn’t tell the guy is a villain, his beady black eyes and the fact that he has filed his teeth to sharp points should clue you in. Zaroff grew bored with hunting animals – not challenging enough – so he switched to hunting people.
And even that has grown dull, until our master hunter Sanger Rainsford washes up on the shore! Now, Zaroff is giddy to kill someone who is almost as smart, clever and skilled as he is.
Summary: Three Days in the Jungle
Day OneZaroff offers Rainsford a simple deal – survive three days in the jungle, and he’ll let Rainsford leave. Easy enough, right? Rainsford is the Survivorman of the 1920s. Zaroff gives him some basic supplies, including a knife, and then gives Rainsford a head start.
Rainsford cuts a tricky path through the jungle, using all of his skill, and creates several false trails that should fool Zaroff.Then Rainsford hides in a tree, prepared to wait out the three days, but he’s not there long before he hears someone approaching. It’s the evil general who walks up to Rainsford’s tree, stands under it while lighting his cigarette and who then neatly blows a smoke ring in Rainsford’s direction. The message is clear – Zaroff is way better at this deadly game of hide-and-seek than Rainsford.
Day TwoOn the second day, Rainsford has to step up his game, and he does by building a trap to kill Zaroff. When the villain tracks him down, Rainsford springs the trap, but only wounds his enemy. The general retreats to his mansion and leaves Rainsford to plan for the final day of the hunt.Day ThreeRainsford continues to work his traps, and he needs to because Zaroff and Ivan have brought a pack of hunting dogs for the final day. The first trap, a pit lined with spikes, gets rid of a dog, while the second trap that involves a knife tied to a tree branch kills Ivan. Now Zaroff is out for blood, and he chases Rainsford to a cliff overlooking the rocky shore of the island.
Rather than face being torn apart by dogs, Rainsford dives off the cliff, and Zaroff returns home feeling a little cheated of his victory.When Zaroff returns to his bedroom, he finds an unexpected visitor. Apparently, the British hunter survived the fall, swam to the castle, scaled the walls and hid in the master’s bedroom. The tables have turned! Rainsford tells Zaroff, ‘I am still a beast at bay,’ and Zaroff replies, ‘One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed.’ The story ends with Rainsford deciding that he had never slept in a better bed.
The story explores the line between humans and animals.
Whitney argues that animals have feelings, while Rainsford refuses to believe such rubbish. Ironically, Rainsford becomes the hunted animal and immediately learns some lessons about fear. Before the hunt, when Zaroff and Rainsford are chatting at the castle, Rainsford argues that hunting people is murder. Zaroff laughs at Rainsford’s doubts. Zaroff makes the following points:
- War should have taught Rainsford that human life has little value.
- Rainsford’s opinion is Victorian and Puritan.
(In other words, Rainsford is a prude with outdated ideas.)
- There is no right or wrong. Those who are in power get to make the rules.
Zaroff’s last idea is straight out of the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher from the 1800s. Now, since the villain in the story makes this statement, we’re probably supposed to disagree. That’s what usually happens in stories. Our villain says there is no right or wrong, so the reader is supposed to think the opposite, that of course there are acts, like murder, that have to be considered wrong.
But the end of the story leaves that a little cloudy. Rainsford kills Zaroff and sleeps in his bed. There’s no mention of his escape or plans to return to civilization. We might assume that he does, but he could just as easily pick up where Zaroff left off, as the new master of Ship Trap Island. That would support Zaroff’s argument that might does indeed make right.
Humans vs. AnimalsAnother idea that the story explores is the line between what it means to be human and what it means to be an animal. Rainsford argues that animals operate on instinct while humans use reason, but he discovers when he’s being hunted in the jungle that he has to rely on instinct to survive. When Rainsford becomes the cornered animal, he’s willing to break any rules to survive. Connell’s story leaves us doubting that the line between humans and animals is as clear-cut as we’d like to believe.
Richard Connell’s story of man-hunting adventure on a deadly island is not only exciting, it’s a philosophical look at the human condition.
His characters challenge the reader to consider the definition of humanity and the source of right and wrong. The ambiguous ending leaves us wondering what happens next, whether a shell-shocked Rainsford finally returns to civilization, or whether there’s a new master on Ship Trap Island. By leaving the ending open, Connell invites us to come to our own interpretations on the source of power and the nature of humanity.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify the plot and characters of Richard Connell’s short story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’.
- Describe the themes of right versus wrong and human or animal