Hunting is not a sport. In a sport, both sides should know they’re in the game.
I saw these quotes on Twitter recently, and instantly thought of General Zaroff. For the two or three of you who didn’t read his tale in high school, let me elaborate: General Zaroff is the urbanely diabolical antagonist in The Most Dangerous Game by American author Richard Connell. I think just about everyone reads this short story in school, because even if it’s ancient by student reckoning, it has a lot to say about human nature that’s just as relevant today as it was when published in 1924.
The protagonist is Sanger Rainsford, a big-game hunter on a yacht in the Caribbean, en route to South America to hunt jaguars with a friend, and he’s blithely dismissive of what we now call animal rights: “Who cares about how a jaguar feels?... They’ve no understanding... Be a realist... the world is made up of two classes --- the hunters and the hunted. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”
Nowadays, I think, most of us understand that such arrogance is only asking for trouble or tempting fate. But Rainsford doesn’t, so he’s about to be made aware, in the most vivid way imaginable, of his hubris: forced to switch places and become the hunted, he’ll see things from the jaguar’s point of view.
Alone, Rainsford later accidentally falls overboard and, hearing a pistol shot, swims toward it. He comes ashore on a tropical island, deserted but for a palatial chateau, which turns out to be General Zaroff’s residence. The General has one servant, a Schwarzeneggar-like deaf-mute named Ivan. Aware of Rainsford’s fame as a hunter, Zaroff is ecstatic to see him, explaining that hunting is his life. A wealthy Russian, Zaroff owns the island and spends his days there, hunting, and In the course of his tale, casually reveals he’s gotten tired of hunting animals because they’re no challenge: he’s the perfect hunter, and they can’t reason. So he’s had to bring in an animal that does:
“But no animal can reason,’ objected Rainsford.
“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”
“But you can’t mean---” gasped Rainsford.
“And why not?”
“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”
“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”
“Hunting? Good God, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”
The general laughed with entire good humour. He regarded Rainsford quizzically. “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbours romantic ideas about the value of human life.”
Huh? Ah, there we come to the crux of it: the General’s chillingly amoral worldview:
“Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not?”
And when Rainsford refuses to subscribe to Zaroff’s twisted philosophy, the General winds up hunting Rainsford across the island. Without giving away the climax, you can bet by story’s end Rainsford will be a lot more empathetic with the animals he’s hitherto hunted.
So. General Zaroff. Yikes. How does humanity come up with these types? Because the General is not an unrealistic villain. Oh, no, quite the contrary. He’s all too realistic. There really are people out there like him. And Connell, don’t forget, was writing this story well in advance of the Second World War.
However, as a literary villain, Zaroff makes a remarkable villain, for four reasons:
First, he’s blatantly candid about why he does what he does. He makes no effort to sugarcoat or dissemble about his hobby, and he doesn’t use euphemisms. It is what it is: he hunts people. And we’re not playing touch football here, people.
Second, he makes no attempt to foist his outlook off on an unhappy childhood, or abusive parents, or anything like that. He’s no tortured soul, no Norman Bates out to somehow get back at his mommy. He’s actually very happy doing what he does, thanks very much.
Third, his worldview is utterly chilling in its lack of morality, which is morbidly fascinating (from a safe distance, anyway) and leads us to question how someone could come to such a philosophy. Zaroff is not insane: rather, he’s pure psychopath --- long before Hannibal Lecter came on the scene.
Finally, Connell goes to great pains portraying the General as such an otherwise civilized, sophisticated person. It’s an amazingly ironic contrast. Zaroff appreciates fine wines and good food, his tastes in clothing and literature and music are impeccable --- in short, he’s a charming, sophisticated cosmopolite --- except for that one little thing, which he doesn’t even regard as a thing. No, no, he says, he doesn’t murder people. Because, somehow, in his mind, they’re not really people, they’re just... things. Connell was prescient --- it’s Nazi ideology almost a decade before the Nazis came to power, and one of the questions people just couldn’t understand about Hitler’s Germany: how could an otherwise civilized people do such things? Writing of the Nazis, Hannah Arendt called it “the banality of evil,” and it’s an apt phrase that also describes Zaroff.
So, while I think it’s safe to say you wouldn’t want to meet Zaroff in person, either on a dark city street or a tropical island... as far as writing villains goes, Connell certainly came up with a fascinating and enduring one.