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Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby, And Some Conventions of American Narrative - R.carringer

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  Citizen Kane , The Great Gatsby , and Some Conventions of American NarrativeAuthor(s): Robert L. CarringerSource: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter, 1975), pp. 307-325Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 01/06/2014 05:02 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  .  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact  . The University of Chicago Press  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Critical Inquiry. This content downloaded from on Sun, 1 Jun 2014 05:02:53 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby, and Some Conventions of American Narrative Robert L. Carringer It is widely thought that what finally characterizes American literary narratives is a preoccupation with Americanness. If the great theme of European fiction has been man's life in society, Walter Allen writes in The Modern Novel, the great theme of American fiction has been the exploration of what it means to be an American. The best American film narratives also seem to bear out this proposition, especially those of the great American naturals like Griffith and Ford and Hawks, and most especially Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), regarded by many as the greatest American film. Welles' film belongs to that category of narra- tives which take a prominent figure from contemporary American life (here William Randolph Hearst) and use him to stand for what are conceived to be representative traits of the collective American charac- ter. Understandably, then, there are many general resemblances in the film to other well-known stories of American entrepreneurs, magnates, and tycoons. Long before the flourishing of tycoon biographies in the American sound film, well before F. Scott Fitzgerald or Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser, before even Henry James, certain conventions and associations had become well established in stories of this type. The up-and-coming young American was shrewd and practical, an image of compulsive energy, a man with his eye always on the future. His Ameri- canness also consisted of such traits as enterprise, indomitable idealism, a certain naturalness and openness to experience, and a relentless will to succeed. His geographical srcin could be made to carry moral force, and he or another character who equated American commerical noblesse oblige with universal morality could be a useful thematic touchstone. 307 This content downloaded from on Sun, 1 Jun 2014 05:02:53 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  308 Robert L. Carringer Films and Narrative Conventions But in one instance the parallels between Citizen Kane and a well- known literary narrative seem to be more than simply a case of variations on standard formulas and types. There are striking similarities in characterization and idea, even occasionally in specific images and de- tails, between Welles' film and Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, another portrait of a rich and powerful American who finances gaudy, elaborate entertainments and harbors sentimental ties to his youth in the West. Some of these may be the result of direct borrowing from The Great Gatsby by Herman J. Mankiewicz, the principal screenwriter on Citizen Kane. But the symmetry of the parallels between the novel and the completed film seems to suggest a broader implication: that novels and films on explicitly American subjects may undergo analogous pro- cesses of formation, receiving the same basic impulses directly from the ambience of American life, and drawing from the same storehouse of accomplished narrative forms and characterizations to give shape to their materials; and to this extent at the least they may be said to belong to a common mainstream tradition of American narrative.1 I Except for a few obvious resemblances, The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane seem an unlikely pair. Though both protagonists are characterized 1. Recent criticism has been characterized by efforts to establish a narrative ancestry for Citizen Kane. The most conspicuous of these is Raising Kane (reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book [Boston, 1971]), in which Pauline Kael attempts to show that many streams in American films of the thirties fed into Citizen Kane, among them Mad Love and the tradition of Gothic melodrama; The Front Page and other films of newspaper reporters in search of stories; tycoon biographies such as The Power and the Glory and A Man to Remember; and Paramount-style comedy, with its snappy dialogue and well-oiled plots. ( Raising Kane is also an effort to restore what Kael sees as a rightful share of credit to Herman Mankiewicz for his work on the script. It has seemed to many to take too much credit away from Welles.) Also see Charles Higham, The Films of Orson Welles (Berkeley, 1970), pp. 10-14; and Tom Shales, Antecedents of Citizen Kane, The American Film Heritage: Impressions rom the Ameri- can Film Institute Archives (Washington, D.C., 1972), pp. 127-34. An attempt to establish literary ancestry is Hubert Cohen's The Heart of Darkness in Citizen Kane, Cinema Journal 12 (1972): 11-25. (Welles' first Hollywood project was to have been an adaptation of Conrad's novel. The Mercury Theatre of the Air had done a radio drama of it.) The idea of comparing The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane was first suggested to me by a remark of Ronald Gottesman in his introduction to Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1971), p. 6. I thank Professor Gottesman and Professors Warren French and Alan Rose for their generous assistance and advice. Robert L. Carringer is an assistant professor of English at the Uni- versity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches and writes on film, American literature, and interdisciplinary approaches to literature. This study is the first in a series of essays in progress on American films and American narrative tradition. This content downloaded from on Sun, 1 Jun 2014 05:02:53 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Critical Inquiry Winter 1975 309 as representative Americans, they seem to represent very different faces of America. Gatsby is a man outside the law, a big-scale bootlegger, a social climber, a perennial adolescent who uses his ill-gotten gains in an effort to bring maudlin storybook romances to life. Kane, on the other hand, is in the mainstream of American corporate and political life, a wealthy publisher with enough clout to influence (even bully) the president of the United States, and seemingly enough wealth to strip Europe of its transportable artistic treasures. But in certain key features of their per- sonalities, in certain key facts and events which are presented as con- stituting the most significant details of their lives, and in the way the essential nature of their failings is defined, the stories of Gatsby and Kane contain a number of startling similarities. Both works are in the form of retrospective narratives set a short time after the deaths of their protagonists. Both men were wealthy and given to open displays of their wealth and power; they were controver- sial figures whose stature and flamboyance evoked mixed feelings of distrust and awe in the public mind. Yet surprisingly little was known about the private life and private feelings of either man. People specu- late about Gatsby's past-it is rumored that he was in the war and that he went to Oxford, and there are rumblings of various shady deals past and present, but no one really knows about any of these things for sure. Of Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper giant, about all that is known is what one reads in the newspapers. In each story a person sets out to gather evidence about his subject's private life. His aim is to collect relevant details to be assembled into a definitive portrait of the man; his mission is to discover what his subject was really like. In the novel, Nick Carraway, Gatsby's former confidant and a stern moralist, brings strict judgments to bear on the subject of his attention, pronouncing him a corrupt scoundrel but, at the same time, totally incorruptible in his boyish innocence. In the film, one of the several accounts of the central figure is given by a New England schoolmarm type, who also makes harsh moral judgments on the former confidant he held in awe, and also sees his essential failure as idealism corrupted. The protagonist of the novel as a young man in the Midwest was at just the right place and time when an accident occurred and so was enabled to get into the good graces of an American tycoon-a connection which, as it turned out, most influenced what he eventually became. The pro- tagonist of the film, another young Westerner, came under the tutelage of another great American capitalist as a result of equally capricious circumstances, and again this proved to be the connection that made his fortune. The protagonist of the novel continually thinks everything could be all right again if he could go back to an earlier point in his life, to that secret place above the trees. 2 The protagonist of the film gazes 2. The Great Gatsby (Scribner Library ed.), p. 112. Quotations are from this edition. This content downloaded from on Sun, 1 Jun 2014 05:02:53 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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Jul 30, 2017
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