Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game
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Richard Connell is a successful American short story writer. Connell was quite a prolific author, both as a novelist and as a short story writer. His writing is mostly considered an epitome of the adventure or action genre in fiction. Although Connell’s name is not usually enumerated among the classics of literature, his short story, The Most Dangerous Game, is incredibly famous and has had an impressive number of media adaptations, both in Hollywood films and in video games. The main reason for the fame of the short story is probably its subject, which can be said to range among the most problematic questions for the history of humanity: murder.
Connell imagines a different kind of hunt – a human hunt, thus creating almost the effect of a dystopia. The fictitious Ship Trap Island, where the action takes place, is dominated by the mad general Zaroff, who invents a new and dangerous sport: the hunt of men, instead of animals.
Thus, the text is much more than a simple adventure story because it can be interpreted inside a psychoanalytical frame, as a descending into the human subconscious and an investigation of power relationships, aggression, murder and fear. Thus, Connell shows in his short story that it is wrong to play with murder as if it were a simply a mental game which provides the thrills of power and danger, and that the moral consequences of the act should be considered.
In his study To have known Ecstasy: Hunting Men in “The Most Dangerous Game”, Robert Lang states that The Most Dangerous Game is, first of all, “an adventure story” in which the hero “overcomes obstacles and dangers and accomplishes some important and moral mission.”(53) Also, David Kippen considers the story to be successful for its genre precisely because it contains all the stereotypes of the adventure fiction, to the point that it can be considered as pure action. 
Indeed, The Most Dangerous Game seems to combine stylistic elements of many action genres such as adventure, gothic, horror, suspense and mystery. Additionally, the story has a moral purport and belongs to the voyage of initiation writing tradition. Nevertheless, Connell’s story is not a simple adventure story, as its significations go deep into important aspects of morality, philosophy and psychology.
The action of the story imitates the structure of a nightmare, hinting of a descent into the human subconscious. Just before the inception of the adventure, Rainsford hints that the deep night and the mysterious setting give the impression of a waking dream: “The sensuous drowsiness of the night was on him. ’It’s so dark,” he thought, ‘that I could sleep without closing my eyes; the night would be my eyelids‘.” (Connell, 6) First of all, Connell investigates the way in which murder is turned into a game that allows man to indulge in subconscious pleasures and wishes of establishing power relationships or of simply destroying the other. In this view, man hunt is an interesting and pleasurable game that affords intellectual satisfaction.
The advocator of this unique pleasure, Zaroff claims that murder is a step forward to civilization simply because it takes a lot of intelligence and strength. However, it is plain that this is only a justification for him to experience the subconscious and prohibited pleasures of killing and of taking control. The opening discussion of the two friends on the deck reveals which takes place before the actual adventure when Rainsford asserts that the hunt is the most interesting game in the world, Whitney suggests that it may be considered thus only from the point of view of the hunter, and not of the hunted: ‘Great sport, 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?’”(Connell, 5)
Thus, the first ideas that are put forth in the discussion will be reflected in Rainsford’s adventure: first the fact that the hunter indulges in his pleasure without considering the moral side of the problem, and then the suggestion that all the hunted being share one common sensation, even if they are not endowed with reason, like man is- fear: “I rather think they understand one thing–fear.”(Connell, 5) For Rainsford thus, the hunt and the killings are a mental game, an intellectual challenge and he consequently feels entitled to disregard the moral consideration related to such an act.
The initial discussion between the two friends functions thus as a preparatory introduction for the adventure itself. Rainsford, who is a passionate hunter as the reader can see from his talk, and who takes hunt as a game first of all, that thrills the mind, will become himself the victim of a hunt and thus will experience the nightmarish fear that any being feels when being pursued by another. The game is evidently a mental one. Zaroff who prides himself for having discovered “a new sensation” emphasizes the fact that the hunt cannot be truly enticing when the hunted animal is not endowed with reason: “’I’ve always thought,’ said Rainsford, ‘that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game.”
“I think I may say, in all modesty, that I have done a rare thing. I have invented a new sensation.”(Connell, 10) The general identifies himself as a vocational hunter, who can find pleasure in nothing else: “God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter. My hand was made for the trigger, my father said… I killed my first bear in the Caucasus when I was ten. My whole life has been one prolonged hunt.”(Connell, 11)
The pleasure of killing is based evidently on the feeling of having the power: the hunter derives pleasure from the sport precisely because it is a mental game as much as a physical activity. The hunt is first of all, a mental process, through which the hunter endeavors to conquer the hunted animal or man, by using his sportive skills but most of all his cunning and his intelligence. The mind is thus involved in a dangerous and thrilling experience that must conclude either in defeat and possible death or in victory. Connell’s story emphasizes that, while animals hunt each other for survival purposes, such as the need for food or water, men hunt each other as part of a mental game.
There is a stress thus on the special characteristics of man, who, besides being the only animal that possesses reason, derives a necessary pleasure from mental games and activities. As Zaroff tells Rainsford, man is often the pray of boredom precisely because he can not be reduced to his instincts: “…hunting had ceased to be what you call `a sporting proposition.’ It had become too easy. I always got my quarry.
Always. There is no greater bore than perfection… No animal had a chance with me any more. That is no boast; it is a mathematical certainty. The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason. “(Connell, 14) What is evident here is that, although Zaroff, like Rainsford before, emphasizes that the hunt of humans is justified insomuch as it is an intellectual activity, it is plain that the pleasure derived from establishing power and from achieving the forbidden is actually a return to the subconscious.
Thus, Zaroff’s invention of man hunt as an antidote for boredom shows that there is a significant difference between men and animals. Man has been endowed with a physical anatomical part that exceeds his actual needs: the human brain. The complexity of the human mind is the reason why art, science, technology, religion, philosophy and so on have been invented. It is not by accident thus that Zaroff defines himself as a hunter by profession, ranging among the more usual occupations, such as poetry or engineering.
The fact that the primeval man is said to have been a hunter forms a very interesting parallel to Connell’s story: the author shows thus that even the most instinctual and primitive human activity is eventually turned into a mental game by the restless mind of man. The story reflects this idea through the oppositions between civilization and primitiveness: for instance, Zaroff is extremely well-mannered and educated, and holds on the deserted island all the civilized customs, from his dress, to the food he eats. The fact that he observes civilization and even believes in it emphasizes Connell’s idea that the man hunt is a modern game rather than a primitive one:
“I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war—‘ ‘Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder,’ finished Rainsford stiffly.”(Connell, 16) The comparison between the war and the hunt is also significant: murder is shown to be, in a way, the result of sophistication rather than that of a return to the first primeval instincts. In fact, although hunt can be understood and experienced as a mental pleasure, it is after all, a primeval instinct.
Both the hunter and the hunted creature are reduced to their animal instincts: “Rainsford knew now how an animal at bay feels.”(Connell, 36) Even if the intellect is indeed very much implicated in such a human hunt, and even if the battle between the hunter and the hunted man is an intellectual one, the urge for such a mental game is undoubtedly a subconscious one. Connell seeks to demonstrate in his text the fact that even for the modern man, intellect is not necessarily the most efficient way to come out of the instinctual and primeval state. An intellectual and sophisticated pleasure can still spring from the primitive and animal instincts of man.
The short story is thus constructed to emphasize the main antagonistic characteristics of man, as an animal and a reasonable being at the same time. Zaroff is both an advocator of the man hunt as a mental game, and of the survival principle that Darwin had proposed for all animals- the fact that only the fittest or the strongest survives through selection: “Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong.
Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships–lascars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels–a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them.”(Connell, 17) Thus, the general himself betrays his own reasons for liking the man hunt so much: beyond the intellectual pleasure, there is the instinctual need to assert his own power and superiority against the others. Zaroff reasons thus without considering any moral principles and believes that the game justifies everything.
Thus, Connell’s main contention is that life must be treated seriously. The short story has a definite moral ending, and the hero is initiated into the major truths about humanity. He is transformed from a hunter into a hunted creature, and this teaches him that the pleasure of the game cannot justify murder:
“It’s a game, you see,’ pursued the general blandly. ‘I suggest to one of them that we go hunting. I give him a supply of food and an excellent hunting knife. I give him three hours’ start. I am to follow, armed only with a pistol of the smallest caliber and range. If my quarry eludes me for three whole days, he wins the game. If I find him ‘–the general smiled—‘he loses.’”(Connell, 18) Murder is thus defined as a mental game, an “outdoor chess”, emphasizing the fact that only man is capable of deliberate killing: “Your brain against mine.
Your woodcraft against mine. Your strength and stamina against mine. Outdoor chess!”(Connell, 19) Men enjoy mental activities and the development in this is clearly a product a civilization rather than one of primitiveness: “The general was playing with him! The general was saving him for another day’s sport! The Cossack was the cat; he was the mouse. Then it was that Rainsford knew the full meaning of terror.”(Connell, 38) The terror in the story comes precisely from the idea that one man can exert so much power over another through reason and through mental games, rather than through merely physical strength. The instinct for power is here aided by what is supposed to be the emblem of civilization: the intellect of man.
Thus, the story investigates humanity and the limits between primitiveness and civilization, instincts and reason. The fact that Rainsford refuses to play the game until the end and finishes it by killing Zaroff instead of simply considering he has won, evidences the moralizing purpose of the story: “’I congratulate you,’ he said. ‘You have won the game.’ Rainsford did not smile. ‘I am still a beast at bay,’ he said, in a low, hoarse voice.
“Get ready, General Zaroff.’” The game is thus over, order is re-established and true humanity wins. The story has therefore a definite moralizing purpose: to show that it is not necessarily intellect that can maintain the balance in the human society, but rather the essential principles of morality and humanity. Reason can certainly be transformed into a powerful weapon that can corroborate the instinctual desires of man, but the basic moral principles can ward this danger off. Thus, morality must help and direct human reason.
Connell, Richard. “Biography.” http://www.intercoursewiththedead.com/conbio.htm
— The Most Dangerous Game. New York: Filiquarian Publishing, 2006.
Kippen, David. Short Stories for Students. Gale Research, 1997. www.galegroup.com
Korb, Rena. Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. www.galegroup.com
Lang, Robert. Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Films. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Welsh, Jim. “Hollywood Plays the Most Dangerous Game,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, p. 134-136.
 Kippen, David. Short Stories for Students. Gale Research, 1997. www.galegroup.com