The most obvious theme of "The Most Dangerous Game" is that which arises from the relationship of the hunter and the hunted. At the very beginning of story, Rainsford and Zaroff are presented as equals. Both characters are well-accomplished big-game hunters. As the story unfolds, however, their roles change. Rainsford is thrust into the position of the hunted. However, he tries to undermine the game by setting traps for the hunter. Rainsford's form of hunting is passive whereas Zaroff's is active.
The fragility of this relationship between the hunted and the hunter is not only displayed in the resolution of the story but also through various passages. For example, Zaroff describes several interactions with animals that resulted in injury on his part.
Murder vs. hunting
The central moral theme of the story involves the distinction between murder and hunting. Rainsford sees a clear difference between the two, hence his disgust at Zaroff's hunting of men. Zaroff, on the other hand, sees his pastime as similar to a war.
This particular theme remains a source of tension throughout the story. As Rainsford is hunted, he does his best to try to destroy Zaroff through a series of traps. In the end, it is implied that Rainsford has proven to be the greater hunter. Rainsford's last line of the story indicates that he slept in Zaroff's bed. Such an action can be read as a metaphor for his unwilling conversion into a hunter of men.
Emphasis on color
The darkness presented in the first scene of the story continues through the hunt and the eventual demise of Zaroff. In addition, there are many references to the color black. Ivan is described as having a long, black beard. Zaroff has black eyebrows and a black beard. The eyes of many of the characters are described as black pools. The thematic use of darkness and the color black adds to the suspenseful, dramatic timbre of the story.
War as a hunt
The theme of war as a hunt resonates through the back story of "The Most Dangerous Game." Zaroff explicitly compares his game to warfare, as a form of justification. He also mentions the plight of the Cossacks, an ethnic group pushed out of Russia after the fall of the Czar. The manner in which they were hunted is similar to the way Zaroff hunts his current prey as the Cossacks were known as fierce warriors.
Questioning of accepted logic
Zaroff has a rather demented way of viewing the world, one that Rainsford has a difficult time understanding. Zaroff points out numerous times that the hunting of men is not much unlike the hunting of wild animals. Moreover, men have long participated in socially sanctioned activities, such as wars, that result in the death of the opposing party. Zaroff's comparisons and the subsequent hunt constantly raise the question of the validity of any type of hunting or war.
The irony of humanity
Zaroff is a man of contradictions. While being an extremely "civilized" man in the sense that he is knowledgeable about aspects of high culture, he also presents himself as barbaric. The entire island is a contradiction. The lavish house stands starkly against the dark jungle where the hunt occurs. In some ways, Zaroff can be seen as a stand-in for humanity. The same irony that Zaroff presents in "The Most Dangerous Game" is also present at the pinnacle of civilization today - highly advanced and educated civilizations still murdering each other over land and resources.
Inversion of roles
Throughout the story there are a series of role inversions. For example, the hunter becomes the hunted twice. The first time, Rainsford is forced into the position of prey by Zaroff; the second, it is Rainsford that hunts Zaroff. The inversion of roles continues until the end of the story, at which point Rainsford metaphorically takes on the role of Zaroff by sleeping in his bed. Rainsford has ultimately been transformed by Zaroff's game.
The Most Dangerous Game Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Most Dangerous Game is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.