Analysis of Major Characters
Charles Foster Kane
Kane's mother sends him away when he is only eight years old, and this abrupt separation keeps him from growing past the petulant, needy, aggressive behaviors of a pre-adolescent. Kane never develops a positive emotional attachment to his guardian, Thatcher, and he rejects Thatcher's attempts at discipline and guidance. As an adult, Kane has a great deal of wealth and power but no emotional security, and this absence of security arrests his development and fuels his resentment of authority. Because of his wealth, Kane has no motivation or incentive to subject himself to social norms. He has no reason to move beyond his resentment and his sense of himself as the center of the universe, and he never takes his place as a virtuous, productive member of society. Kane seems idealistic when he first begins to run his newspaper, but his primary reason for becoming a newspaperman is to manipulate his political and social environment in order to gain total control over it. Kane’s quest for power makes him charismatic, but he eventually drives away the women and friends he attracts. As those close to him mature in a way that he cannot, they must move away from him to preserve their own selves.
Kane is not a likeable man, but Welles presents his life in a way that ultimately shrouds Kane in pathos and pity. Kane is dead when the film begins, and we learn about him only through the accounts given by his old friends and lovers. Each person has a different perception of Kane, and his or her memories are not fully reliable. A fragmented picture, not a fully fleshed-out man, is all we get. However, we know enough about Kane to know he deserves sympathy. Kane’s obsessive spending and collecting reveal that he is trying to fill an empty space inside himself with objects instead of people. He buys things for the sake of having them, not because they give him any particular joy. Kane is fundamentally lonely, and, intentionally or unintentionally, he drives away everyone who cares for him. His attempts to control those he loves always fail. When his second wife Susan prepares to leave him, he says angrily that she can’t do that to him. She firmly responds, “Yes, I can,” and then walks out the door.
Critics generally accept that Welles based the character of Kane on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and other powerful men of his time, but Welles certainly based the character on himself as well. He, like Kane, was around eight years old when he lost his mother, though Welles’s mother died and Kane’s mother leaves by choice. Welles’s mother gave him an inflated sense of his own importance that was encouraged by his school administration and his guardian after her death. As an actor, Welles naturally imbued Charles Foster Kane with some of his own experiences and characteristics. The parallels between Kane and Welles helped Welles give a remarkable performance. Welles didn’t just act the part of Kane: in many ways, Welles was Kane.
Jedediah Leland doubts Kane’s integrity from the early moments of their partnership. Leland is as giddy as Kane is about their newfound authority at the newspaper, but the men’s ethics quickly diverge. Kane signs a noble “Declaration of Principles,” which Leland asks skeptically to keep as a souvenir. He seems to have a premonition that Kane’s principles will be subject to interpretation. As Kane becomes increasingly despotic, Leland questions the unethical and immoral way in which they conduct their business. Leland also views Kane’s self-delusion as ridiculous, even though Kane remains oblivious to his own hypocrisy and the harm he does. When Kane’s staff celebrates the fact that Kane has stolen the entire editorial staff of their rival newspaper, Leland, for the first time, openly questions whether the end justifies the means and whether loyalty can be bought. Several years later, Leland has the same disagreement with Kane, which leads Leland to request a transfer to Chicago. He feels he can become an ethical, objective reporter only if he can escape Kane’s suffocating control. Just like the women in Kane’s life, Leland must leave Kane to save himself.
Despite his doubts and criticisms, Leland attempts to maintain his integrity without destroying his friendship with Kane, and he sustains his faith in Kane longer than any other character in the film, with the possible exception of Bernstein. When Kane builds his wife Susan an opera house in Chicago, the city where Leland now works as the drama critic for a Kane newspaper, Leland must choose loyalty or the truth after Susan’s horrendous opening night. Leland starts to write a negative review of Susan’s performance, but he passes out, drunk, before he can finish it. Kane arrives at the office and indignantly finishes writing the review himself to show Leland that he can be an honest man, but when Leland wakes up, Kane bluntly fires him. Leland has little reason to think any integrity or goodness lurks within Kane, but nonetheless he mails Kane the “Declaration of Principles” Kane signed so many years ago. The gesture is a rebuke, but it is also a way of suggesting it’s not too late for Kane to change. Kane tears it up, effectively slicing Leland out of his life forever.
Susan Alexander Kane
Susan and Kane fall in love with each other under false pretenses, and though Susan eventually loses her illusions about the kind of man Kane is, Kane is never able to see Susan clearly. Susan and Kane first meet in the street: Susan has a toothache, and a passing car has splashed Kane with mud. Circumstances have diminished the social, age, and class differences between the two that may otherwise have thwarted their connection. Susan, usually screechy and overbearing, here seems soft-spoken, gentle, and naïve because of her toothache, and Kane’s helpless predicament makes her laugh. She has no idea who Kane is. Kane, charmed by her unselfconsciousness, believes he has found someone who will love him unconditionally. When Susan’s true nature emerges, Kane willfully ignores it. She grows bitter when he pressures her to become someone he believes is more suited to his station. Kane tries to force others to see her as he does, which nearly drives her to suicide. Kane’s attempts to completely control her almost rob her of her identity, and the only way she can save herself is to leave him.
Susan's appearance in Kane's life is the fulcrum on which Kane's fortunes turn. Kane’s life before meeting Susan is very different from his life after meeting her, and Susan effectively splits the movie into two parts: the world of Kane’s rise and the world of his fall. Before Kane meets Susan, his story plays out in a world where he’s ruthless, successful, and respected. After meeting Susan, his story becomes inseparable from their relationship and their life together. Because of his relationship with her, his marriage breaks up, his political aspirations shatter, and he loses the respect of society at large. Susan represents Kane’s lost innocence and fall from grace. When Susan finally leaves him, the loss Kane feels mirrors the loss he felt when his mother left. He trashes Susan’s room and finds the snow globe, which brings back long-repressed memories of his childhood. Kane has no one now that Susan is gone, and nothing to hold onto but the past.
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