Required Materials: Orson Welles , Citizen Kane $13.74 at
Optional Materials: Some text-based or web-based introduction to narratology and film  

THIS CLASS, ENGL 230 (Great Narrative Works), is a requirement for many students at Purdue U and, so, faces the special challenge of trying to excite students who feel they are in the class under duress rather than by choice. To overcome that feeling, I turned to narratology in an effort to show students to what extent they can apply many of the same concepts to the world around them. We may begin the course with Homer, I tell them, but the same narratological principles are at play when they watch Homer Simpson. I was particularly interested in pointing out the extent to which the discourse of a given work, rather than its mere story, holds the key to an understanding of that work's depth, complexity, and effect. To illustrate the importance of discourse, I borrowed a lesson plan from one of the best teachers I know, my partner, Emily Allen, who happens also to be my colleague in the English Department at Purdue.

The advantage of this exercise is that, assuming all goes well, students come away thinking how brilliant they are, since they are, in fact, quite capable of analyzing film and video, having grown up with both forms. The trick is to get them to become conscious of the discursive techniques in film that are continually affecting them, if unconsciously. Indeed, affect is one way to get into the exercise; ask the students how the clip makes them feel, then get them to analyze what precisely is causing those particular feelings. Since Welles is so brilliant as a director, there is much for them to notice once you get them to think about the discursive form rather than the story content. I have also been consistently surprised by how many plot elements the students are able to guess from the opening minute of the film, as the discussion below illustrates. I have tried this exercise at least five times to date and it has always proven enjoyable and enlightening for the students.

In the exercise, I introduce the basic narratological distinction between story and discourse. I then play for students the first minute or so of Citizen Kane and ask all the students who have never seen the film (usually about 95% of the class) to tell me what they can determine about the movie from this opening sequence, in which one follows a camera's POV past a sequence of fences up to the lit window of a large mansion; I stop the clip as soon as the light in the window goes out. (To see the clip, click here: 4.8 MB mpeg file, with a 1 min., 10 sec. download time on DSL. Different browsers will handle the file in different ways; if you are taken to a different page, you can return to this page by hitting the back button on your browser; if the play-back is jumpy, allow the entire file to download to your browser window before playing the clip.)

What follows is the response from my students when I ran this exercise on the very first day of class, August 22, 2001. When possible, I include the actual names of the students in order to recreate the atmosphere of the class. I also include a synopis of the class discussion that followed the complete viewing of the film, which occured much later on November 14 when students were reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.


Synopsis of Class Discussion on Aug. 22, 2000
(for the original class, click here):

The "story" in this sequence, as Maria Weir correctly explained, is: "there is a gate and there is a mansion." That's all! However, the discursive presentation of this story led to a number of interpretations that went significantly beyond this rather simple plot:

1) Although, as Meg pointed out, Orson Welles established a number of film techniques that would only subsequently become conventions, a number of conventional generic elements are, nonetheless, evoked, some perhaps borrowed from literature, as DJ Dangler correctly pointed out. As DJ continued, we appear to be in a setting straight out of Bram Stoker, that is to say a gothic tale, or perhaps a mystery, perhaps even a detective story. Certainly, as Stacey Morgan suggested, we expect some terrible event to occur in the following scenes; we anticipate danger or some evil, perhaps a death and, as Anu Karumanchi explained, the gloomy music adds to our sense of immanent doom. The lighting of this night-time scene similarly contributes to our sense of foreboding, Lane Sanders explained. (As it turns out, although the movie is, in fact, a biography of sorts, these generic expectations are fulfilled in the following scene in which we witness the enigmatic death of Kane in what appears to be a gothic castle. The rest of the movie then turns into a detective story of sorts, except that the secret to be uncovered is not what motivated a murder but what motivated a life.)

2) As a group of students pointed out, the sequence of fences and the "No Trespassing" sign suggest that the viewer will not be allowed fully to reach the object of the film, "Citizen Kane." Indeed, the fences seem to get increasingly thick as if to say that the closer you get to this subject the less you will know about it. Beth added that the sequence of fences suggests some sort of transgression; we are placed in the position of an interloper. Indeed, as a result, we are given the sense that something mysterious is being hidden here, something that we desire to learn more about, and yet something that the director seems intent on denying us, since each fence we cross is followed by another. Even once we finally reach the enigmatic window of the mansion, the light suddenly goes out before we can see what hides inside.

3) Michelle Beauchane then offered up a possible reading for the landscape we are being presented with. Could the house and its grounds be a metaphor for the person that lives in it? If so, we cannot help but understand this person as not only incredibly rich but also paranoid, scared, depressed, and unhappy, someone who is suspicious of others and refuses to trust anyone. He or she might be someone that sets up barriers between him/herself and others, although, as Lily Ewing pointed out, he or she is clearly somone who once lived a glorious life of wealth and power. It is clear, then, Lily continued, that we are entering a narrative in medias res, at the end of a long life. As Jenni Jacobson explained, the landscape evokes the figure of Miss Havisham, a character in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations who, after being jilted at the altar, spends her life preserving the moment of the wedding feast until her house becomes a morbidly decrepit reminder of a now-lost past. Perhaps the main character in Orson Welles' film has suffered a similar trauma, perhaps even a trauma tied to an unhappy or tragic love.

4) Stacey Morgan pointed out that the creeping camera, which slowly seems to get closer to the window in the top right corner of the screen, creates suspense. As Meg Lowry suggested such a lap dissolve technique (Melissa Young-Spillers directed us to this term by pointing out the "fade-in shots"), with the window anchoring each indivual shot, forces the familiar to become unfamiliar and forces to reader to "read into" the otherwise mundane fact of a lighted window. We are presented with a static scene, another student pointed out (the camera does not actually move; instead, the effect of movement is created through the sequence of lap dissolves), but, through the use of such technical devices, the film gives us a sense that the scene is pregnant with possibility. The effect of creating a sense of movement through the lap dissolve of static shots could also be said to be a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of film, which is actually made up of a sequence of still shots that creates the illusion of movement.

5) One more brilliant point from a student in an ENGL 230H class from Fall, 1998: As Elizabeth Lowe pointed out in that class, the camera angles and lighting add to the film's sombre mood in this opening sequence. The house is consistently shot from below which gives the viewer a sense of being small, removed, not in control, a feeling that is reinforced by the sequence of gates. The POV shot also puts the viewer in the place of the camera and resembles a standard "creep-up" shot from the horror-movie genre. In this way, the viewer is yet again made to feel like a transgressor and interloper.

What is most amazing about these truly impressive interpretations is that, although none of these students had actually seen the film before, their interpretations are spot on, even though they were reached solely on the basis of the film's discourse (the presentation of events: lighting, music, camera angles, etc.) and not on any actual story event. Nothing is actually happening in this scene and, yet, students were able to determine all the major interpretive issues of the film from this apparently innocuous first scene, suggesting indeed that the discursive presentation of a story and not the story itself is, in fact, the heart of narrative.


Synopsis of Class Discussion on Nov. 14, 2000
(for the original class, click here):

I began by reminding students of the very first discussion we had in this course on August 22, 2000 (see above). I also recalled some of the terms that we went over in those first two weeks, specifically story and discourse, proairetic and hermeneutic codes, and diegesis. The class then suggested some of the ways that Citizen Kane uses its discourse to affect the story (generic forms like the gothic, the diary, the newsreel; the use of camera angles; lighting; music, etc.). A good example is the first 40 seconds of the film, as we saw on August 22; the class managed on that momentous day to come up with most of the important plot and thematic elements that would dominate the rest of the film (thanks, therefore, solely to the discourse). We then looked at the next few minutes of the scene—Kane's death—to see how the film uses the falling snow of the crystal ball to evoke a number of things that are not actually there in the diegesis of the film. That is, it is not actually snowing in Kane's room (the technical term for this effect is a "subjective shot."); the snow represents metaphorically the winter of Kane's life (including, as Maria Weir suggested, the coldness of his heart) and also, possibly, his mental reflections about his childhood innocence. The close-up on the lips also emphasizes the importance of Kane's last words and, thus, on the importance narrative wishes to give to closural moments like a person's death. The reflection of the nurse also appears to suggest a lens, thus underlining a certain formal self-consciousness on the part of the film-maker; that is, the film will be, to a certain extent, about film-making and about the subjective "lenses" that frame our understanding of others.

The movie also discursively re-orders the chronological events of Citizen Kane's life. Each narrator (including the one in the News on the March sequence) tells his or her version of the story chronologically but each narrator chooses to discuss different elements in Kane's life depending on the interests of that narrator: News on the March is interested in those events that affected America and the world; Thatcher is only interested in making money and so only relates those moments when Kane gains or loses money; Bernstein relates events that have to do with the rise and fall of the newspaper; Leland thinks that Kane only wanted to be loved, so he recounts all of Kane's love affairs; Susie Alexander only recounts the events that involve herself; and Raymond, the Butler, who's trying to get money from Gerry, the faceless narrator, only relates events that might shed light on Kane's final words, "Rosebud." Bernstein and Thatcher (the latter unwittingly) present Kane in a positive light—a man of the people; Leland and Susie present Kane in a negative light—a self-deluded if pitiable egotist. We are thus given a famous example of frame narrative; as is often the case with this narrative form, the act of transmission is especially highlighted, as is the unreliability of the sequence of narrators. In fact, the narrations tell us as much about the person recounting the events as it does about the person being described. It is up to the viewer to piece together the actual complete chronology of Kane's life, much as one might a jigsaw puzzle, the primary metaphor for this process within the film itself. The suggestion in the end is that it may be "impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence" (Heart of Darkness, page 24). Having originally thought about doing a film version of Conrad's tale, Orson Welles might, in fact, have had this passage and the structure of Heart of Darkness on his mind as he wrote and shot his film.

We also discussed the general importance of narration in this film and the ways that Welles reminds us that we are seeing the narrative through someone else's eyes: the highlighting of the reporter's glasses, thus emphasizing his role as objective witness (and the fact that, as a faceless narrator, he acts as a surrogate for the viewer, as Meg Lowry suggested); the placement of narrators on the edges of the camera's frames; and the trick of having Thatcher look repeatedly right into the camera. We discussed Welles' use of window frames throughout the movie as a commentary on the difficulty of "framing" or "getting an angle" on Kane; such scenes are also self-reflexive, reminding us of the filim's own camera frames. We also discussed the meaning of Rosebud: is it a commentary on Kane's lost childhood or does the use of the "Keep Out" sign at the end of the film warn us, once again, about attributing a single meaning to Kane's life?





Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Lesson Plans for Narratology: Citizen Kane." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.








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