The 39 Steps: cultural context

The 39 Steps: cultural context

Cultural Background

  • “The 39 Steps” is a thriller novel written by John Buchan in 1915, towards the start of the First World War, providing a significant cultural backdrop to the narrative.
  • The book reflects early 20th century British views and attitudes - British imperialist values, heroism, adventure, and patriotism are major themes which should be considered during performance.

  • Buchan’s work has influences from the “Invasion Literature” genre that was popular in the pre-WW1 era. The fears of foreign invasion and national security threats play vital roles in the narrative of “The 39 Steps”.
  • The novel also has roots in ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure stories, full of heroic actions and thrilling adventures for young male readers in Britain, which should be taken into account when interpreting characters and their motivations.

Societal Norms and Stereotypes

  • The main character, Richard Hannay, embodies the ‘stiff upper lip’ British attitude, showcasing endurance, courage and restrained emotion, a stereotype often associated with the militaristic culture of the time.
  • Women’s roles were notably traditional and limited during this time period, often restricted to the sidelines or as motivators for male action. Female characters in “The 39 Steps” reflect these societal norms.

Reflections of the Time

  • Consider the historical tension and fear present during the war - this heavily influences the atmosphere of suspense and danger throughout the script.
  • The narrative exposes the fear of technology, particularly in warfare, a common narrative thread in literature of the 20th Century, as the invention and use of advanced machinery or weaponry could potentially change the nature of conflicts.
  • The lack of immediate consequence for Hannay’s actions — breaking into houses, assuming fake identities, leaving murder scenes — may seem unusual or unrealistic now but reflected the absence of advanced forensic technology, policing and surveillance during the historic timeframe of the book.

Author’s Biographical Context

  • Buchan was himself involved in intelligence work during WW1; biographical context is important here as it shaped the creation of “The 39 Steps”, blending Buchan’s real-life experiences with fictional elements.

Remember: When analysing “The 39 Steps”, it is crucial to consider it within its cultural and historic context as it was heavily influenced by societal attitudes, world events, and typical literature forms of its era. A solid understanding of this context will help in the interpretation and performance of the play.