Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Difficulty of Interpreting a Life
The difficulty of interpreting a person’s life once that life has ended is the central theme of Citizen Kane. After viewing an in-depth, filmed biography of Kane’s life, the producer of the biography asks his reporters a simple question: Who, really, was Charles Foster Kane? The producer recognizes that a man isn’t necessarily the sum of his achievements, possessions, or actions, but that something deeper must drive him. His clue that Kane was more than his public accomplishments is the last word Kane uttered: “Rosebud.” Kane’s life story unfolds in layers through the reporter Thompson's investigation and is told by a succession of people who were close to him. These various points of view are imbued with people’s particular prejudices, and the recollections are ultimately ambiguous and unreliable.
Kane never gets to tell his own life story, and we must wonder how much his telling of it would differ from the reminiscences of his associates. None of these people ever really knew what drove Kane to do the things he did. Only Thatcher would have had the chance to fully understand Kane, but he was too concerned with making money to have any compassion for a lonely child. He viewed Kane through a distant, mature lens of acquisition and conservatism. The differing perspectives on Kane’s life, especially in the absence of Kane’s own point of view, force us to question what was truly important in the life of Charles Foster Kane as well as to ponder what constitutes a life in general. Judging by Kane's last word, the most important pieces of his life were not the things that made him newsworthy, such as his newspaper successes and political ambitions, nor his friendships and associations. Instead, as Kane's life comes to an end, he grasps at a memory from his childhood. His defining moment was the point where his life changed irrevocably for what appears to be the better, from a materialistic viewpoint, but which actually leaves him vulnerable and alone.
The Myth of the American Dream
Citizen Kane was one of the first movies to depict the American Dream as anything less than desirable. As a child, Kane is fully happy as he plays in the snow outside the family’s home, even though his parents own a boarding house and are quite poor. He has no playmates but is content to be alone because peace and security are just inside the house’s walls. When Thatcher removes Kane from this place, he’s given what seems like the American dream—financial affluence and material luxury. However, Kane finds that those things don’t make him happy, and the exchange of emotional security for financial security is ultimately unfulfilling. The American dream is hollow for Kane. As an adult, Kane uses his money and power not to build his own happiness but to either buy love or make others as miserable as he is. Kane's wealth isolates him from others throughout the years, and his life ends in loneliness at Xanadu. He dies surrounded only by his possessions, poor substitutions for true companions.
The Unreliability of Memory
We learn the story of Charles Foster Kane from his acquaintances' recollections, not from the memories of the protagonist himself. Bernstein, one of the most unreliable narrators, gives the first significant reference to memories when he tells the reporter, Thompson, that it’s surprising what a man remembers. Bernstein's memories of Kane are colored by his unwavering admiration for him, which endured even as Kane became increasingly corrupt and withdrawn. Bernstein also tells Thompson about a girl he saw once and never forgot, an idealized, almost fictionalized fantasy that resembles Kane’s idealistic memories of his childhood. Thompson later meets with Leland, who is obviously suffering from the effects of old age. At one point he claims he can’t remember the name of Kane’s estate (Xanadu). This lapse in memory may be pretense, but it nonetheless casts a shadow of doubt on the reliability of Leland’s memories. Susan Alexander recounts her life with Kane through an alcoholic haze, which negatively affects the accuracy of her memories as well. These hazy recollections and idealizations are all that remain of Kane, a man who was once so powerful and larger-than-life. No matter how monumental his achievements, even a man like Kane will eventually be forgotten.
Charles Foster Kane repeatedly finds himself isolated from the world around him, whether he is young or old, happy or unhappy, alone or surrounded by others, which suggests that his final isolation is inevitable. The camerawork in Citizen Kane emphasizes this isolation. For example, we see Kane as a happy child playing alone in the snow, and a short time later, the camera isolates him between his mother and Mr. Thatcher as they plan to separate Kane from his home. He is still alone, but no longer happy. We next see Kane seated by himself in the center of a room ringed with dark-suited men, who watch him as he opens a gift from Thatcher. Kane’s isolation follows him into adulthood, where we see him sitting on his own in his newspaper office amid a celebration in his honor. The camera locates Kane in a triangular shot between Bernstein and Leland as the two men discuss Kane’s increasingly depraved tactics. The three men may be in physical proximity, but the nature of Bernstein and Leland's discussion and the way the shot frames Kane mark him as an outsider. Eventually Leland leaves Kane, and Kane barricades himself in his fortress with Susan. But Susan too leaves Kane, and in the end he dies alone, never having formed a lasting bond with anyone.
Because the story of Charles Foster Kane is told by his associates after his death, the primary storytellers are men who are far past their prime, and their degeneracy lends another layer of sadness and loneliness to the film. All of these men were once vital, active, and important. Now they’re bored, and society has shunted them aside. Bernstein, as chairman of the board, notes that he has nothing at all to do. Leland is in an old age home, stiff and somewhat senile. Thatcher, whose story comprises a significant source of material on Kane's life, is already dead by the time Thompson consults his memoirs. Even Kane himself, as he ages throughout the film, becomes devitalized and mechanical in his movements. His aging, ravaged state is painfully apparent in the scene where Susan leaves him and he tears up her room in anger. He moves stiffly and has difficulty venting his anger as violently as he wants to, which increases his frustration and isolates him even from his own feelings. Old age in Citizen Kane does not come with grace, but with defeat.
Charles Foster Kane is a rapacious collector. At one point, in a newspaper office so filled with statues that the employees can barely move around, Bernstein notes that they have multiple, duplicate statues of Venus (the goddess of physical beauty). Kane obsessively fills his estate with possessions, and at the end of the movie the camera pans across massive rooms filled with crates to show that he never even unpacked many of his purchases. Kane’s collecting is not that of a discriminating connoisseur—he buys art objects so fervently that his behavior more closely resembles the ravenous actions of a predator. After his disappointments in the political arena and with Susan’s opera career, Kane builds his estate, Xanadu, to isolate himself and Susan from those who spurned his attempts at manipulation, and he fills the castle with inanimate objects. He wields complete control over the world he’s created, and nothing can challenge his authority in this realm. Through his materialism Kane attempts to ameliorate the insults of the real world, where he couldn’t control his mother’s abandonment, Susan’s failed attempt at opera, the failure of his political career, and the souring opinions of his friends. He ends up at Xanadu alone, with his possessions as his only companions. By purchasing so many extravagant goods, Kane attempts to fill a void created by all the people who left him throughout his life. Yet the only two possessions that carry meaning for Kane on his deathbed are a simple snow globe and Rosebud, the sled he remembers from his youth.
Two sleds appear in Citizen Kane. Rosebud, the sled Kane loves as a child, appears at the beginning, during one of Kane’s happiest moments, and at the end, being burned with the rest of Kane’s possessions after Kane dies. “Rosebud” is the last word Kane utters, which not only emphasizes how alone Kane is but also suggests Kane’s inability to relate to people on an adult level. Rosebud is the most potent emblem of Kane’s childhood, and the comfort and importance it represents for him are rooted in the fact that it was the last item he touched before being taken from his home. When Kane meets Thatcher, who has come to take him from his mother, Kane uses his sled to resist Thatcher by shoving it into Thatcher’s body. In this sense, the sled serves as a barrier between his carefree youth and the responsibilities of adulthood and marks a turning point in the development of his character. After Thatcher's appearance, Kane's life is never again the same. Later, Thatcher gives Kane another sled, this one named Crusader—aptly named, since Kane will spend his early adulthood on a vengeful crusade against Thatcher. For the second time, Kane uses a sled (or in this case, the idea it represents) as a weapon against the man he sees as an oppressive force, but unlike Rosebud, Crusader carries no suggestion of innocence.
Reportedly, the idea of using the plot device of Rosebud came from writer Herman Mankiewicz. The story goes that he had a bicycle he adored as a child, and he never really recovered when it was stolen. Welles always thought it was a rather cheap idea, but he went along with it because it was an easy way to simplify the plot line.
The snow globe that falls from Kane’s hand when he dies links the end of his life to his childhood. The scene inside the snow globe is simple, peaceful, and orderly, much like Kane’s life with his parents before Thatcher comes along. The snow globe also associates these qualities with Susan. Kane sees the snow globe for the first time when he meets Susan. On that same night, he’s thinking about his mother, and he even speaks of her, one of only two times he mentions her throughout the film. In his mind, Susan and his mother become linked. Susan, like Kane’s mother, is a simple woman, and Kane enjoys their quiet times in her small apartment where he’s free from the demands of his complex life. Susan eventually leaves him, just as his mother did, and her departure likewise devastates him. As Kane trashes Susan’s room in anger, he finds the snow globe, and the already-thin wall between his childhood and adulthood dissolves. Just as his mother abandoned him once, Susan has abandoned him now, and Kane is powerless to bring back either one.
Kane repeatedly fails in his attempts to control the people in his life, which perhaps explains his obsession with collecting statues and the appearance of statues throughout the film, since statues can be easily manipulated. Thatcher, threatening and oppressive when alive, is harmless as a large, imposing statue outside the bank where his memoirs are housed. When Kane travels to Europe, he collects so many statues that he begins to acquire duplicates, even though Bernstein has begged him not to buy any more. Kane’s office and home overflow with statues, which he acquires without joy or discrimination. Kane has always aspired to control people, not just the world’s fine art, but puts his energy into collecting statues as his power over people swiftly and fully dissolves. For Kane, statues are nothing more than images of people, easily controlled—he can place them where he wants and even ignore them if he chooses. Over his statues, Kane has power: to acquire, to own, and to control. Statues eventually replace living people in Kane’s life, and he dies surrounded by these figures.
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