Citizen Kane: Isolation and the American Identity

Orson Welles as the almighty Charles Foster Kane

It was the grandiose Charles Foster Kane who said “I am, have been, and will be only one thing – an American.” It was also this fictional publishing tycoon who embodied Frederick Jackson Turner’s assigned characteristics to the American frontier, the “masterful grasp of material things…that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil” (Turner 9). By connecting these statements, it is clear that Citizen Kane advertises qualities of the Great West and perhaps serves as an extension for the genre of the Western in American film history. In contrast with most Westerns, however, is the film’s critique of “that dominant individualism,” which, without the balance of community, can result in negative consequences such as arrogance, selfishness, and extreme radicalism. In this darker version of the Western, Kane traps himself within the the confines of individualism contrary to his desire to find love and be loved. Kane’s snow globe represents the dysfunctional relationship between his desires and the need to fulfill the frontier’s individualistic demands. As a visual metaphor, the snow globe is a cage for Kane as his dominant individualism leads to his failed attempts to buy love and acceptance, isolating himself in the process.

Kane’s Trip Down Red River

Citizen Kane adopts the Western’s focus on civilizing the wild by showing the consequences of exaggerated capitalism and, as a given, dominant individualism. The young Charles Foster Kane, who represents capitalism’s competition and materialism, eventually transforms into the emotionally distant, greed-driven tycoon people describe him to be after his death. To serve as a comparison to Citizen Kane, the 1948 Western, Red River, introduces us to Thomas Dunson, the personification of capitalism gone too far. Typical of its genre, Red River successfully shows that a balance of individualism and community are needed to establish the “proper” civilization, separate from the harsh wilderness. As this cautionary tale continues in Citizen Kane, the steps after establishing civilization spiral downward. Both Kane and Dunson, men who succeed at achieving dominant individualism, are eventually overcome by egotism and greed. Kane’s confinement to this isolating mentality is a struggle that western characters like Dunson also face in the midst of establishing civilization.

Dunson leaving for the West

While Dunson is motivated by his desire to provide resources across the country and Kane by his desire to find unconditional love, their dominant individualism isolates them from their communities; this distancing is evident in their relationships with women, who traditionally stand for community, compassion, and cooperation in the Western. At the beginning of Red River, Dunson rejects the idea of bringing his lover to the West with him. In doing so, he is also rejecting that sense of community, compassion, and cooperation. Because these characteristics do not accompany him in his capitalistic pursuits, his individualism becomes isolation due to a lack of balance. Similar to Dunson’s failure to find balance, young Kane’s inability to establish a relationship with his mother contributes to his materialism and isolation in adulthood. Ironically, she shows none of the traditional “feminine” characteristics, which disallows any existence of balance. It could be argued that Kane gradually becomes trapped in his mentality by emulating his mother’s individualism. Inside the snow globe, there is a home similar to Mrs. Kane’s boarding house where his mother sent him away, which pushes the idea of being trapped inside the mentality he gained from her. Kane’s search to fill the void his mother left is deterred by an increase in his steadfast, isolating individualism.

Where Consensus Gets Lost

Citizen Kane’s narrative structure suggests that subjectivity is a direct consequence of individualism by filtering the entirety of Kane’s life through memories of friends and family. In flashbacks, each character takes creative license in describing Kane’s personality and the repercussions of his actions. A similar narrative structure in the 1950 film, Rashomon, uses flashbacks to reveal four witnesses’ contradicting accounts of a murder. Each film’s structure allows the characters to be the partially informed authors of a story that is already written, serving as evidence that subjectivity is a consequence of individualism. Rashomon argues that individuals have their own motivations, and therefore, perspectives tailored to fit their intentions. The characters in Citizen Kane are never shown talking to one another to reach a consensus, which can only result in sharing their own versions of Kane’s life. The competitive nature of individualism manifests itself in their assumption that their accounts are valid interpretations of Kane’s life despite being filtered through subjectivity. Just as Kane’s exaggerated individualism traps him into social isolation, civilized citizens are at risk of being trapped in this same mentality.

Individualism is illustrated in the paralleled settings of Citizen Kane and Rashomon, which traps both the characters and the audience into Kane’s mentality. Rashomon begins with several characters at a gate recalling a prior day’s events. This scene orients the audience towards what is objective, much like the opening documentary that introduces Charles Foster Kane. In this documentary, the audience comes to know Kane through his own words and actions; this instills an image of him that falls apart throughout the rest of the film. The courtyard in Rashomon aligns with the interviews in Citizen Kane in that “truth” is actively being uncovered. Both films cast the audience as the role of the judge, which requires individual interpretation in order to draw conclusions. The events in the woods, Rashomon’s scene of the crime, are revealed through flashbacks within a flashback of the courtyard, exaggerating the accounts’ subjectivity further. Although Citizen Kane does not contain multiple layers of subjectivity, the flashbacks serve the same purpose of distorting the truth. Evidently, subjectivity trickles into each film’s narrative structure, both of which depend on the viewers’ individual judgments. Given the responsibility to analyze through our own subjective lenses traps us into that individualism that Kane himself struggles to escape.

The complexity of this narrative structure intensifies the symbolism of the snow globe, which plays into the characters’ stubborn independence and subsequent isolation. The snow globe’s role can be simplified as the object Kane desires to see himself in, a memory to revisit before his sense of love and acceptance was taken from him. While the audience watches the characters, who have watched Kane to a degree, Kane is watching the snow globe to relive the positive memories of his childhood. This layered structure is similar to that in Rashomon where the audience watches characters listening to stories within a story. Meanwhile, this presentation of the “truth” in both films detracts from what is already concretely established. In Rashomon, trust is instilled in the main storyteller before his credibility is threatened at the end of the film. Up until that point, the audience has latched onto his words to reconstruct the situation because that is all they are given. Likewise in Citizen Kane, we see a breakdown of trust in what is initially presented as objective, particularly in the documentary containing his own words and actions. This rejection of other accounts, a distrust stemmed from individualism, contributes to the social isolation we see the characters experiencing, especially Kane.

Symbols of Kane’s Fate

Boarding house in Citizen Kane

To draw attention to Kane’s emotional quarantine, Welles uses the box shape of windows throughout the film to symbolize Kane’s confinement to American individualism. His loss of freedom is first expressed when a young Charles Kane is seen from a small window in his mother’s boarding house. Meanwhile, Mrs. Kane decides to send her son to Chicago for access to more opportunity. Kane appears to be “boxed” into the fate his mother decides for him in this scene, reducing his role to something of a china doll ready to be shipped east. Years later, Kane finds success in the newspaper industry, his individualism seemingly contributing to his victory. In the midst of celebrating this success, Kane’s dancing reflection is seen on a window above his employers as they express their worries that the industry will change him for the worse. Kane’s isolation is not only recognized by those around him, but is also visible to the audience. Just as the snow globe provides an image for Kane’s imprisonment, windows serve the same purpose.

Kane’s placement in the frame and relative height to those around him expresses his level of authority in varying situations. As a general rule, his dominance is generally represented by his towering stature over others, whether they be sitting, standing, or otherwise. In the scene where Kane introduces his declaration of principles, he clearly has the first and final say of the discussion between his coworkers. As his sitting coworkers are gathered around him, Kane maintains his position as the tallest in the frame as he paces between the foreground and the middleground. Similar compositions are found throughout the film, the scene when Mr. Thatcher confronts Kane about his business tactics being another strong example. As Kane, the shortest in the frame, nonchalantly rejects Thatcher’s demands, he gradually becomes the composition’s more dominant figure; eventually, these two meet head to head before Kane sends off a shorter, defeated Thatcher. This expressionist technique may actually allude to Turner’s “dominant individualism” more plainly than any other technique in the film, as it directly connects the audience’s first impression of Kane’s individualism with the actual characters’ perceptions of his authority.

As Kane’s dominance increases at different points in the film, contrasts in lighting reveals his slow, individualism-induced corruption. Revisiting the declaration of principles scene, a fully-lit Kane starts in the middleground. As he approaches the desk to sign his noble promise to the public, a large shadow obscures his face. Not only is this visually sinister, but the darkness hides Kane’s identity; his individualism has fallen out of balance with his compassion for the public, and therefore, taken over his sense of being. This imbalance continues as he ages, for example, when Kane attends Susan’s opera performance. A band of light stretches across the top half of his face as he watches her, like a better part of him is possibly taking over his identity. Yet the shadow covering his mouth implies that he is still a dishonest man, that his actions are still corrupt. Just as Kane’s placement indicates dominance, the lighting shows his battle with corruption.

As Charles Foster Kane mutters his final word, the snow globe slips from his lifeless hand, shattering not only the glass, but the cage his extreme “dominant individualism” placed him in. The destruction of the snow globe is a critique of American individualism. This critique is not that individualism carves out a definite path to corruption; conversely, when individualism is taken to extremes, can trap even the most level-headed of people into social isolation. By seeing a dead Kane through the broken glass of the snow globe, this shot implies that death may be the only escape from this isolating mentality. As a message that has applied to several generations and probably many more, Citizen Kane makes an expressive visual argument that finding balance between individualism and a sense of community is requisite to a fulfilling life.

Works Cited

Hawks, Howard. Red River. 1948.

Kurosawa, Akira, et al. Rashōmon. 1950.

Turner, Fredrick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History 1893 .” National Humanities Center, 2005.

Welles, Orson, et al. Citizen Kane. 1941.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Danielle Green is a recent college graduate and independent filmmaker. She also writes for a humanist blog called Side with Science, which focuses on social issues.

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  1. I was put off watching Kane, despite a love of film, until I was about 24, and the astonishing thing – it was mind opening to me. It was beyond brilliance. You see I made the mistake of thinking it was revered because of the technical wizardry, but of course, innovation is neither here or there in the long run – no-one holds up the Casio VL Tone as the greatest electronic keyboard. It is the superb subject matter – the nature and the identity of individuals, the essential unknowability of them, their mystery. Plus it is about the 20th century. Plus it is about America. Plus it is about the nature of sex and power and … oh god anything. There could never again be a film as good unless it matched medium to message so exquisitely. There are many films I love and which make me cry or laugh, or get more angry, yet none which are so magnificently mysterious and yet equisite.

  2. the biggest mystery is why this average movie about a newspaper tycoon is considered one of the greatest movies ever.

    • Sorensen

      Thanks for that, it has never once occured to me that Citizen Kane was an average movie. Or many other people for that matter.
      Any hints on what books I shouldn’t re-read?

    • It’s because Welles used a whole lot of technical devices that are commonplace today but which at the time were totally new. Nothing much to do with the story itself – although that was quite daring and innovative for its time as well.

    • I have never understood the line that Citizen Kane is ‘the greatest film ever made’. It’s good, yes, but there are some equally great film. And why this obsession with ‘bests of all time’?

    • It’s not a mystery.

  3. Kane is a fabulous film full of narrative and technical invention.

  4. Nice to see your article go live! Orson Welles was a real genius here. Although it isn’t one of my personal favorites, it’s not hard to see why it’s considered the greatest film of all time. Welles was also a pretty fearless man since he took great personal risk with his subject matter.

  5. A hugely influential film, of course but, dare one say it – one that lacks heart? Ultimately, it’s a riches to riches tale – he is born rich, stays pretty rich and dies rich. Whilst this may provide food for thought, it is nothing to get worked up about; nothing to move the emotions. Is it too much to suggest that this otherwise wonderful accomplishment was apparently made without that most basic of ingredients: a good story?

  6. Sal Lash

    I think a touch of evil is a much better film than Citizen Kane.

  7. Omer Voss

    An absolute tour de force from Orson Welles. It’s sad how Welles’s career gradually petered out after such dizzying heights of creativity.

  8. Why is “Kane” the grandest popular failure of critically successful American movies? First, Welles took on Hearst (and Louella Parsons), and knew he was doing it–the result being that Hearst financed a campaign to blunt the success of the film upon its release. But more important, it’s a pessimistic film filled with intellectual moments and intellectual easter eggs–exactly the kind of film the anti-intellectual American public didn’t and doesn’t want to see.

  9. Jarrell

    Well done. Bloody well done. Terrific film. I always wondered why people said it was the “greatest film ever made”: then I saw it.

    • Bigelow

      It might be, to film critics at least, “the greatest film ever made,” but watch Buck Privates made the same year and you’ll understand why it turned the greatest return on investment. Citizen Kane lost money for the studio that made it as movie goers went instead to see Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, and Buck Privates.

      • If Welles inspired Scorsese that’s enough for me. Since when did a studio promote a good movie, all they have ever care about is blockbusters and money. So, this year we have the hype of crap like the Fast and Furious series, next year it will be Fast and Furious 12 or 13.

        Scorsese has introduced us to Keitel and De Niro, and now we have Tribecca, so we can still have good movies.

        Too bad we don’t support arts, like France. They produce so many amazing movies and they do not have to be a blockbuster that was written for a 12 year old boy that likes video games.

        Best ever, Huston and Bogart flicks.

  10. Fabulous piece.

  11. Its easy to understand why Rupert Murdoch has been too afraid to watch it. Too much like watching your own epitaph being written before you actually depart. Like Kane, his success sowed the seeds of his moral bankruptcy and and his attempt to replace morality and civic responsibility with worship of the Golden Calf. It is a testament to Wells’ greatness that he could see others would attempt to follow in the footsteps of William Randolph Hearst into hubris and ignominy, a classical Greek tragedy played out on the silver screen.

  12. I often feel the most important scene in the whole film is when Kane meets Susan Alexander for the first time, because in that scene, he was on his way to examine some items left at the family home after his mother died. At that moment, Kane unwittingly had a chance to regain some of that happiness he had taken from him in childhood, and he misses it.

    Welles, perhaps, longed for that moment when he could recover his childhood, but kept being distracted.

  13. Kidwell

    What a great film it is and still stands the test of time as a story of the increasing power of the media in the late 20th Century compared with the lessening power of the individual.

  14. Matthew

    What a good piece … enjoyed reading that.

  15. As someone who is suspicious of much lauded works of art, I was quite prepared to dislike the film, but when I finally saw Citizen Kane it was indeed brilliant.

  16. Emily

    As I was reading your article I was thinking about why I love Citizen Kane. Perhaps it is because every film professor from college threw it in their syllabus. Regardless of if I was forced to sit through 10 screenings of it to pass undergrad, it is one of my favorite films.

    What I especially love is your comparison to film’s western genre. When we think of the Wild West, we typically think in relation to the United States. However, Kane has a strong sense of individualism and nationalism for the country. Although, I would argue his nationalistic pride is used as a prop for his narcissism. Thus, Kane’s western struggle is actually the America as the Western world.

    I also think the conversation of a “dominant individualism”, as you call it, is very interesting. In a way, what he worked so hard for is actually what ended him. When looked at this way, Kane is a representation for America’s Wild West.

  17. Munjeera

    Great analysis of a classic.

  18. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    It’s always amazing that some films just endure for years and new eyes see them in ways they might not have been seen in the past.

  19. A very interesting parallel between Citizen Kane and Westerns that had never occurred to me — excellent work!
    It took me years of badgering from my father to finally watch the film, and I’m so glad that I waited: I was actually able to appreciate the symbolism within the cinematography and the film’s overall themes and messages.

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