The narrative rules behind the flashbacks

Within the movie of Citizen Kane, the story of Kane is broken into segments of stories as flashbacks. Each one contributes to the overall narrative of the story by adding their own component, which is an isolated story element. The 6 ‘flashbacks’: 1. News reel flashback, 2. Thatcher’s notebook flashback, 3. Bernstein flashback,  4. Jed Leland’s flashback, 5. Susan’s flashback, and 6.  Raymond’s flashback. Each of these dive into Kane’s background in a different way. Making a general exception for the interview portions and the intro News Reel,  the flashbacks have rules associated that make them not truly flashbacks but help the narrative aspect of the movie plot flow.

To start, the flashbacks do not follow the general rule of thumb of showing only what the person telling the story sees. There are examples within each section that show information that would not be available to the person recounting the story. A mild example of this is when Susan properly recounts the Declaration of Principles, which to her character would not seem that important. To the person interviewing, and us as the audience, we know how important it is and we can see the detail of the page that Susan might not know. Another more profound example of the flashback “breaking the rules” is during Jed Leland’s flashback, where a large section of the flashback involve the confrontation with Gettys, something Jed Leland was not present for. This seems like something unlikely that Kane would explain to Leland. How he receives the information is not important to the story, and it is critical information that we get to the story as a whole. I understand some aspects of breaking the ‘rules’ of flashbacks to get more information for the viewer, but I do not know why they would be so deliberate in having this information be given by someone who obviously should not have this info. Does anyone have a good reason for why Leland would know this or could it be something he made up? I suppose it does not have to be completely true. It could be a fabrication. If he did know the truth, then there are only 4 people he could have learned the truth from and none of them seem likely to tell.

2 comments
  1. I also I was intrigued by the numerous cheats in the flashbacks. It seemed at all times the idea of who Kane truly was is called into question. We can never get a clear and objective narration of who he truly was because such as in real life it’s impossible to completely know who a person is. There’s always information missing that has been lost in translation. It seems to me that the goal here isn’t to highlight the truth about Kane but to make us aware about the discrepancies and distortions that exist in the narrative of his life.

  2. This is something that I was thinking about as well. For each flashback there was definitely a bias in the way that Kane was portrayed. With this in mind, anytime the character having the flashback was not present I interpreted that as another layer of storytelling. In this way the confrontation with Gettys is more biased, and therefore more inaccurate, than pieces of the flashback that included Leland since Leland heard the story from someone else or made it up himself to fill in the blanks. Either way I took these instances as less trustworthy than the others. I realize that this does not answer where the information of the scene definitively came from, but given Leland and Kane’s relationship I would not find it surprising if he just made stories up.

    Someone else to consider may be Thompson. He is the character reading or listening to the stories so we can see them. Could it be in his own imagination that we are seeing the actions play out? Any gaps in a story would be filled in by what he knows, or assumes, happened.

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