I know that a lot of people end up being assigned this story for school and homework–I never was.
I did take a lot of English classes as electives at university because I’m a book nerd and also needed a break from the crazy world of linguistics. But I ended up reading this story because I got an anthology of a bunch of short stories for free at a little used bookstore back when I was living in the city and I thought it would be interesting to finally sit down and read some of them.
A lot of it is going to be stuff that’s taught in school so it’s not like no work has been done on this story before but I think it could be useful to have someone talk about it with a slightly differing perspective. I can anger some English professors because I have differing opinions. There are lots of possibilities here.
The Most DANGEROUS Animal
So there are a lot of things going on with the story that you can kind of zero in on. I don’t have a lot on the history of the story. Like what time is it set in, what are the cultural influences and there’s some talk about war and race and stuff like that that I think you can go into more detail with.
For this review though I want to talk about what I think is the central theme or idea. And that is humans being the most dangerous game.
Of course, we’re talking about hunting here and even though I grew up surrounded by acres of hillbilly country where people got two weeks off from school during hunting season, I have not personally hunted so I don’t know anything about hunting on a technical level but I can theorize a few things about what’s going on in the story.
I think what’s a good starting point is to talk about the difference between these very aggressive dangerous animals that are talked about at the beginning of the story and the experience of hunting a human instead.
So when you hunt an animal, it is argued in the story, they aren’t as dangerous as humans because they can’t think critically about the situation they find themselves in. What they have is a survival Instinct which means that they want to survive either by running away and hiding or fighting back directly but they can’t comprehend their situation and problem solved their way out of it. But humans can.
The Run-And-Hide Method
There are three parts to the story broken up by the three days that are the main character is given to survive on the island.
The first day he runs and hides. He makes up this really complicated rail that loops back on itself and hides his tracks and makes it the most difficult for him to be hunted and then he hides in a tree. He’s expecting that his pursuers won’t be able to follow his trail and he’ll be able to just hide out in a couple of days while they go searching for him.
This is very much the kind of approach an animal would have. Granted, an animal probably wouldn’t think critically about hiding its tracks and mapping its trail as much as Rainsford does but the running away and hiding is basically an animal instinct.
In this case, it doesn’t work because Zaroff has hunted many an animal before and they know how to decipher a complicated trail and what kind of attempts an animal running away will made so they’re able to easily track them down. It helps that this is his Island and he’s hunted lots of animals and people on it before so he knows the terrain really well so hiding isn’t going to do much here.
Instead of taking on his prey through Zaroff decides to go back home and wait till the next day to actually take down his game. Because this ultimately is just a game for him and if it finishes too soon it’s not fun–real serial killer vibes here.
The Trap is Set!
We have our second day where instead of hiding like before Rainsford sets a trap for Zaroff.
Now, this is something that an animal definitely wouldn’t do but it’s something that a human would do. He’s problem-solving and concludes that only eliminating his pursuer will result in him surviving the island. So a trap is set and Rainsford then decides to find a nice hiding place to wait until the trap is sprung.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either and a trap is sprung by one of the hunting dogs instead of Zaroff himself and Rainsford is chased down by the surviving hunting dogs. He jumps into the ocean to escape from them and Zaroff returns home assuming that he will have the next day to track down and find his prey–the final day.
Now we’re going to be venturing into some spoiler territory here because we have to talk about the end of the story so just go and read it. It’s 50 pages long. You can find audiobooks of it too if you just want to sit down for 40 minutes and listen to somebody read it to you.
The Final Battle
We get to the night of our second day and are Zaroff settles in at home to go to sleep and instead of peacefully going off to bed Rainsford has crept the bedroom.
The roles have shifted. Instead of our pray sitting around waiting for the hunter to come and find them or fall into a trap, Rainsford has become the hunter and tracked down they’re pursuer. This is another level of problem-solving because hiding didn’t work so why not take the fight directly to them and a one-to-one confrontation?
I think it can be argued though that this is a little bit animalistic and that it is the fight response to any threatening situation. An animal is likely to just pick a fight with a predator if it decides it’s not going to be able to run away. But I think the clever way of sneaking into the bedroom and waiting until a vulnerable moment is a very human thing to do.
And this is when the story ends very abruptly with a fight and then we hear that Rainsford has settled in for the night in the bed of the man he has just is supposedly murdered. And instead of ending as prey, he ends as hunter.
So what does this ultimately have to do with humans being more dangerous than animals?
I think what’s important is that an animal probably would have continued to use the run-and-hide method until directly challenged by their hunter. Whereas the reason that the human prey in this story survives is because he can adapt to his situation.
So I guess what makes humans dangerous isn’t so much that they’re just smarter, in general, I think it’s because they can adapt rapidly to whatever environment or situation they find themselves in. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve fallen into a routine quickly to cope or deal with a new environment or a new state of being.
(Definitely not talking about how it’s 2020 because I’m trying to stay upbeat in the face of all of what 2020 has thrown at me.)