Narrative Innovations In Citizen Kane

Most Hollywood films of Welles's time, like His Girl Friday, were narrated primarily from an omniscient or unrestricted point of view by an invisible narrator. Because of our omniscient perspective, our ability to see and know more than the characters on the screen, and our illusion that we are looking with impunity into a world which is unaware of our gaze, Hollywood movies give us a feeling of power. Citizen Kane begins by luring us into the pleasure of being the all-knowing spectator. At the start of the film the camera effortlessly pans up and over a sign on a wire fence reading "No Trespassing," thereby foregrounding the privilege of the film spectator.8 Through a series of slow dissolves we are transported beyond the "No Trespassing" sign to penetrate deeper and deeper into the inner sanctum of Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane's opulent, eccentric private castle. Finally, we find ourselves inside the room where Kane (played by Orson Welles) lies on his deathbed. With our eyes identified with the eye of the camera, we are the privileged, omniscient spectators of Kane's last moments before he dies. He is holding a glass ball that encloses a snow scene. His last word is "Rosebud."

At the moment of Kane's death, the glass ball drops from his hand and shatters into pieces. We see a distorted image of a nurse entering the room as the camera shoots through one of the fragments of the shattered glass. (See figure 22.) The distorted image of the nurse signals the end to our privileged omniscience. From this point on, with only a few exceptions, the film's narrative itself shatters, fragmenting our vision through six different perspectives on the life of Charles Foster Kane, each one distorted in its own way. The six narrators are: a "News on the March" newsreel obituary; Walter P. Thatcher (George Coulouris), the irritated, exasperated Wall Street banker to whom Kane's mother entrusted her son's upbringing and education after she was left a gold mine by a defaulting tenant; Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane's business manager and greatest admirer; Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), Kane's bitter, disillusioned best friend; Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane's psychologically abused but still sympathetic second wife; and finally, Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane's mercenary, tell-all butler.

Citizen Kane Glass
Figure 22. The distorted image of the nurse through the fragment of broken glass signals the end of our privileged omniscience. (Citizen Kane, 1941, Turner Entertainment.)

The newsreel obituary is all-inclusive but superficial. It offers only a general overview of the significant events in Kane's public life. These include the source of his great wealth, his creation of a newspaper empire and his campaigns against monopolies and trusts, his marriage to the niece of the President of the United States, his campaign for governor, his defeat in this campaign when his opponent exposes his adulterous affair, his efforts to make his second wife a great opera singer, his contradictory politics as both a supporter and denouncer of Hitler, and his final retreat to Xanadu until his death.

Because all the major events in Kane's life are thus laid out, we are never in suspense about what is going to happen to him. Our attention is focused instead on why his life turned out the way it did. Rawlston (Philip Van Zandt), the director of the newsreel, thinks the story on Kane lacks "an angle," a personal dimension to the "man who could have been President, who was as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time . . ." In order to fill in this gap, to add more juice to Kane's story, he decides to hold up the release of the newsreel, and directs his reporter Thompson (William Alland) to interview key people in Kane's life, primarily in order to find out what Kane meant by his last word, "Rosebud." Rawlston hopes that the meaning of "Rosebud" will provide insight into who Kane was as a man, and what really made him tick. Thompson's quest for the meaning of "Rosebud" provides the pretext for the series of interviews, told as flashbacks, which recount the story of Kane's life.

Citizen Kane's narrative strategy, in which the whole story is told in flashback from slightly different points of view (the equivalent of the unreliable narrator in fiction), was unprecedented in a Hollywood film. The technique of telling the story of Kane from multiple points of view dispels the illusion that we are learning the "truth" about Charles Foster Kane. As numerous commentators have observed, the film is like a complicated jigsaw puzzle which the viewer must piece together, bit by bit, in order to see the whole picture. Only in the final moments of the film, when we despair of ever discovering the meaning of "Rosebud," does the film's narration return us to a privileged omniscient perspective, revealing the final missing piece.

The final scene in Citizen Kane takes place at Xanadu. Thompson admits to his fellow reporters that he has failed in his mission to find out the identity of Rosebud. A colleague remarks: "If you could have found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would've explained everything." Thompson replies: "No, I don't think so. No. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything. I don't think any word can explain a man's life." As the reporters go off to catch a train, the camera shoots down from above at a massive collection of crates, statues, etc.—all the objects Kane has accumulated in his lifetime—finally pausing on belongings associated with Kane's childhood home in Colorado. A worker picks up a sled. Raymond, the butler, refers to the sled as "junk," and directs the man to throw it into the furnace. A slow dissolve into the mouth of the furnace shows us the sled going up in flames. With just enough time to decipher the words before the flames obliterate them forever, we read the name inscribed on the sled: Rosebud. The film's final shot is of the exterior of Kane's castle. Smoke pours out the chimney as if Xanadu were a giant crematorium. The last words we see, before "the end," are the first words we saw at the beginning, the sign reading, "no trespassing."

Citizen Kane thus has two endings: one for the characters inside the film and one for us, the spectators outside the film. The characters never find out what Rosebud signifies. We are privy to the knowledge, but our sudden return to omniscience is qualified. We know what Rosebud refers to—the sled young Kane was playing with before Thatcher took him away from his home to be educated in New York—but what does it mean? Critics are still debating the significance of Rosebud. In general, there are two camps: those who believe that Rosebud does explain the solution to the mystery of why Kane, for all his advantages, failed in his political and personal life, and those who agree with Thompson, who declares at the end of the film that the life of any human being is too intricate and complex to be reduced to one explanation. The sled may explain some things, but not everything. Most critics share the latter view.9 To them, that "No Trespassing" sign has protected Kane's privacy after all.

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Responses

  • lacey
    What were some narrative techniques in Citizen Kane?
    8 years ago
  • antonio
    How is censorship like a puzzle and what does it mean"to see the whole picture"?
    8 years ago
  • elsa
    What inspired orson welles broken glass ball citizen kane?
    1 year ago
  • artemisia
    What narrative techniques does Welles use to tell the story of Charles Foster Kane?
    1 year ago
  • otto korhonen
    Is citizen kane objectively narrated?
    11 months ago
  • guillermo
    When is the omniscient narration in citizen kane?
    11 months ago
  • Haddas
    How did the narrative in the film citizen kane go with the film?
    11 months ago
  • MELANIE HOLTZMANN
    Who is the narrator in citizen kane?
    8 months ago
  • tom
    Does citizen kane have restricted or unrestricted information?
    7 months ago
  • cara brandybuck
    What kind of narration is citizen kane?
    5 months ago
  • zula
    How many narrators are in citizen kane?
    3 months ago
  • joseph
    Why is citizen kane an unconventional narrative?
    3 months ago
  • RALF FABER
    Which narrator in citizen kane spoke the most about citizen kane?
    2 months ago
  • Kinfe
    Is citizen kane narrated in first or third person?
    27 days ago
  • carolina
    How is citizen kane innovative from a narrative standpoint?
    23 days ago
  • athanaric
    What are the narrative techniques in second class citizen?
    17 days ago

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