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Webster’s dictionary defines civilized as the “refinement of thought, manners, or taste.” Based on this definition, Zaroff considers himself to be quite civilized. After all, in his mind, he had everything a person needs to be considered civilized. He was a hunter, and he thought that only very civilized people were hunters. It was when he became bored with hunting animals, however, and began to hunt humans he proved that he was anything but civilized.
The way Zaroff lived and the things he possessed made him feel civilized. As he and Rainsford were sitting and discussing the island, he told Rainsford, “I have electricity. We try to be civilized here.” Zaroff not only had electricity, he had servants and a splendid house with nice amenities, including silverware, the finest wine, the best food, servants, and nice clothing. He seemed to have good manners. “Have a cocktail, Mr. Rainsford,” he suggested as they sat down for dinner. “The cocktail was surpassingly good,” replied Rainsford. The author points out: “They were eating borsch, the rich red soup with whipped cream so dear to Russian palates.” Not only did he have nice food, Zaroff’s home and everything in it was what you would expect from a civilized person. As Rainsford noted, “the table appointments were of the finest—the linen, the crystal, the silver, the china.” The style in which he lived suggested that Zaroff was civilized.
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Zaroff’s lineage also made him seem civilized. He was born into a rich family, and his father was an avid sportsman. Describing his father to Rainsford, Zaroff said, “He was a very rich man with a quarter of a million acres in the Crimea, and he was an ardent sportsman.” (pg.68) At a young age, Zaroff enjoyed hunting, and his father made sure he had the finest hunting equipment, he told Rainsford. “When I was only five years old, he gave me a little gun, specially made in Moscow for me, to shoot sparrows with. I killed my first bear in the Caucasus when I was ten.” He also served in the military, which was another thing that made him feel civilized. In a conversation with Rainsford, Zaroff explained: “I went into the army—it was expected of noblemen’s sons—and for a time commanded a division of Cossack cavalry.” This was part of the rich heritage that Zaroff grew up with and part of what made him feel civilized.
Zaroff thought hunting was something reserved for only civilized people. He saw hunting as the best sport. “My whole life has been one prolonged hunt,” he told Rainsford over dinner one night. Being a wealthy man, he did not have to hunt for food. Over time, he became bored with hunting animals because it was not dangerous enough. This led to the idea of hunting humans, the most dangerous game, instead. Even though he hunted humans, Zaroff felt that he was doing it in a civilized way. “We do our best to preserve the amenities of civilization here,” he said to Rainsford over dinner, trying to justify his actions. To demonstrate this point of view, he told Rainsford that he treated his prey with every consideration. “They get good food and exercise,” he told Rainsford. “They get into splendid physical condition.” By treating his prey well, Zaroff thought that he was being civilized.
Zaroff seems like a really nice, civilized person. If we take away his hunting, we might like to spend time with him. It’s when we realize that he hunts humans this crosses the line, and we see Zaroff in a different way. Zaroff himself sees nothing wrong with hunting humans as long as it’s done in what he views as a civilized manner. For Zaroff, the good always outweighs the bad. In his mind, how can he be considered uncivilized when he treats people well, giving them food and every other consideration? Society, however, has a negative view of someone who hunts people for sport the way Zaroff does. There are laws against taking another person’s life, which is called murder. There is concrete evidence about the way society treats people who commit murder; they are either put in jail for life or given the death penalty Society would view Zaroff not as a civilized person, but as a sociopathic murderer.
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