Zaroff explains to Rainsford that he is familiar with his work because he reads everything on the subject of hunting. Rainsford compliments Zaroff on his collection of heads, indicating that the Cape buffalo is the largest he’s ever seen. Zaroff explains that the buffalo charged him, causing him to fracture his skull. Rainsford remarks that he thinks that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous game of all. With a curious smile, Zaroff replies that he is wrong: the Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous.
Zaroff then explains that he, in fact, hunts a type of animal that is more dangerous. Rainsford is intrigued. He questions Zaroff about the animal, wanting to know how it got to the island. Rainsford guesses that Zaroff has imported tigers. Zaroff admits that the hunting of tigers ceased to interest him long ago.
Zaroff pulls out a cigarette and tells Rainsford that he should hunt with Zaroff. Rainsford is still perplexed by the type of game that Zaroff hunts. Zaroff, clearly amused by Rainsford’s curiosity, explains that Zaroff will be impressed by his new invention. Before revealing the particularities of his hunting practices, Zaroff begins to tell the tale of how he came to hunt on the island.
He tells Rainsford that he believes that he was made to hunt, much like other men are called to their respective vocations. Zaroff’s father was very wealthy, allowing him financial freedom after the fall of the Czar in Russia. Unlike many of his Cossack compatriots, Zaroff was not forced into menial labor abroad. He was able to secure his money through investments, allowing him the opportunity to pursue his biggest passion—hunting. As Zaroff explains, his entire life has been one long hunt.
After Zaroff’s departure from Russia, he moved around in search of thrilling prey. Eventually, he was bored by the animals that were available for hunt in various parts of the world. Nothing could satisfy his desire for a stimulating hunt. As he had no desire to live with such dissatisfaction, Zaroff decided to do something. Zaroff asks Rainsford if he can guess why hunting had ceased to be stimulating for him. Zaroff brags that no animal was smart enough for him—he had become completely bored with the sport.
As he continues to explicate, Rainsford leans across the table, eager to hear the solution that the general had come up with. Zaroff reveals that he had to invent a new animal to hunt. Rainsford finds this difficult to believe. Zaroff assures him that he is telling the truth. Zaroff pushes the conversation along by asking Rainsford what the three most important qualities of an ideal prey. He continues on by saying that the animal must have courage, cunning, and the ability to reason. Rainsford is confused because, as he tells Zaroff, no animal can reason. Zaroff points out that there is in fact one animal that can reason.
Rainsford finally grasps the meaning behind Zaroff’s cryptic statements: Zaroff hunts men. He can’t bring himself to believe that this could be true, but Zaroff assures him that he is not lying. Rainsford simply cannot comprehend how a man so civilized could take part in such a barbaric practice. Zaroff explains that he views his sport similarly to war. Rainsford is disgusted by this comparison because he feels that what Zaroff does is more akin to murder. Zaroff finds Rainsford’s reaction amusing and incredibly naïve. Zaroff encourages him to try the hunt but Rainsford declines.
In this portion of the text, Rainsford and Zaroff begin to discuss hunting in a more detailed manner. Their in-depth conversation slowly builds to one of the climaxes of the story. Zaroff’s obsession with hunting is further elucidated as is his frustration with the lack of challenge in the hunting of large game.
The time frame of the story is revealed through the mention of the expulsion of Cossacks after the fall of the Czar. One can estimate that the story is taking place sometime in the 1920s. In addition, some stereotypes regarding the Cossacks are presented by Zaroff’s narration of the history of the group.
Zaroff explicitly cites the chief motivation behind hunting on the secluded island as a growing boredom with the large game present in the rest of the world. This statement perplexes Rainsford who has hunted some of the most dangerous game himself. Rainsford’s quest for the meaning behind Zaroff’s words is a form of an intellectual hunt, one which yields a shocking prey.
The tension of the storyline is highest in this passage where the central revelation is finally made, after a series of hints. It is here that the true duplicity of Zaroff’s character is visible to the reader. The highly polished ambiance of the conversation is negated by the extremely barbaric nature of Zaroff’s sport. Even more disturbing is Zaroff’s inability to recognize that his pastime is inhumane.
Rainsford is perplexed by the split in Zaroff’s psyche. On the one hand, the man has proven to be the most gracious of hosts. Yet, at the same time, he is admitting to what Rainsford equates to murder. The lack of sympathy that Zaroff shows for his victims is astonishing to Zaroff. Even more disturbing to Rainsford is Zaroff’s desire to bring him into the game.