The title immediately introduces the ironic implications of the story. The word “game,” in a tale about two hunters, signifies both the competitive nature of their sport and the victims of it. The most dangerous game is one in which the lives of the hunter and the hunted are equally at risk, and this occurs only when both are men. Rainsford presumes that hunting is a sport involving no more moral consequences than a game such as baseball; he further demonstrates his naïveté by assuming that his victims, big-game animals, have no feelings. These two beliefs, based as they are on Rainsford’s certainty that man is superior to animal, are challenged when he encounters General Zaroff, who has pushed the same ideas to their inhumane limits in his madness.
When Rainsford falls off a boat near Ship-Trap Island, he views the sea as his enemy and the island as his salvation, despite the curious rumors surrounding the place. In the same way, he sees safety in the chateau of General Zaroff. Looming unexpectedly over an otherwise deserted landscape, the chateau represents civilization and Rainsford’s hope of a return to New York. The image of civilization is confirmed when Rainsford meets the general, who wears clothes designed by a London tailor, drinks rare brandy, and serves gourmet meals on fine china. A man of refined taste, the general denies himself nothing, including the luxury of continuing his greatest passion, hunting. Rainsford, a skilled hunter himself, is intrigued. What kind of game, he wonders, can be hunted on an isolated island? When the general informs him that he stocks the island with the only animal that can reason, Rainsford is aghast to realize that Zaroff hunts men. This perversion of sport repels him, and he rejects the general’s defense of manhunting even as he is fascinated by the man’s madness.
Zaroff’s insanity has a logic that parallels Rainsford’s defense of hunting big-game animals. Asserting that “the weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure,” Zaroff finds justice in hunting the “scum of the earth.” Luring sailors and deserters to his island by means of lights that indicate a channel where none exists, Zaroff imprisons his prey for as long as it takes to get them into excellent physical condition. Most victims choose to be hunted, because their only alternative is to be handed over to Ivan, who prefers prolonged torture to a swift kill. Zaroff believes these men have no rights and no feelings; like Rainsford, he assumes superiority to anything he can outwit and conquer.
Rainsford finds his assumptions shattered when his refusal to hunt another man with Zaroff turns him into the hunted. As he fights to stay alive for three days (the span of Zaroff’s challenge), Rainsford feels the unreasoning fear of being trapped, and he saves his life by copying the instinctive behavior of hunted animals. He comes to recognize the inherent unfairness of Zaroff’s game, and indeed, of all hunting; with only a knife and meager provisions, he must fight a man who has guns, trained dogs, knowledge of the island, and a safe place to retreat for rest. Trying to use the island’s geography to his best advantage, Rainsford is ironically forced to return to the sea, his former enemy, in order to delude Zaroff into thinking that he has committed suicide. The final scene takes place in the most civilized setting, the locked bedroom where the general feels most secure.
In this last reversal of the plot, Rainsford refers to himself as “a beast at bay”; with nothing to lose, having trapped the general, Rainsford knows he must commit murder or be murdered. The scruples that prevented him from joining the general’s game in the beginning dissolve under the imperative to defend himself. This encounter between the two, conducted in the language of fencing, further confuses the distinction between sport and killing, civilization and uncontrolled brutality. Rainsford’s victory, within the terms that the general has defined, may be no victory at all: He decides to sleep the night in the general’s bed and finds it comfortable; the hunted has succeeded, but only by becoming like his hunter—if not as mad, at least as morally suspect.
"The Most Dangerous Game" opens with a conversation between two men, Whitney and Rainsford. The pair are on a yacht headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the time of the story, they find themselves somewhere in the Caribbean. Both men are aficionados of big-game hunting. They discuss the ability of an animal to understand a hunt. Rainsford believes that animals are incapable of feeling or understanding any human emotion.
Shortly after their discussion, Whitney retires for the evening. Rainsford decides to stay on deck to smoke his pipe. He suddenly hears the sound of gunshots and in his attempt to see the source of the sound, he falls into the water. After a brief moment of panic, Rainsford rallies and decides to swim toward the source of the gunshots. When he finally makes it ashore, he falls asleep.
The next morning he decides to investigate his surroundings. He finds a pool of blood and surmises that it is from the prey that was shot the night before. Near the blood he sees the footprints of hunting boots. He elects to follow them. After a long hike Rainsford arrives at a palatial estate. He is greeted at the door by a large man wielding a gun. A second man enters and explains that his assistant, Ivan, is deaf and dumb. The man is dressed elegantly and has an air of sophistication about him. He introduces himself as General Zaroff.
Zaroff is familiar with Rainsford's book on hunting snow leopards. After getting settled, Rainsford and Zaroff dine together and discuss the merits of hunting. It is during this conversation that Rainsford learns that Zaroff hunts men on the island. As a result of becoming bored with the available game in the world, Zaroff has turned to hunting those that can reason and present a greater challenge. Rainsford is horrified by Zaroff's revelation. Zaroff invites Rainsford to hunt with him but Rainsford declines citing exhaustion.
That night Rainsford is unable to sleep. The next day he learns that he is either to serve as Zaroff's newest prey or fall into the burly, violent hands of Ivan. He elects the former and immediately sets off into the jungle. After a few hours of zigzagging through the dense jungle, he climbs a tree to hide from his adversary. Incredibly, despite the elusive trail, Zaroff is able to easily find Rainsford. However, in order to prolong the fun of the game, Zaroff leaves Rainsford without harming him.
Rainsford panics and is subject to a few other encounters with Zaroff. Each time he gets closer and closer to defeating his foe through the use of primitive traps. Unfortunately, he is unable to trap his pursuer. He does manage to kill one of Zaroff's prized dogs and Ivan. In the final chase, Rainsford dives off the edge of the cliff into the ocean. Zaroff is disappointed to have lost his worthy adversary and returns to his house crestfallen.
After a hearty meal and much reminiscing of the day's events, Zaroff decides to retire for the evening. Upon entering his bedroom, he is confronted by Rainsford, who has been hiding behind the bed curtains. Zaroff is delighted that he has been defeated. However, Rainsford is not willing to let the game end there. He challenges Zaroff to one final duel. Zaroff accepts and says that whoever loses shall be fed to the dogs, and the winner would sleep in Zaroff's bed. The story ends with an indirect ending-- Rainsford cites that he had never slept in a better bed.