Failing to Recognize an Inner Life

In its issue of 19 January 1924, Collier's published The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Edward Connell jr. This now quite famous story — repeatedly anthologized and adapted for film,[1] for radio, and for television — is of Sanger Rainsford, a big-game hunter.

At the start of the story, Rainsford and company are on a yacht, moving through foggy darkness in the Caribbean. In reference to their planned destination, a companion asserts Great sport, hunting.

The best sport in the world, agreed Rainsford.

For the hunter, amended Whitney. Not for the jaguar.

Don't talk rot, Whitney, said Rainsford. You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?

Perhaps the jaguar does, observed Whitney.

Bah! They've no understanding.

Even so, I rather think they understand one thing — fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.

Rainsford dismisses this. The world is made up of two classes — the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters. On this score, his luck does not hold.

Shortly after this conversation, he falls from the yacht as he goes to the railing to listen, having heard shots in the distance. He decides that his best chances for survival are in swimming in the direction of those shots. As he does so, he hears a cry from an animal that he does not recognize, except in-so-far as it is at the extremes of anguish and of terror. Then he hears yet another shot. Continuing to swim in that direction, he finds his way to an island. Thence, he makes his way to the hunter, General Zaroff.

Zaroff recognizes Rainsford by name, and expresses himself as pleased to think that he might now have a hunting companion. But Zaroff hunts men; as game; as the most dangerous game. The resulting argument between Rainsford and Zaroff is rather like the earlier argument between Whitney and Rainsford, with a terrible amplification. And, because Rainsford refuses to become a hunter of men, he is made the game. He is forced into a life-or-death contest that he never sought, against someone whose skills as a hunter are greater, and who additionally has assistance and weapons that Rainsford does not.

Hearing a sound that he has known — the howls and barks of a dog pack when on the hunt — Rainsford learns the fear of which Whitney had spoken; Rainsford comes to know how an animal at bay feels, because he is now an animal at bay.

I don't imagine any of you learning anything from this story about the perspective of the hunted. But there are as well the perspectives of hunters — the perspective of Zaroff, of course; but also the earlier perspective of Rainsford. Those of us who recoil at killing for sport find it easy to imagine Rainsford as a changed man, who has learned an important lesson, in a terrifying way. But Rainsford was capable of such change, because he is not a psychopath, not a sadist, nor too great a fool to learn. He was simply a man who was very mistaken. Perhaps better men would be better creatures of the same time and of the same place, but he was not truly a bad man.


Theunis Botha was guiding hunters who stumbled into a group of elephants. A female grabbed and lifted him by her trunk; she was shot, and fell, crushing him. My reäction to the story wasn't one of regret. But someone about whom I care (rather a lot) has written

I hope he suffered. I hope he felt every crush and the same sense of helpless panic animals feel when being chased, trapped and shot to death by well-armed hunters.

And I think — my God! — why? What good would such suffering do? It is unlikely that Mr Botha rejoiced in the fear and in the pain that he caused; rather, it is far more likely that, as with Rainsford before he met Zaroff, the fear and pain of the hunted did not register with him. If Botha were a man rather like Rainsford, here he had no time to learn from suffering. Can we recognize the inner life of Theunis Botha and still wish terrible punishment upon him for failing to recognize the inner lives of beasts?


[1] See especially the classic movie version of 1932.

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