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Search for Meaning and Identity in Citizen Kane

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Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), one of the greatest classic movies, provides a realistic representation of the search for meaning and identity through the analysis of the term ‘Rosebud’. ‘Rosebud’ refers to the mysterious dying word of the film’s protagonist – Charles Foster Kane. The film centres itself around ‘Rosebud’ as a reporter seeks to unravel its hidden meaning in order to gain more understanding of Kane’s life. Through the use of critical formal analysis, this essay argues that ‘Rosebud’ represents the protagonist’s lost original identity which he failed to regain and the fundamental values such as love and human relationship which he was unable to recognise in the search of his life’s true meaning. This essay also expands on the idea of Citizen Kane as a reflection on how people desperately seek for a singular and definitive answer in reality when it comes to interpreting a movie’s meaning. These representations of the search for meaning and identity can be critically examined through the loss of his original identity which he failed to gain back, Kane’s failure to recognise love and human relationship as the answer to the question of his life’s meaning and Thompson’s search for the meaning of ‘Rosebud’ as a representation of the way audiences interpret films in real life.

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Kane had been searching for his true self throughout his entire life and ‘Rosebud’ is an emblem of Kane’s initial identity when he was a child, which now he had lost. Jackson (2008) argues in his paper that the young Kane was born into an entirely new identity as a result of Mrs. Kane signing her son over to Thatcher (p.37). Indeed, Kane had the identity of an innocent boy, who was loved and belonged, but without his approval, his mother gave it away to Thatcher. This is demonstrated clearly in the scene where Kane’s parents had a discussion on his future with Thatcher while the young Kane was playing outside in the snow (“Citizen Kane” 00:19:35). In this scene, Toland, the film’s cinematographer, used a deep-focus technique that allowed him to photograph backgrounds (where Kane’s parents and Thatcher were sitting) with as much clarity as foregrounds (where the young Kane is playing outside, as seen through the window). Orson Welles’ intention to juxtapose these two frames in a scene and Toland’s excellent camera technique has emphasized the contrast between the innocent Kane and his determined fate awaiting him. On sending him away, Kane’s mother wanted a bright future for him, a life better than she can provide him at that moment. However, contrary to what his mother expected, Kane had grown up to be a totally different person due to the deprivation from the maternal care and also, the sway of money and power. Under Thatcher’s upbringing, Kane lost his pure innocence, turned himself into a “phony champion of people” (Naremore 2004, p.140). Here came his new identity built from his rebellious behaviours and egotism. This identity he built for his own is regarded as a retaliation against Thatcher’s “quasi-parental authority” (Maxfield, 1986). Kane would do anything opposing against what Thatcher wanted him to do: “to become everything you hate” (“Citizen Kane” 00:29:36-37), which is especially indicated in the way Kane ran the Inquirer. The deprivation from maternal care, the way Thatcher brought him up and the illusion of power and money has stolen the young Kane’s innocence, his true self and left behind the older Kane being egoistic, lost in the artificial self he had built up.

With regard to Citizen Kane’s representation of the search for meaning, ‘Rosebud’ represents the fundamentals of human spirituality such as love and human relationships, which are actually the answer that Kane had always been looking for, but was unable to recognise, in the search of his life’s meaning. Carringer (1976) stated in his paper that “[a]n emotional wound inflicted in childhood left a permanent scar; ever after, Charles Foster Kane was to be incapable of loving, or even of dispensing simple humanity” (p.185). Indeed, since the day he was deprived of parental love, Kane no longer received such unconditional love from anybody, even Thatcher. This, in fact, has a significant negative impact on Kane’s psyche because it creates a sense of loneliness, loss, emptiness and worse, the fear of abandonment (Enckell 1985, p.24). Consequently, an overweening egotism was established in him. He started to have the idea of reciprocity, a ‘love on [his] terms’ (“Citizen Kane” 01:15:20). For Kane, “love on [his] terms” means using his material wealth to manipulate everybody into loving him instead of giving them his real love and commitment. Later in their relationships with Kane, Susan and Leland was able to realize the truth. This is clearly demonstrated in Susan’s dialogue with Kane: “[you] don’t love me, you want me to love you. I’m Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want just name and it’s yours. But you gotta love me” (“Citizen Kane” 01:43:22). Likewise, Leland thinks Kane never recognizes any value beyond his personal egotism: “[he] never believed in anything except Charles Kane. He never had a conviction except Charles Kane in his life” (“Citizen Kane” 00:50:47). He also contrasts Kane with other people like himself who do possess particular values: “… we do know what we’re leaving. We do believe in something” (“Citizen Kane” 00:50:49). Even in the most desperate situation, like when Kane begged Susan to stay with him at the end of their relationship, he ultimately thinks only of himself: “Please don’t go. Please. Susan. From now on everything will be exactly the way you want it to be, not the way I think you want it, but your way. Susan-You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me” (“Citizen Kane” 01:45:34). His supreme ego is a great barrier preventing him from realizing love and human relationship as being essential to the meaning of his life. Moreover, being manipulated by the illusion of wealth and power also discourages him from realizing those fundamental values. Kane is a man whose life filled with material wealth in the absence of human sympathy and tolerance. To substitute for the love he had lost, he started a “quest of acquisitions extending to power, statues, newspapers and [even] people” (Gajewski 2015, p.2). It is clear in the film that his first priority is to gain success and his values are quantitatively oriented: he values the love of the mass of voters over the love of a few individuals such as his friends and family. If at the very beginning of the movie, Welles used close-up on Kane and the snow globe to emphasize his loneliness at death, then the ending scene is the reversal of it where Welles uses extreme long shot and deep focus to demonstrate vividly the huddle of Kane’s knickknacks. By creating the contrasting imagery between the establishing scene and ending scene, Welles wisely highlights the underlying message of the movie: a wealthy material life does not guarantee a meaningful life. Without the fundamental values mentioned above, just like a missing piece in an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle, the meaning of Kane’s life could never be fulfilled in spite of the fact that how rich and powerful he is.

Another layer of Citizen Kane’s representation of the search for meaning is the idea that people often rely on the film characters’ perspectives to seek for an absolute answer to draw ultimate inference about the meaning of the movie without knowing that the answer is subjective to each individual’s own opinion. This idea is reflected through the different approaches of the two characters, Thompson and Rawlson, to the search for the meaning of Rosebud. Regarding Rawlson’s viewpoint, ‘Rosebud’ is a simple thing that would explain everything about Kane’s life: “Rosebud dead or alive! It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing” (“Citizen Kane” 00:14:17). Therefore, his main purpose on requesting the research is to find a definitive answer to the question of who Kane was. This approach represents the shallow premise that viewers often take when they try to interpret a movie’s meaning. Whereas, Thompson seems to disagree with Rawlson’s point of view. He refuted Rawlson’s claim that Kane “maybe he told us all about himself on his deathbed’ by saying “Maybe he didn’t” (“Citizen Kane” 00:13:10). In his opinion, Rosebud might provide with a lot of clues to understand Kane’s life but it is not sufficient enough to draw an ultimate conclusion about who exactly Kane was. Indeed, after having an interview with all his witnesses, what Thompson found was that Kane was “ultimately a myriad of different people that cannot be unified by one single word” (Gajewski 2015, p.3). Each one of these witnesses has their own interpretations of Kane with each different biased story. In his paper, Gajewski has cleverly spotted that those divergent views of Kane are interestingly represented in the image of “Kane walking past a mirror in Xanadu, revealing multiple, fragmented Kanes as if they are walking beside him” (Gajewski 2015, p.3). Rosebud only reveals to the audience that the truth of Kane’s life “can only be calculated by the sum of everything that has been said about him” (Carringer 1976, p.189). In the end, Thompson concluded that there is no ultimate answer as to who Kane was. From the beginning, the movie’s narrative structure in which Kane’s story is told without his voice, already shows no definitive resolution (Carringer 1976, p.189). In fact, this is the intention of Mankiewicz and Welles to indicate that the movie would not give any revelations and the understanding of ‘Rosebud’ itself should really depend on viewers’ experiences and their own way of interpretation. If the audience takes the shallow viewpoint of Rawlson then the interpretation of the term ‘Rosebud’ will be oversimplified. For example, when encountering the sled being burned in the ending scene, the audience will probably think the sled is the answer which explains Kane is an egoistic man obsessing with his lost childhood (Carringer 1976, p.190). Instead, the film producers want the audience to have a deep thought about the movie because a movie is not served solely for the sake of entertainment, it also contains underlying messages reflected some of aspects of our daily lives. As stated in Gajewski’s paper, “[c]inema is rooted in a longing to visually reanimate life and its struggles … Citizen Kane illustrates the wonders and capacities that human beings have to achieve, fail, struggle and ultimately go on with their lives” (2005, p.5). To sum up, Rawlson’s viewpoint about Rosebud’s meaning represents the audience’s “longing for film to provide answers where none exist” (Gajewski 2005, p.6) and Thompson’s contrasting viewpoint represents the approach to film’s interpretation that every film producer desires the audience to have.

Representations of one’s search for meaning and identity are fundamental to Orson Welles’s film, Citizen Kane (1941). The representation of the search for identity and meaning within Citizen Kane provides the audience with a vivid reflection of reality accompanying with meaningful messages behind the movie.

Work Cited

  1. Carringer, R. L. “Rosebud, Dead or Alive: Narrative and Symbolic Structure in Citizen Kane.” PMLA, vol. 91, no. 2, 1976, pp. 185-193.
  2. Citizen Kane. Directed by Orson Welles, RKO Radio Pictures and Mercury Productions, 1941.
  3. Enckell, M. (1985). ““Citizen Kane” and Psychoanalysis: Film and psychoanalysis”. Scand. Psychoanal. Rev., 8(1):17-34
  4. Gajewski, S. “Citizen Kane: The inadequacies of the Rosebud ending.” Merici, vol.1, 2015, pp. 1-6.
  5. Jackson, T. “Writing, Orality, Cinema: The ‘Story’ of Citizen Kane.” Narrative, no. 1, 2008, p. 29. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.175629047&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  6. Naremore, J. “Style and Meaning in Citizen Kane.” Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A casebook, edited by James Naremore, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 135-145.
  7. Maxfield, J. ”A Man Like Ourselves’: Citizen Kane as an Aristotelian Tragedy.’Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 3, 1986, pp. 195-203. ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/docview/226977687?accountid=12372

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