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.