“Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and if need be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure,” noted General Zaroff to Rainsford in Richard Connell’s classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924). The Russian Zaroff and the American Rainsford are from society’s elite, hunters who dominated an early 1900s landscape when unfettered capitalism fed a stark disparity between the haves and the have-nots in both Russia and the United States. In the story, an “inequality distortion” creates disturbing effects of isolation, boredom and pent-up energy—effects that reappear today with power consolidations of Putin in Russia and the Republican Party in America.
“The Most Dangerous Game” begins with the celebrated hunter Rainsford cruising on a yacht toward Rio de Janeiro. The yacht approaches Ship Trap Island, a place that sends a palpable chill throughout the yacht’s crew and passengers. When Rainsford hears gunshots in the “moist black velvet” of darkness, he leans on the ship rail, trying for a clearer view, and accidentally falls overboard. The yacht plows on forcing Rainsford to swim all night to Ship Trap Island. The next day, Rainsford discovers a palatial estate of “glaring gold light” and is welcomed by its owner, General Zaroff and his brutal bodyguard Ivan, a former knouter (one who whips others to death) of the pre-1917 Russian czar.
Rainsford is greeted warmly by General Zaroff, as both men are of the highest social class. There is a grand courtliness as the cultivated men drink the finest champagne out of crystal, and eat a full course gourmet meal with silver utensils in a high-beamed room of marble. They discuss hunting, their mutual passion. Zaroff has become such a skilled hunter that the only type of game that now interests him is the most dangerous game: humans. “I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships—lassars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels—a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them.” Rainsford, who earlier declared that hunted animals have no feelings or emotions about the matter, distances himself as a “hunter, not a murderer” and refuses to take part in the island sport. Zaroff laughs at Rainsford’s offense, “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seems to harbor romantic ideas about the value of human life.”
In many ways, the modern leaders of Russia and United States think similarly. Putin’s land grab policy in the Ukraine protects a wealth of oil reserves and fuel transport systems for elite Russians, yet is also kills human beings through warfare, displacement or accident (298 killed on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17). Republican policies in America also favor wealth protection over human life. Core policies of the recently elected Republican Congress are repealing universal health insurance (“Obamacare”), redefining the tax code to further exacerbate income inequality, and increasing military spending. These Republican policy pillars protect wealth at the expense of human life. In “Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults,” researchers Andrew Wilper et. al. found that non-insured Americans have a significantly higher rate of mortality than the insured. In the American Journal of Public Health, Lynch, Kaplan et. al. demonstrated that higher income inequality leads directly to a higher mortality rate in the United States. According to the Iraq Body Count website, American military invasion of Iraq has led to between 132,000 and 148,000 documented civilian deaths from violence to date. These “death” facts result from an “inequality distortion,” a moral code where economics trump human life.
Additional effects of inequality distortion are isolation, ennui and pent-up energy. “The Most Dangerous Game” is set on an island, a physical symbol of isolation. Despite great wealth, General Zarnoff has only servants and no friends or family. His greatest affection is reserved for his hunting dogs, one of which is killed by Rainsford during the climatic manhunt. Boredom also motivates Zarnoff’s hunt of Rainsford. “Hunting has ceased to be what you call ‘a sporting proposition,’” Zarnoff notes. “It has become too easy. I always get my quarry.” Yet Zarnoff never acknowledges his inherent advantages: intimate command of the island landscape, superior weaponry and use of hunting dogs. When Rainsford is forced to become prey, Zarnoff believes the hunt is not rigged, that pure talent will prevail in the fight and that an untainted natural order exists, that winning is Zarnoff’s destiny.
As inequality distortion increases, pent-up energy also increases. As the hunted, Rainsford repeatedly must calm himself in the dark forest in order to think clearly and avoid Zarnoff and the released dogs. In the end, Rainsford escapes and ambushes Zarnoff in his palace. Zarnoff congratulates Rainsford for winning the game, but Rainsford sternly responds, “I am still a beast at bay,” before killing Zarnoff. Like Zarnoff in “The Most Dangerous Game,” Vladimir Putin and the American Republican Party should more seriously consider the effects of inequality distortion as they craft future policy.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 10 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. He has published three books, including the historical /spiritual novel, Kali Sunset, about a Calcutta family conquering 20th century India’s greatest challenges.