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“The Most Dangerous Game”

“The Most Dangerous Game”

by Richard Connell

THE LITERARY WORK

A short story set in the Caribbean Sea in the early 1920s; published in 1924.

SYNOPSIS

A world-renowned hunter, sailing to the Amazon River to hunt jaguars, falls overboard and swims to a remote island. On the island he meets a wealthy Russian exile who forces him to engage in a deadly hunt in which he is the prey.

Events in History at the Time of the Short Story

The Short Story in Focus

For More Information

Born in New York in 1893, Richard Connell attended Harvard University, worked as a reporter for the New York American news-paper, and served in World War I. Following the war, Connell became a freelance writer. Writing mostly short stories and screenplays, Connell’s most famous story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” established him as one of the premier writers of fiction in the early 1920s.

Events in History at the Time of the Short Story

American interest in Central America and the Caribbean

When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1901, his expansionist attitudes immediately began to affect U.S. foreign policy. One of the first steps of this new foreign policy was intervention in Cuba. American troops had occupied the island since Spain’s withdrawal from the country in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. In 1901 the U.S. pushed for and won the Platt Amendment, which provided for American intervention in Cuba in case an unstable new government failed to protect life, liberty, and property. This amendment was written into Cuba’s constitution.

With this relationship setting the precedent, American intervention in the internal affairs of unstable Caribbean and Latin American governments soon became common. In relation to its to political interests, the United States also developed economic interests in the area, becoming involved in Latin American banking, investments, and the development of natural resources. This constant intervention in Caribbean and Latin American affairs was officially justified in 1905 by Roosevelt’s “Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.” This address to Congress presented Roosevelt’s belief that the European nations must stay out of Latin America, leaving the United States as the only authority to step in and restore order or help create policy in the often turbulent nations. This statement was immediately put into practice in Venezuela, where the unstable and corrupt dictatorship refused to honor its debts to Germany. When Germany bombarded Fort San Carlos in an attempt to recoup its outstanding loans, the American government condemned the attack, dissuading the Germans from further action. The policy of American intervention would continue for the next fifty years, with a highlight of this policy being the construction of the Panama Canal. The strategic passageway was created solely for the strengthening of American shipping and naval power. It is into the turbulent, American-dominated waters of the Caribbean that Rainsford, the central character of “The Most Dangerous Game,” falls overboard in the early 1920s. The region was still largely under the influence of its American neighbor.

ROOSEVELT THE HUNTER

Like General Zaroff in “The Most Dangerous Game,” Theodore Roosevelt was an insatiable hunter who pursued a wide variety of animals all over the globe. On safari in Africa in 1909, Roosevelt and his son killed 512 animals, including 17 lions, 11 elephants, 20 rhinoceroses, 9 giraffes, 47 gazelles, 8 hippopotamuses, 29 zebras, and 9 hyenas, among their other quarry. In Connell’s story, Zaroff describes a similar hunt in Africa during which he was wounded by a charging Cape buffalo. Roosevelt had also hunted the dangerous animal. In the president’s mind, though, the American grizzly bear was the most dangerous animal to hunt; Roosevelt had been nearly mauled by one during a hunting trip in Wyoming.

Big game hunting in South America

In Connell’s era, big game hunting in South America, like Africa, was done mainly by outfitted safari. The most desired species were jaguar, puma, ocelot, red deer, and buffalo. The jaguar, the most powerful and most feared carnivore in South America, was a highly prized trophy. It attains a length of eight feet and can weigh up to four hundred pounds. The great jungle cat was hunted primarily with hounds in the deep forest areas of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay. In some cases, the jaguar was also hunted with meat bait placed where it came to drink, with hunters waiting in canoes nearby. In “The Most Dangerous Game,” Rainsford and his companions are planning to hunt jaguars along the Amazon River in Brazil.

The Russian revolution and its refugees

The final decades of the nineteenth century marked turbulent times for Russia. After the emancipation of the Russian serfs, or peasant laborers, in 1861, the country as a whole began to expect that greater reform was unavoidable. The people would ultimately call for the revolutionary over-throw of the czar (or tsar), the autocratic emperor of Russia, but they first took a milder approach. On January 9, 1905, a priest named Georgi Gapon led a march in St. Petersburg to petition Czar Nicholas II for reforms. In response, the czar sent his soldiers, some Cossack troops, against the marchers, and thousands were ruthlessly killed. The incident came to be known as Bloody Sunday, the day on which the czar began to lose the allegiance of his people.

Socialist ideas, particularly the ideas of Karl Marx, were circulating through the nation in the early 1900s, and they gained adherents after 1905. Different Marxist groups appeared, with contrary ideas about the stages Russia must go through before becoming a socialist country. Meanwhile, the educated elite, the intelligentsia, started making a more conscious commitment to remove the czar.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, a resurgence of patriotism swept the nation and the revolutionary movement slowed. Russia, however, experienced a string of devastating military defeats, and the economy suffered. Unrest spread rapidly, with the people blaming the czar for the deaths of millions of young Russians in the military disasters and for the abysmal living conditions at home. Workers’ strikes and demonstrations were followed by rebellion. Political radicals established a provisional government of their own in Russia in early 1917. The czar and his forces were unable to regain control of the situation. Shortly thereafter, his military leaders recommended that the czar abdicate, and he did.

After the czar abdicated, Russia continued to fight in World War I under the leadership of the country’s provisional government. A socialist leader of this government, Alexander Kerensky, sponsored a new offensive in the war, but it failed. There was also little improvement in conditions at home. Food shortages mounted, and the new leaders failed to meet the people’s demand for a constitution or for redistribution of land and money in Russia.

The Civil War

Some conservatives attempted to seize power from Kerensky, choosing a Cossack general, Lavrenti Kornilov, to lead their counterrevolutionary movement. To fend them off, Kerensky asked for help from the Bolsheviks, the group of Marxists led by Vladimir I. Lenin. The Bolsheviks were radicals who believed Russia did not have to pass through a capitalist phase before becoming a socialist country, and in the end they prevailed. After helping to defeat Kornilov, they seized control of the government themselves in late 1917.

Malcontents tried to raise armies to oppose these radical rulers, which led to a civil war (1918-1921) between the Bolsheviks (also called the Reds) and their opponents (the Whites). During the Civil War, the Cossacks were divided, some fighting for the anticommunist Whites and others siding with the Bolshevik Reds. The horrors of the struggle were monumental:

The Civil War was a brutal and destructive bloodletting during which both sides engaged in wanton slaughter and inhumane reprisal. As the armies swept back and forth across the country, millions of people were killed or died of hunger and exposure. Millions more found themselves caught up in the savage carnage … killing and looting because someone had previously brutalized them.

(Baradat, p. 67)

This carnage, as well as the gruesome experiences of World War I, no doubt desensitized some participants to the value of human life. Such horrors help explain the cold-heartedness of the Russian emigrant General Zaroff in “The Most Dangerous Game.” When his guest objects to his disregard for the value of human life, Zaroff dismisses such concerns by mentioning World War I: “Surely your experiences in the war—” (Connell, “The Most Dangerous Game,” p. 81).

The Bolsheviks were victorious in the Civil War in Russia and finally gained full control of the country in 1921. During the war, a pattern of emigration had begun as the enemies of the revolutionaries left the country. The emigration continued when the war ended—-numerous conservatives fled possible retribution for their role against the now-legitimate Bolshevik government. Between 1917 and 1921, it is estimated that 2 million Russians left the country. Thirty thousand were Cossacks who had been fighting with the White armies. The greatest wave of them left Russia in early 1920, many wearing small bags of Cossack earth around their necks as a memento of a homeland they never expected to see again; the refugees spread through the world in search of new places to live. In Connell’s story, both General Zaroff and his servant Ivan are Cossacks who were forced to flee the country some-time during this period (1917-1921) because of their loyalty to the czar.

Bigotry in America

The early 1920s was a difficult time for immigrants to the United States, who faced not only social and economic problems, but also the prejudiced and often widespread belief that their alien status was “tainting” American society. One of the greatest complaints stemmed from the theory that immigrants were inundating the labor market and lowering the American standard of living. One popular writer of the period, Kenneth Roberts, warned that unrestricted immigration would create “a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and southeastern Europe” (Roberts in Bailyn, p. 334).

With Americans becoming more worried about the possible adverse affects of immigration, public debate in the early twentieth century focused on the best techniques for restricting the entrance of immigrants into the country. The first attempt to better regulate immigration was the Literacy Test of 1917; this attempt failed completely because, contrary to popular belief, most immigrants could read and write. The next attempt was more elaborate, involving set immigration quotas by nationality. In 1921 Congress set strict quotas for each European country. Even more drastic was the National Origins Act of 1924, which initiated even lower immigration quotas. These new regulations assigned higher quotas to English, German, and Scandinavian immigrants while attempting to exclude Italians, Poles, and Slavs almost entirely. The new laws also completely restricted the immigration of Asians, Africans, and Hispanics.

THE COSSACKS

The Cossacks were a group of peoples from the region just north of the Black and Caspian seas. They had a history of independence and received special privileges from the Russian government for their fine military service. During the course of their assistance to various Russian monarchs, the Cossack peoples gradually lost their independence, and by the late eighteenth century, all Cossack males were required to serve in the Russian army for twenty years. Their primary duty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to suppress revolutionary activities within the country.

In “The Most Dangerous Game,” Zaroff’s comments regarding ethnic types reflect the sentiments of antinimmigrant activists such as Kenneth Roberts. Zaroff describes his hunting of men to Rainsford and justifies it by saying, “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” (”The Most Dangerous Game,” p. 81). In the early 1920s, this attitude was not at all uncommon among white Americans.

The Short Story in Focus

The plot

Sanger Rainsford, a world-renowned hunter, sails aboard a yacht bound for the Amazon, where he plans to hunt jaguars with several companions. While passing Man-Trap Island, a foreboding locale feared by the local sailors, Rainsford hears shots echoing from the island. Standing on the rail to get a better look, Rains-ford falls overboard and nearly drowns. As the yacht sails on, Rainsford realizes his only hope is to swim for the island, where he at least knows there are other people.

On the island, Rainsford finds evidence of a hunting expedition: blood on the grass and a shell casing from a small caliber cartridge. Following the hunter’s footprints, he is amazed to find an opulent chateau built among the island’s dense jungle growth. Rainsford is met at the front door by an imposing giant of a man who points a gun at him and shows no comprehension when Rainsford addresses him. Fortunately, the owner of the house, General Zaroff, arrives and introduces himself; he turns out to be a fellow hunter and avid reader of Rainsford’s hunting books. Rainsford is immediately impressed by Zaroff s elegant sophistication and the refinements he has maintained even in the midst of his primitive surroundings.

Over a gourmet meal, Zaroff explains that he is a Cossack nobleman who was forced to flee Russia when the czar abdicated. His burly servant, Ivan, who is also a Cossack, traveled with him. After successful hunting expeditions all over the world, Zaroff had become despondent when he realized that he no longer felt any challenge in the sport. His greatest disappointment, he explains to Rainsford, is that animals are unable to reason, and so are easily conquered. Because of this failing in the animal species, Zaroff has created his own hunting grounds on the islands where he is able to hunt the most dangerous game—prey that is able to reason. Rains-ford realizes fearfully that Zaroff hunts men on his island.

Undaunted by Rainsford’s arguments against his new variety of hunting, Zaroff shows off his cellar, in which he has several sailors imprisoned. He tells Rainsford that he gives the men sturdy clothing and a knife, sets them loose, and then hunts them. If they can survive for three days in the jungle, Zaroff promises, he will give them their freedom. Zaroff laments that the motley sailors are poor sport and that he misses the excitement of a real challenge. Rainsford comprehends that he will be the next target.

The next day Rainsford is given clothing, a knife, and a three-hour head start into the jungle. After carefully concealing his trail, Rainsford is disconcerted when he sees Zaroff easily tracking him. Rainsford, understanding that he cannot elude Zaroff, sets a trap for his hunter. Zaroff s quick reflexes save him from serious injury; nevertheless he is forced to return home to dress his wound.

During Zaroff s next pursuit, another trap set by Rainsford kills one of Zaroff s prized hunting dogs. Though upset over the loss of the dog, Zaroff commends Rainsford’s abilities and is excited by the thrill of the hunt. Rainsford sets yet another trap, and this time it kills Zaroff s faithful Ivan. As the hounds close in on him, Rains-ford leaps off a cliff into the ocean. Zaroff, though upset at losing both Ivan and Rainsford, still enjoys a luxurious dinner and a leisurely evening. As he prepares for sleep, Zaroff is startled when Rainsford steps out from behind a curtain. Rainsford kills Zaroff during the final struggle between the hunter and the hunted.

Darwinism in the early twentieth century

When Theodore Roosevelt began his expansionist foreign policies just after the turn of the century, there was a philosophical rationale for such aggressive foreign policy via certain new ideas that had come into favor following the Civil War. These ideas, largely based on Charles Darwin’s treatise On the Origin of Species, had generated great debate and were considered quite revolutionary. Roosevelt and other expansionist-minded Americans found Darwinian phrases—such as natural selection, survival of the fittest, and the law of the jungle—to be perfectly suited to their attitudes about foreign policy. Roosevelt and other proponents of this new wave of “Manifest Destiny” (a term that had been used in the 1840s to describe the inevitability of U.S. expansionism), believed that the United States, as a result of its emergence as a world power, was a fit nation, and was furthermore destined to instruct backward countries on how to better manage their affairs.

Attitudes such as these led to assertions that the United States must gain possessions in the Caribbean Sea, Pacific Ocean, and Far East. Included in this expansionist doctrine was a belief that the United States must also maintain its military superiority. Roosevelt warned Americans against a weak stance in foreign affairs. “If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and the risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger people will pass us by” (Roosevelt in Bailyn, p. 269). Zaroffs attitudes in “The Most Dangerous Game” follow the same thread of reasoning. Zaroff tells Rainsford, “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 1 not use my gift?” (”The Most Dangerous Game,” p. 81).

Sources

The specific sources that helped inspire “The Most Dangerous Game” are not known. It is, however, possible to draw parallels between events of Connell’s period and material in his story, parallels that suggest possible influences in its creation. The attitudes and setting of the story reflect an interest in the major political issues of the early twentieth century, mainly Roosevelt’s expansionist policies and the emerging fear of immigration. Roosevelt’s hunting exploits were well chronicled in the media, and the story’s focus on this activity, especially in the Caribbean, which was a major part of Roosevelt’s expansionist politics, may reflect national preoccupations at the time. The fear of communism was another growing concern in Connell’s America. His use of a Russian exile as a central character was probably inspired by the recent turmoil in Russia.

Publication and reception

Richard Connell was one of the most prolific short fiction writers of the early twentieth century, writing more than three hundred short stories during his career. Several of Connell’s stories were made into films; “The Most Dangerous Game,” Connell’s best-known work and continually in print since 1924, has inspired several film versions, such as The Most Dangerous Game (1932), A Game of Death (1945), and Run for the Sun (1956). The story was also a success with the critics, winning Connell an O. Henry Award for short fiction in 1924.

For More Information

Acton, Edward. Rethinking the Russian Revolution. London: Edward Arnold, 1990.

Bailyn, Bernard, ed. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Lexington: Heath, 1992.

Baradat, Leon P. Soviet Political Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Connell, Richard. “The Most Dangerous Game.” In O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1925.

Kunitz, Stanley J. Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1942.

Merli, Frank J. Makers of American Diplomacy from Benjamin Franklin to Henry Kissinger. New York: Scribner’s, 1974.

Miller, Nathan. Roosevelt: A Life. New York: William Morrow, 1992.

Steinbrunner, Chris. Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Stone, Norman and Michael Glenny. The Other Russia. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

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