Reflections on Charles Foster Kane


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The entire premise of "Citizen Kane" is to uncover the story behind tycoon Charles Foster Kane's last word, "Rosebud", and it is only at the end of the film that Rosebud is rather poignantly revealed to be the sledge with which Kane played as a child. Indeed, the young Charles is seen having fun with Rosebud the very day he is told that as a result of his mother coming into considerable wealth, his future care and education are to be entrusted to a total stranger, with the purpose of equipping him for a "better life", though at the expense of the care, love, nurturing, stability and reassurance his parents might have provided.

Rosebud represents, therefore, Kane's youthful innocence, idealism, trust, hope and potential, all suddenly diverted or redirected in the name of a more successful future. As time goes by and in the absence of parental affection, concern and advice, and doubtless bolstered by the reassurance of financial security and feeling no pressure to make a living or comply with standards and regulations, Kane displays little prudence and recognises no need to behave responsibly as he is expelled from a variety of schools and he confronts self-fulfilment but without the concept of integrity or altruism.

Seemingly to his great credit, he finds purpose and direction when he buys a failing newspaper in which he proudly declares his principles - to be truthful to his readers and to campaign on behalf of the underprivileged. While this declaration of apparent integrity is worthy, we are also aware of a willingness to apply manipulation and cunning to pursue broader aims and ambitions as he develops his newspaper empire by way of sensationalism and unfounded opinion pieces, allowing him to establish and expand social and personal influence.

He is willing to subsidise his paper with his personal fortune, however it becomes clear that this may be viewed as an investment in his own future as his editorial influence will eventually translate into aspirations toward political power when he sets his sights on becoming Governor and perhaps then President.

Out of the blue, we learn he is to marry the niece of the President. It becomes clear, however, that his relationship with Emily takes second place to the exercise of influence and the seeking of power, and this is brilliantly captured in the film by the ever-increasing distance and ever-deteriorating atmosphere between Kane and his wife at the breakfast table. It may be that each seeks to profit by the other's position and political ambition. Each may have been dazzled by the prospect of social and political advancement but each is disappointed by the lack of personal fulfilment in the relationship. The marriage, like the newspaper empire, may have been something of a facade to cover broader ambitions.

This may go some way to explaining Kane's attraction to Susan, a relatively simple but sincere failing singer. She is natural and she seems to like Kane for himself as she doesn't know of him. She is easy to get on with and they appear to have a genuine bond of friendship and mutual appreciation as Kane offers to help her with singing lessons.

However, Kane's political ambitions and his marriage are brought to an end by sensation-driven press coverage of Kane and Susan's friendship sponsored by Kane's opponent for the governorship. Kane marries Susan but is determined to transform her singing career into something worthy but also, more importantly, into a source of pride for him. Despite evidence of Susan's limited singing ability and her own feelings of inadequacy, Kane has an entire Opera House built around her talent. Perhaps he aspires to social and cultural worth and standing, but in personalising the construction of the Opera House to promote his wife's career and his own status, he is indulging in another sham which is doomed to failure.

It is at this point that he finally loses the friendship of his old ally, Jed Leland. Having moved to Chicago after a dispute with Kane over principle, Jed embarks on a review of Susan's performance while she is on tour but he drinks himself into a stupor while writing and falls asleep before completing it. Kane reads what he has written and finishes it for him, giving a balanced, fair and damning review of his wife's performance. He recognises the truth but refuses to accept it. By now corrupted by ego-driven desires fuelled by sufficient wealth to engender a feeling of entitlement, Kane will fire his friend Jed for refusing to twist events to suit his desired image of them, and at the same time will do away with whatever vestiges of integrity he had left. He will also push Susan to her limit and beyond before seeing things from another's point of view and conceding that ambition and means are not enough to guarantee success.

Almost by way of compensation, Kane sets about constructing Xanadu, a vast home complex and playground which is essentially a shrine to money and ego. He fills it with artwork, statues, souvenirs and a whole variety of objects, yet his wife Susan wants to leave him because he fails to understand that giving her things and a palatial home are no substitute for taking a genuine interest in her. All he has built is hollow, a setting with no substance. He aspires to greatness and perhaps a place in history by buying and building artworks, influence and edifices but he fails to realise that a legacy of worth is often born of humanity, warmth, hope and principle, and tributes or monuments are only of worth if undertaken in honour of another.

Perhaps Charles Foster Kane was deprived of the avenue of true greatness when his mother (and he) became fabulously wealthy and his life was redirected on the path of perceived success, and while he certainly garnered money and the trappings of success, and attracted notoriety, he remained fundamentally unfulfilled, as suggested by his wistful whispering of "Rosebud" on his death bed.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at .