When 25-year-old Charles Foster Kane first receives the list of holdings that comprise his fortune, the 6th-largest in the world, all he cares about is the New York Inquirer, an ailing newspaper that he wants to take over. He reveals in his early days of running the Inquirer that he has an idealistic outlook - he believes that through the paper, he can become a voice of the poor and disenfranchised. It's not about the money for Charles Foster Kane - he has plenty of that - but rather, he craves the power to affect public opinion. He becomes increasingly corrupt, though, as he chooses to print stories that capture attention as opposed to selflessly serving the underprivileged, as he had once promised. Kane loses his power in one fell swoop, however, when he refuses to cave to Jim W. Gettys blackmail scheme, and his "love nest" with Susan Alexander is exposed. He goes from the verge of being elected Governor of New York to a ruined man in a sham marriage because he was too egotistical, too drunk on his own power, to admit that he was wrong.
Along with Charles Foster Kane's growing power comes his increasing corruption. He uses all kinds of underhanded tactics to sway public opinion in his favor. For example, he prints stories about the war for Independence in Cuba in order to encourage the American government to get involved in the fight against Spain, so that he can sell more newspapers. When he prints insulting cartoons of Jim W. Gettys, his opponent in the race for Governor of New York, Gettys decides to lash out in retaliation, and exposes Kane's relationship with Susan Alexander. In this way, Kane pays for his arrogance - for once, he is held accountable for his corrupt practices, and it costs him the gubernatorial race.
Charles Foster Kane's vanity prevents him from ever revealing the more vulnerable parts of his persona. When he loses the race for Governor due to the exposure of his and Susan's alleged affair, Charles Foster Kane is determined to save face. As Leland tells Thompson, the newspaper article that revealed the affair referred to Susan as a "singer", and Kane became determined to remove the quotation marks around the word. Charles Foster Kane could only marry a great singer, of course, and so he forces Susan and her mediocre talent to perform and train until she tries to commit suicide. Similarly, when Susan leaves him, the first thing Kane tells her is that all the guests in Xanadu will see her go. He is far more concerned with how he appears to others than how he is affecting the people around him, which is one of the reasons he ends up alone.
The power of the media is ever-evolving, and Citizen Kane captures one particular time in American history where newspapers were the only way that people received information. As the owner of a newspaper, Charles Foster Kane uses this fact to increase his influence over public opinion, filtering the news through the lens of his own public persona. As he tells Leland, he wants to make sure that readers of the New York Inquirer know who is taking responsibility for delivering them their news. Kane takes advantage of the media by using his paper to portray fictional atrocities in Cuba, which leads to America intervening and fighting against Spain. However, Kane is also taken down by the media, when Jim W. Gettys sells a story about Kane and Susan Alexander to The Chronicle.
The skeleton around which the plot of Citizen Kane is built is Thompson's search for the meaning of "Rosebud", Charles Foster Kane's last word. Although Thompson never discovers the meaning of the word, Welles reveals the secret to the audience when, at the end of the film, there is a shot of Kane's old childhood sled being thrown away -- and the inscription at the top of the sled is "Rosebud". This image represents the one thing that Charles Foster Kane longed for all his life but could never reclaim - his innocence. In the scene where Mr. Thatcher comes to Colorado to take young Charles away from his parents, Charles plays outside with his sled, happy and carefree. For him, the sled encapsulates this moment, the last time Charles was an innocent child before his wealth, and all the expectations that came with it, were foisted upon him.
The American Dream
Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg describe Citizen Kane as "the depiction of the American Dream gone sour" (109). The term "American Dream" refers to the concept that anyone can come to America and do well if they work hard, regardless of their social class or circumstances. The idea is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims "all men are created equal". At first, Charles Foster Kane seems to embody the American dream. He is given the best schooling and upbringing that money can buy, and through vision and hard work, parlays that into a massive media empire. However, the film shows all the goals of the American Dream - power, wealth, status - to be empty and worthless. Ultimately, Charles Foster Kane dies alone, in the castle built by the spoils of his own American Dream, lamenting his lost childhood.
Public Vs. Private
Citizen Kane depicts the tension between the public actions and the private life of a major figure like Charles Foster Kane. For example, it becomes clear in the breakfast table montage that Kane's marriage to Emily has fallen apart before he runs for Governor, but they put on a brave and united front for the cameras. Meanwhile, Charles Foster Kane has secretly been spending time with Susan Alexander, a 22-year-old shopgirl, all while publicly criticizing his opponent, Jim Gettys, for being corrupt. Once Charles Foster Kane's private dalliance becomes public, his entire persona as a "man of the people" falls apart. From then on, Kane refuses to sacrifice his private life for his public image. He forces Susan to become a great singer, which she will never be, and then hides away within Xanadu, throwing lavish picnic outings and trying to keep his unhappy marriage a secret. When Susan leaves him, his private life becomes public again, revealing all of the weaknesses he was desperately trying to hide.
Citizen Kane Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Citizen Kane is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Kane and Emily's marriage is cold and empty. Emily has no interest in her husband's work or political aspirations. Emily leaves her husband shortly before her death. Kane and Emily's son dies in the car accident alongside his mother.
Citizen Kane is all about continuity. The film's plot is circular rather than linear. Each successive story about Charles Foster Kane flows into the next one giving the viewer perspective on his life never attempted in cinema before.