In his book Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, William Rothman includes a fascinating chapter on The Thirty-nine Steps in which he elucidates the identity of the protagonist Richard Hannay. Rothman argues that Hannay is “exempt from having a self” and this lack of identity enables him to “face death without anguish” as he is free of any responsibility. It is his identity as a wanderer without an identity that gives him the freedom to pursue the mystery of Annabelle’s death and the concurrent plot.
Rothman argues that Hannay’s trip to Scotland is neither a “spiritual journey or a rite of passage.” He asserts that Hannay would not engage in a struggle for selfhood because “he is exempt from having a self.” From the first time the audience is introduced to Hannay in the theatre, he is marked as a n outsider and “outside the rigid system” by which we judge the other members of Mr. Memory’s audience. This transcendence of the limitations by which other characters hold to and are judged places Hannay in a totally different sphere. Rothman argues that this is a place where Hannay is “not a character.” His lack of identification through comparison with others combined with his easy acquiescence to Annabelle and willingness to help leave no way to clearly identify his character, Rothman argues. He is simply “reacting within a situation in which he is no more the author than we.” Hannay is a wandering force who happens to be drawn into this scenario and has the capability to see it through.
William Rothman’s chapter on The Thirty-nine Steps presents a unique perspective on the character of Richard Hannay. Rothman argues that because he has no explicable identity within the film, Hannay has the freedom to run off at a moments notice and defend the secrets of his country. It is only within this construct that his actions can be explained.
In Warriors in Flight: John Buchan’s War Novels, Maria Noelle Ng explores John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps on which Hitchcock’s film is based. She discusses the novel’s ‘hero-on-the-run’ subgenre and how it affects both the narrative arc of the story and the reader’s sympathies towards the character of Hannay. Although Hitchcock adapted Buchan’s story, these assertions hold true for the Hannay of Hitchcock’s film as well.
Ng argues that upon the death of Annabelle (or Buchan’s original Scudder), Hannay becomes the archetypal ‘hero-on-the run,’ the masculine cruasader pursued by enemies known and unknown. She notes that this role serves a dual purpose: both to drive the plot forward and to engage the sympathy of the reader. Hannay’s brazen pursuit of a relatively new and personally insignificant event highlights his masculine drive and allows the narrative arc to continue. As the reader (and later audience) is exposed to his genuine pursuit of what he ascertains to be in the best interest of his country. This selflessness easily employs the sympathy of the reader. Ng goes on to elaborate on the significance of the story to World War I. Published in 1915, Ng argues that “Although the Great War is not explicitly mentioned” it is an underlying assumption of the novel and “reflects the attitude of the British at the beginning of the war.”
Ng’s piece, although focused on Buchan’s novel, examines the character of Hannay and the timing of the book in an interesting way. She illuminates how his masculinity supports the narrative arc as well as his easy procurment of reader sympathies. This character and his story, Ng argues, are an implied component of the First World War.