Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane is filled with fragments. Even in the very first sequence, the audience witnesses the titular character dying completely alone, separated from society; after his final word, he drops a snow globe and it shatters, shards of glass skittering across the tiled floor. Welles’s direction underlines the theme of fragmentation for the spectator: the story is told in sections by many narrators, Susan fills her time solving jigsaw puzzles, Kane is isolated from both his family and humanity as a whole, and even Thompson’s final line mentions missing pieces. The framing of certain key shots also captures only a portion of certain characters, such as Susan’s sultry leg in the second opera sequence, and another significant scene in Xanadu’s hall of mirrors shows Kane’s reflection fragmented infinitely. The very concept of fragmentation suggests multiplicity, repetition, and parts of a larger whole. As such, it effectively acts as a foil to the straightforward notion that anyone can wholly know an entire life or a complex personality such as that of Charles Foster Kane.
One of the most recognizable props from the film is the snow globe containing an idyllic cabin, mainly because it plays such a vital role in the opening scene as well as the climax. Kane clutches this snow globe as he lies on his deathbed; Welles includes an extreme close-up of his aged hand wrapped around the glass orb to make sure the audience realizes that it is of great importance. After Kane breathes his last, his lifeless fingers let the globe crash to the floor, splintering into many pieces. This is the first instance of literal fragmentation in the film. As the scene unfolds, the audience is not yet aware of the snow globe’s significance in Kane’s story. Later in the plot, as his relationship with Susan unfolds, it becomes clear that it is a visual manifestation of Kane’s notion of a perfect life: small, contained, and tranquil. He first encounters this snow globe when he meets Susan, and he finds it again after she abandons their marriage, so his efforts to clutch the globe turn out to be futile. The physical fragmentation of Kane’s symbolic perfect life has multiple implications in the narrative. First and most obviously, it means that a picturesque existence is impossible to maintain or even achieve. As Kane dies, he realizes that his life is nothing like what he wished for; he is alone in the massive Xanadu, surrounded by shallow opulence, simultaneously scrutinized by the public and truly known by no one. Nothing is small, contained, or tranquil, and when he recognizes this, he recalls a time when he did have all that he wanted—encompassed by the brief utterance “Rosebud”—and lets his dream smash into a thousand pieces. The fragmented glass also implies that there is not a single, one-size-fits-all perfect life; the notion Kane had concocted is broken, showing that his dream of the ultimate existence is a fallacy.
Since he is separated from his family, friends, and society all together, Kane is very much fragmented from his fellow man. The wealthy Mr. Thatcher takes young Charlie away from his mother and father in Colorado, but the boy is seemingly alone before the Wall Street mogul ever showed up. As Mrs. Kane discusses business with Mr. Thatcher in her boarding house, Charlie is visible through the open window. He runs past a snowman, play-acting the Civil War, happy as can be, but utterly alone. He has no peers to connect with, and it is evident that this is the norm by his contentedness. Eventually, he is completely severed from his family, and he presumably never sees them again. Young Charlie grows up surrounded by strangers in an emotionless place, as perceived in the brief Christmas scene. Kane only mentions his mother twice in the film, signaling almost total conscious separation. As an adult, Kane forms strong friendships with Leland and Bernstein, which he eventually discontinues due to his pride and corruption. Even before their friendships’ bitter end, however, Kane did not spend much time with them, instead gallivanting across Europe, partying with his yes-men, or working on one of his vanity projects. Ultimately, Kane is alone in Xanadu, surrounded only by servants whom he pays to live with him. From the beginning of his life to the end, Kane was merely a fragment of society, not a part of it.
Kane’s second wife Susan spends much of her idle time solving jigsaw puzzles, which is a fairly obvious instance of symbolic fragmentation. The audience fundamentally associates this idea with unresolved problems and fractured personalities. The pieces are designed to come together to form a larger, cohesive image, but they ultimately do not, leaving the spectator with a sense of lacking. Much like the snow globe, the symbol of the jigsaw puzzle holds various meanings. Susan is never shown completing her puzzles, implying that not even Kane’s wife—a person who is supposedly close to him physically and emotionally—truly understands him or his actions. Since not all the puzzle pieces fit succinctly by the end of the film, the spectator concludes that often the mystery of an individual can never be fully solved, and it is possible that even the established pieces of Kane’s personality may be incongruous.
Over the course of the film, Welles’s meticulous direction includes partial shots of characters at strategic moments, rendering them a mere fragment of themselves. In the opening scene, an extreme close-up of Kane’s mouth captures his dying word, “Rosebud”; the exclusion of the rest of his face emphasizes the importance of the word itself, not his persona or appearance. During Susan’s opera performance, the camera only captures her exposed leg at one point, followed by a shot of Kane watching menacingly from the balcony; this focused direction implies that Kane sees Susan as a seductive object, not a human being, and certainly not his beloved wife. Jerry Thompson, the reporter on the hunt for Rosebud, exists entirely as a fragment in the audience’s eyes. He is seen only in dark shadows or with his back to the camera. These choices force the audience to concentrate on Thompson’s interviewee rather than the reporter himself, essentially placing themselves in his shoes. These physically fragmented characters fulfill specific narrative roles in the film that their full forms would not have effectively accomplished.
Kane’s personality is also heavily fragmented and diverse, filled with contradictions and differences. Of course, all of his personality traits are presented by outside narrators, not Kane himself, so they may not all be completely accurate; regardless, these contrary behaviors are considered fragments of the individual as a whole, so they fit comfortably in the fragmentation motif. In the opening newsreel, one man calls Kane a “communist” and another calls him a “fascist,” despite these labels being on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum. Kane is shown associating with both Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive champion of democracy, and Adolf Hitler, the cruel dictator of the Third Reich. Early in his newspaper career, Kane declares his dedication to the truth and human rights, but then almost immediately uses his power to steal the Chronicle staff and spark a war with Spain. As a politician, Kane brands himself a liberal man of the people while simultaneously building a mammoth business and the sort of frivolous wealth his fellow left-wingers would detest. In his campaign speech, Kane condemns the villainy and dishonesty of his rival’s “political machine”; immediately after he says this, however, a high-angle camera shot captures him almost God-like, looking down upon his supporters, and the next shot displays the gigantic poster of his own face and name, highlighting his hypocrisy. Throughout the film, the various narrators reveal Charles Foster Kane to be a man of many opposing personalities, a fragmented individual manifested in one of the film’s most technically striking shots: the hall of mirrors.
This scene—one of the most vital to the fragmentation motif—plays out at the end of Susan’s flashback. After destroying Susan’s bedroom in a disoriented rage, Kane walks down a hall lined with mirrors on each side, his image fragmented and multiplied endlessly. Dozens of figures can be seen, all completely identical, wearing duplicate clothing, moving in the same manner. In fact, the camera captures one of the reflections before the physical man; if the spectator did not have an establishing shot beforehand, he or she may think that reflection was the actual Kane. This brief but significant scene develops the fragmentation motif, raising the question, ‘Who is Charles Foster Kane?’ Is he a millionaire or a common man? An entrepreneur or a politician? A liar or a man of principles? The mirrored images suggest that he is all of these fragmented persons at once, a complex being, an enigma no one can fully decipher. Indeed, Kane himself does not see or acknowledge the infinite reflections as he staggers through the hallway. Even he does not recognize that he is a multifaceted figure, full of many different sides and personalities.
Citizen Kane revolves around fragments of the titular man’s life, and this theme carries the narrative from start to finish. When confronted with Rosebud’s ultimate anonymity, Thompson concludes that “it wouldn’t have explained anything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle—a missing piece.” Neither the intrepid reporter, nor the best friend, nor the doting wife ever found the key to Kane’s fragmented psyche. Brokenness and division pervade the film, constantly enhancing the idea that Kane is a fragmented man, pulled many in directions and filling many roles.
Luke Swanson was born and raised in Yukon, Oklahoma. He loves nothing more than a good story—as such, his passions include books and movies. He currently attends Oklahoma Christian University, studying English writing, history, and international studies. His thriller novel “The Ten” will be released by Limitless Publishing May 3rd in print and digital forms.