It has frequently been said that fear and isolation make people behave irrationally. Perhaps it is the cognitive awareness of the silence of one's thoughts or the unavoidable anxiety and dread that paralyzes. Regardless of one's definition of either, they undeniably can be both controlling and manipulating factors in an individual's life. Never more have the two been so tightly intertwined than in Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," a story of two hunters, Sanger Rainsford, and General Zaroff, who are driven to the edge of both dynamics.
At the start of the story, Rainsford and his friend, Whitney has set out to hunt a jaguar in a region of Rio de Janeiro. The first place where Connell begins his treatment of the theme of fear is the exchange between Rainsford and Whitney about the jaguar they are hunting:“The best sport in the world," agreed Rainsford. "For the hunter," amended Whitney. "Not for the jaguar." "Don't talk rot, Whitney," said Rainsford. "You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?"Perhaps the jaguar does," observed Whitney. "Bah! They've no understanding." Even so, I rather think they understand one thing--fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death (Connell 1).
By introducing the theme of fear early on in the story, Connell is foreshadowing the events that will later befall Rainsford. Rainsford discusses the hunter versus the hunted concept with Whitney in his parallel to the world that we, in essence, live in. Whitney retorts that the island they are heading toward has a bad reputation and that "even cannibals wouldn't live in such a God-forsaken place, but it's gotten into sailor lore, somehow" (Connell 2). The reader is lead to believe two things through this exchange: that Rainsford is the one that will more than likely be hunted by someone or something. Rainsford is separated from Whitney after hearing gunshots and falling off of his boat. He is forced to swim to the island where he meets General Zaroff and Ivan.
These two individuals are also hunters but have found a way to ignite their seeming isolation on the island by hunting men rather than animals. Connell provides the reader insight into this by noting that "there was one small trait of the general's that made Rainsford uncomfortable. Whenever he looked up from his plate he found the general studying him, appraising him narrowly" (Connell 6). For Zaroff, hunting others is a game; it is a way to pass the time and to obtain his jollies and kicks. Rainsford's curiosity about Zaroff provides further understanding into the themes that underlie the story when Zaroff remarks that "no animal had a chance with me anymore. It came to me as an inspiration what I must do...I had to invent a new animal to hunt" (Connell 8). Rainsford is astonished by Zaroff's rather bloodthirsty ideals on hunting. But for Zaroff who is trying to pass the time and avoid conceptualizing isolation, he responds, "why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth...it gives me pleasure" (Connell 9).
The root of Zaroff’s bloodthirsty ideal about hunting man is that these men, who find themselves shipwrecked on the island, will inevitably hunt him first or at least consider doing so. "[Men] can reason, after a fashion; so they are dangerous" (Connell 9). Zaroff does not comprehend that his drive to hunt and kill man is the direct result not only of his fear but of him being isolated as Ivan is deaf and dumb. Williams (2012) adds that "fear is more powerful than reason. The brain seems to be wired to flinch first and ask questions second" (1). To soothe these fears and isolation, Zaroff has a newfound aspect of hunting.
Connell further examines the themes of fear and isolation when Zaroff questions Rainsford after he asks to leave by stating that "my dear fellow, you've only just come. You've had no hunting" (Connell 12). Zaroff is unconcerned that Rainsford does not want to hunt and presents him with a challenge noting that he'll "cheerfully acknowledge defeat if [he] do[es] not find [Rainsford] by midnight of the third day" (Connell 13). Zaroff seemingly has not had a hunt for a while and is looking to both soothe his mental isolation and continue his bloodthirsty ambition to hunt man, much like a serial killer, rather than the animals that roam the island.
Hunting gives Zaroff meaning regardless of what he is hunting. Leopold (1933) notes that hunting for sport is a mere advancement in the process of sublimation and a way to consciously transform one's impulses by means of a typically accepted activity (391-394). Therefore, Zaroff believes he is not in the wrong by challenging Rainsford but satisfying his impulse to continue his pastime. Connell also uses the device of fear within Rainsford who adds that he "ha[s] played the fox, [but] must play the cat of the fable" (Connell 12). Eventually, Rainsford outsmarts Zaroff who is taken aback by the unflinching determination of his opponent when he remarks "you've done well, Rainsford. I'm going home for a rest now. Thank you for a most amusing evening" (Connell 15). For Zaroff, the hunt is his scratch against the fear and isolation itch. It keeps him viable and awakened to human interaction. In the end, Rainsford continues to outmaneuver Zaroff, further highlighting the classic concept of the hunter versus the hunted in Connell's story.
Richard Connell's “The Most Dangerous Game” sheds light on the ruthless nature of man. It superbly provides a complex and intricate view of the lengths man will go to in order to survive even the often horrific and terrifying factors that are fear and isolation.
Connell, Richard. "The Most Dangerous Game." Archive.org, 1924. Web. 19 Sept. 2013. http://archive.org/stream/TheMostDangerousGame_129/danger.
Leopold, Aldo. Game Management. Madison, WI: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1933. Print.
Williams, Kaylene C. "Fear appeal theory." Research in Business and Economics Journal 5 (2012): 1-21. Print.