Citizen Kane: Narrative Style and Kane’s Character

Narrative Style

Citizen Kane is a film about the collapse of the “American Dream”, the struggle for love, abuse of power, and the toxicity of wealth. It’s also a film with a central message: no one can ever truly know who someone is. Kane’s story is told through a series of flashbacks, which all seem to contradict each other. As the faceless reporter interviews these various figures in Kane’s life, we get a different perspective each time. Below, I have posted a movie poster for Citizen Kane, in which different characters throughout the film are shown exclaiming different opinions regarding Kane.

When we first begin these interviews, it feels as though we are going to be presented with the truth and that we, the audience, will have an inside look on Citizen Kane and who the man really was. However, by the end of the film, it is clear that the truth has not been presented. The story is told chronologically, as we know with Kane’s aging appearance, but it seems that some events are left out. Each of the storytellers is telling the story that interests/involves them and not the full truth. At the end of the film, we appear to be handed the “missing piece” to the jigsaw puzzle, with the Rosebud engraved sled. However, was this really the final piece? To me, it seems like there are still pieces missing. It’s a jigsaw puzzle that is impossible to complete. No one can ever know who Kane truly was, perhaps not even Kane himself.

Kane’s Character 

I’m not a searcher this week, but I did want to include an article I found because I found it very relevant to character analysis in Citizen Kane. Link to the article: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/movies/2011/12/citizen-kane/. When watching the story of Kane’s life as well as the stories told by others, I got that the sense that Kane could have narcissistic personality disorder. To me, he appeared to lack empathy, had no ability to love someone other than himself,  and was easily upset when things didn’t go his way/he didn’t get what he wanted. After doing a bit of googling, I found the article linked above, which shared my idea and also made some other very interesting points. It is definitely worth the quick read.

I think this theory makes sense with the idea that no one could ever truly know who Kane was. Who is the true person behind the narcissist? Is it possible to know the individual behind that shell? Does an individual exist?

In class, we were asked to think about if/why we feel empathy for Kane’s character, even if we are not rooting for him. I think the story of Kane’s childhood at the beginning of the film, the one story hat I felt I could almost completely believe, helped develop my empathy for Kane’s character. His father is clearly abusive, as he tells Mr. Thatcher (Kane’s future caregiver) that Kane deserves to be beat. The way his father speaks is verbally abusive as well. His mother seems cold and emotionally distant from her son. She tells Thatcher that Charlie’s things have been packed for a while and she says this without any visible emotion. This is unusual for a mother who is basically giving up her son and making him live somewhere else.

I think his childhood is very troubled and this is what leads to his troubled adulthood and the development of his personality. At the end of the film, we see that Kane has died alone, with nothing but material things. In his life, he never obtained any real meaning. Being a human being who does feel empathy and emotion, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Kane and the way he ended up. The film is set up so we see his childhood early on and I couldn’t help but remember Kane’s childhood innocence and what could have been if his circumstances were different.

Perhaps psychoanalyzing Kane’s character goes against the central message of the movie- that we never truly know a person (and there isn’t one piece of information that will give us an answer). However, perhaps that is partially what Welles wanted us to do. The entire story of the film revolves around discovering who Kane was and the meaning behind his final words. It leaves the viewer helpless at the end of the film and accepting of the fact that Kane was just a sort of enigma. Maybe that’s all we can infer and maybe it is supposed to be left at that. Even when we see the Rosebud sled at the end of the film, though other characters are not aware of its existence, is this really some huge revelation? What does it really tell us?

3 comments
  1. I like how you said: “To me, it seems like there are still pieces missing. It’s a jigsaw puzzle that is impossible to complete. No one can ever know who Kane truly was, perhaps not even Kane himself.”
    Going off your points, I think its interesting to look at how much the audience does seem to want to solve the puzzle that is Kane. We are following the reporter to figure out the meaning of Kane’s last words, however, as the story progresses the audience gets lost in the tales of Kane’s life and at many points forgets what the purpose of the original search was. There is such a non-linear path that is Kane’s life, which is paralleled by how many people and various tales are told to the reporter. This idea is central to how we look at people, because we start with a newsreel that simplifies Kane’s life and legacy, but we are soon aware how complex of a man he actually was. I think that it speaks to the idea that no one’s life is as great or simplistic as it may appear on the outside, not with Kane or any of the other characters in the movie. This concept is something that is just as relevant now as it was in 1941, which could be in part why it is such an iconic movie. Nowadays, with social media and the seemingly perfect lives that we view, it can be hard to realize that there is more behind the photos that the public sees. Just as Kane’s life was spattered on newspapers with ideas that seemed solidified, the other character’s comments about Kane not being truthful (even in writing) can be compared to the social media and celebrity lives (and lies) that we experience today.

  2. To answer your question at the bottom of your post, I believe Rosebud is a huge revelation to viewers. In my opinion, I believe the sled symbolizes what could have been if Kane had a proper childhood. We see him grow up in the worst way possible. He was tormented as a child by his abusive father, and then he was sold off to the bank where he began his track in becoming this huge tycoon. As a whole, he didn’t really get to experience a real childhood, and that aspect of his life in part accounts to how he became narcissistic and materialistic. So, the fact that no one ever finds out about Rosebud in the film emphasizes that this idea was just a fading thought and memory about what could have been, and everyone will always remember him as the narcissistic and lonely news tycoon.

  3. I think the significance of Rosebud is the fact that nobody in the film knows what it is. The plot revolves around trying to figure out who or what is this mysterious Rosebud. The world only knew Kane as the wealthy and powerful man that he became. In their eyes Rosebud must be significant if it was the last word of a man living in Xanadu, with a massive collection of rare art, and with a history of secret romances. This limited Thompson’s search to when Kane was rich, and the answer to his question would therefore never be found.

    Only the audience knows that Rosebud came from a time in Kane’s life where everything was simple. The first transition from poverty to wealth shows Kane receiving a new sled, and he is not exactly thrilled about it. I found it telling that even with everything he had, Kane kept items from when he was poor. Perhaps he longed for those days of playing in the snow. Maybe Kane wished his life was not changed by wealth. Even though his original life was not great he did not want to leave. Kane’s childhood and simple existence went up in flames just as Rosebud did. I think the revelation raises these questions for the purpose of making the audience think about Kane’s character.

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