Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Most Dangerous Game 

The other days I was rooting around in a thrift store and found one of those old anthologies of literature used in high school English. It was only $.50, so I bought it. I’m glad I did, because the anthology contains one of my all time favorite short stories, The Most Dangerous Game. Even though the story has been dismissed as pulp adventure fiction, it is a thrilling ‘gateway’ story that started me and many others on the road to a lifelong reading addiction.

The story is about an American big game hunter named Rainsford who falls overboard a ship headed toward South America. He washes ashore on an island which is inhabited by a mysterious nobleman named General Zoraff. The General treats him as an honored guest, but during their lavish meal, served on the finest linen and china, the General confesses how bored with hunting animals. Since animals rely solely on instinct, they are no match for him, a man who can reason. Because he has tired of hunting animals, he now uses shipwrecked sailors as his quarry, who are much more challenging, dangerous and rewarding to hunt. When Rainsford refuses to join him in the hunt, Zaroff decides to hunt him instead.

As I read the story it dawned on me that Thomas Harris based his character Hannibal Lecter on Zoraff.

They’re both displaced Old World nobility.
Hannibal was a Lithuanian aristocrat who grew up on a large estate.
General Zaroff is a Russian aristocrat who grew up on a large estate. He emigrated after the Russian Revolution.

They’re both refined and cultured. They’re extremely eloquent and connoisseurs of art, food and wine. They are educated, sophisticated men who possess a formal manner, which is primarily what makes them so chillingly monstrous. After Zoraff believes he killed the protagonist, “he sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a perfumed cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.”

They both read Marcus Aurelius.

They believe that their victims are not worthy to live. Hannibal kills his patient Raspail, a flautist in the Baltimore Symphony, because of his inferior musicianship. Hannibal felt Raspail’s flute playing was ruining his enjoyment of the symphony, and besides, “his therapy was going nowhere.” In Hannibal, Barney explains to Clarice, "He told me once that, whenever it was `feasible,' he preferred to eat the rude. `Free-range rude,' he called them.”
Zoraff justifies his hunting because his quarry is “the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships, lacars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels - a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them.”

They are charming, considerate hosts with impeccable manners - except for the killing part. When Miggs flicks his semen on Clarice, Hannibal Lecter is horrified and exclaims, “I would not have this happen to you. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” (Although cannibalism, by his standards, is not.)

It’s interesting to see these connections and discovering them make it less intimidating for me, a tyro writer, that authors often don’t invent characters whole cloth. Margaret Mitchell based Scarlett O’Hara on Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair and her grandmother, and most of Gone with the Wind was just reworked family stories. And don't get me started on Jay McInhenry. Anyway, I've added my theory to the Wikipedia entry for Hannibal Lecter, and we'll see if it's reverted or not.

I remember that short story from back in grade school and I loved it too! Thanks for the reminder!

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