The Thirty-nine Steps

by John Buchan

Start Free Trial

Student Question

How does John Buchan use characterization to portray Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps?

Quick answer:

To portray his protagonist Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps, John Buchan uses narrative conventions of characterization such as using first person narration, fashioning Hannay as a relatable everyman readers can easily identify with, portraying him as the "man on the run" who survives by using his wits, and reducing his complexity by making him a conventional patriotic Englishman whose strong sense of decency compels him to do the right thing.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Buchan uses the narrative convention of making his protagonist Richard Hannay the first-person narrator of his adventure. This brings us close to Hannay, so that we know his thoughts and see his adventure unfold through his eyes as it happens. It is as if he has a camera on his shoulder and we see what he sees. He also speaks to us in an easy, colloquial, conversational style, as if he is talking directly to us:

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day.

Buchan makes Hannay an everyman. He is a likable person who has saved a modest stash of money, moved to a London flat, and become bored with a life of leisure. Without being anyone with any special expertise, he suddenly falls into a life of high adventure. Because he is such an ordinary person, he is highly relatable: we can easily imagine how we might react similarly if suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. As he says of himself, he is "not braver than other people," helping us to identify with him.

Hannay is also an example of the conventional "man on the run," a staple of detective and thriller literature that many credit Buchan with pioneering. Hannay has to use his wits to survive being hunted down and adopts a number of disguises. For example, he cleverly dresses up as a working-class roadman in glasses to elude detection and later gives a speech pretending to be a political candidate running for office to escape his killers.

Hannay is a conventional "good guy," too. Rather than create a character of great complexity or originality, Buchan made Hannay a patriotic man of uncomplicated decency who fights evil because it is the right thing to do.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial