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.
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.
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.