Bernstein: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember.”
This quote comes at the beginning of Bernstein’s recollections of his relationship with Kane, when he talks to Thompson about what “Rosebud” could possibly mean. Bernstein goes on to tell Thompson an anecdote of how, back in 1896, he was on a ferry and saw a girl on another ferry. She was wearing a white dress and holding a white parasol. Although he saw her only for a second, he says that a month hasn’t gone by since then that he hasn’t thought of her. Many experts on film history and on Citizen Kane in particular consider this the most important quote in this film, encompassing as it does the themes of loss, memory, and idealism. These abstractions mean different things to the different characters who tell the story of Kane’s life, yet this quote speaks to their shared experience: all of the film's characters in some way lack control over their memories, and their recollections are clouded by their own experiences and prejudices. Thompson never gets a true picture of Charles Foster Kane because everything he learns is filtered through these imperfect memories.
Just as Bernstein lost the girl in the white dress, who is merely an idealized representation of his own youth, Kane loses his childhood, and it becomes an increasingly important touchstone in his memory even as it becomes more distant and unreal. Everyone in this film loses something, and what they lose lingers as a kind of holy grail for each of them. Kane loses his mother and childhood, Susan loses her simple life, and Leland loses his family name and the respect that accompanied it. In spite of Bernstein’s successes in the business world, he still harbors an inchoate longing for a girl he never met, just as Kane, in spite of his tremendous success, longs for the life that was taken from him. At the end of his life, Kane can do nothing but idealize, through his memory of Rosebud, the youth he can never recapture.