The celebrated hunter Sanger Rainsford, while aboard a yacht cruising in the Caribbean, falls into the sea. While swimming desperately for shore, he hears the anguished cries of an animal being hunted; it is an animal he does not recognize. Rainsford makes it to land and after sleeping on the beach, he begins to look for people on the island. He finds evidence of the hunt he overheard and wonders, upon finding empty cartridges, why anyone would use a small gun to hunt what was, according to the evidence, obviously a large animal. Rainsford then follows the hunter’s footprints to the solitary house on the island.
The mansion looms above him like something out of a Gothic novel and inside is a similarly Gothic character as well: Ivan, a gigantic, mute man. Ivan is about to shoot Rainsford when the entry of another man stops him. The second man, General Zaroff, is far more civilized looking than Ivan and has exquisite manners. He apologizes for Ivan and gives Rainsford clean clothes and dinner. While the men are eating, Zaroff reveals his passion for the hunt. He tells Rainsford he hunts “big game” on the island—game he has imported. Hunting had ceased to be a challenge to Zaroff, so he decided to hunt a new animal, one that could reason. Rainsford realizes with horror that Zaroff actually hunts humans and wonders what happens if a man refuses to be hunted. He finds there is no refusing Zaroff, for either a man goes on the hunt or he is turned over to the brutish Ivan. Zaroff never loses. Although Rainsford passes the night in comfortable quarters, he has trouble sleeping. As he finally dozes off, he hears a pistol shot in the jungle.
The next day Rainsford demands to leave the island. Zaroff protests that they have not gone hunting yet, then informs Rainsford that he, in fact, is to be hunted. Zaroff tells him that if he survives three days in the jungle, he will be returned to the mainland, but he must tell no one of Zaroff’s hunts. With no real choice, Rainsford accepts his supplies from Ivan and leaves the chateau. He has a three-hour head start and is determined to outsmart Zaroff. He doubles back on his trail numerous times until he feels that even Zaroff cannot follow his path. Then he hides in a tree for rest. Zaroff, however, comes right to him but chooses not to look up in the tree and find him. Rainsford realizes Zaroff is playing a game of cat and mouse with him. After Zaroff has walked off, Rainsford steels his nerve and moves on.
Rainsford decides to set a trap for Zaroff. If Zaroff trips it, a dead tree will fall on him. Soon Zaroff’s foot sets off the trap, but he leaps back and only his shoulder is injured. He congratulates Rainsford and tells him he is returning to the chateau to get his wound looked at but will be back. Rainsford flees through the forest. He comes to a patch of quicksand known as Death Swamp where he builds another trap. He fashions a pit with sharp stakes inside and a mat of forest weeds and branches to cover the opening. One of Zaroff’s dogs springs the trap, however, and ruins Rainsford’s plan.
At daybreak, Rainsford hears a fear-inspiring sound: the baying of Zaroff’s hounds. He makes another attempt to save his life. He attaches a knife to a flexible sapling, hoping it will harm Zaroff as he follows the trail. But this too fails; it only kills Ivan. In a fit of desperation, Rainsford looks to his only escape—jumping off the cliff into the sea which waits far below. He takes this chance.
That night General Zaroff is back in his mansion. He is annoyed with the thought of having to replace Ivan and he is slightly irked because one of his prey has escaped. He goes up to bed and switches on the light. A man is hiding behind the curtains. It is Rainsford. Zaroff congratulates him on winning the game, but Rainsford informs him that they are still playing. That night, Rainsford sleeps with immense enjoyment in Zaroff s comfortable bed.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Richard Connell, Published by Gale, 1997.