There are several themes for this short story, but most important among them would be the theme of cruelty and violence, the theme of morality, the theme of individual versus society, and the theme of revenge.
Cruelty and violence are manifest in that Zaroff and his crew purposefully lure people to their lair in order to hunt them down like animals.
Morality comes into play since Rainsford is a renowned hunter in his own right, and he recognizes Zaroff as the author of a book about hunting. However, Rainsford sees Zaroff as immoral and his "recreational hunting" as murder. It is not honorable in any way.
Individual versus Society comes into play as the society is Zaroff and the inhabitants and fellow hunters of the island. They obviously work together to set up the hunt and to trap the hunted...the individual...who is fighting for his life in the ultimate game of survivor.
Revenge is obvious because Rainsford wins the game. He does what he has to do in order to survive--kill or be killed. The question is: is it really revenge or is the result a necessary evil. Did Rainsford premeditate his actions or was it pure instinct? As the reader, you alone will have to come to your own conclusions.
Reason versus Instinct
Pitting Rainsford and General Zaroff against each other in the hunt allows Connell to blur the line between hunter and prey, human and animal, to suggest that instinct and reason are not as mutually exclusive as people have traditionally thought. Writers and philosophers have traditionally placed human intellect and the ability to reason above the bestial instincts of wild animals, which have no moral compulsions and act solely to satisfy their own needs. Reason, therefore, transforms mere animals into people and allows them to live together in functioning societies. Connell first blurs the dichotomy between reason and instinct through Rainsford’s friend Whitney, who asserts that animals instinctively feel fear and then confesses that Captain Neilson’s description of Ship-Trap Island has given him the chills. Without realizing it, Whitney admits that his perception of the island has sparked a sense of dread in him, just as perceived danger induces fear in an animal.
Connell further turns the table on the idea that reason exists apart from instinct by reducing the gentleman hunter Rainsford to the role of prey in General Zaroff’s sadistic hunt. Rainsford comes to realize that all creatures, including people, rely on fear and their instinct to survive to avoid pain and death, just as Whitney had originally argued. Nevertheless, Rainsford remains calm in spite of his fear and works methodically to evade death and even defeat Zaroff. Despite his desire to kill his pursuers, however, Rainsford keeps his perspective and continues to value human life, therefore remaining more man than beast. In contrast, the genteel General Zaroff reveals himself to be more animal than human by rationally concluding that people are no different from other living creatures and by ruthlessly hunting men to satisfy his inner bloodlust. Zaroff’s and Rainsford’s cool rationality and calculating cunning throughout the entire hunt belies the fact that each man acts only according to instinct, one to survive and the other to kill.
The Effects of War
Although Rainsford and Zaroff have similar backgrounds and are both wealthy hunters, they have radically different interpretations of their wartime experiences. Zaroff tells Rainsford about his days slumming in the Russian army, a brief dalliance commanding a Cossack cavalry division that ultimately distracted him from his love of the hunt. He nevertheless conveniently retains the title of general in a nod to his thirst for power over other individuals’ lives. Connell also suggests that Zaroff’s martial experiences altered him and allowed him to think of other people as worthy prey. The general’s inflated ego, disdain for humanity, and sadistic thrill at inflicting suffering all stem from seeing life through the sights of a rifle. Zaroff finds Rainsford’s outrage naïve, primly Victorian, and overly puritan. Rainsford, however, remembers the grueling, harrowing aspects of warfare. He recalls desperately digging trenches with insufficient tools while on the European frontlines in World War I. The sense of desperation and powerlessness that his war years instilled in him revisit him during his three-day trial on the island.
More main ideas from The Most Dangerous Game