Play in Mind

Exploring the nature and nurture of play—past, present, and future

The Real Puzzle in Citizen Kane

Finding the missing piece

Orson Welles’ brilliant film Citizen Kane (1941) ends with a solution to a puzzle. A fast-talking newsreel producer, looking for an angle for his biography of the recently deceased Charles Foster Kane, the powerful owner of a media empire, deployed his nimblest investigators to ferret out the meaning of the magnate’s cryptic last gasp, “Rosebud.” This utterance proves so obscure, though, that only we, the audience, learn that “Rosebud” is the trademark name on the sled that once belonged to the young Kane’s carefree childhood. As the sled’s paint blisters in an incinerator at the millionaire’s castle, all the associated memories go up in smoke, and the defeated gumshoes gather elsewhere to commiserate. “Maybe rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost,” says the disappointed reporter. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” he conceded. “No, I guess rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle…a missing piece.”

Orson Welles' Citizen Kane
Wikipedia Commons
This lost piece proves to be precisely the puzzle’s most important one—it’s the key to putting Kane’s fabulous financial success together with his desperate pursuit of happiness. The pieces in the larger picture only fall into place after we recall a scene much earlier in the film. Kane’s boozy wife Susan is working at a colossal jigsaw puzzle spread on the floor before a fireplace that fails to warm the cavernous room. “What are you doing?” Kane asks impatiently. “Oh… One thing I can never understand, Susan. How do you know you haven’t done them before?” Though she gazes longingly at the faraway scene she will never visit, we surmise that Susan really looks to puzzle-playing to serve no other end than to tidy the disorder and pass the time. Instead it is Kane, by disdaining her cheap entertainment, who cannot piece together his own powerfully conflicting needs for success and happiness. He is driven by a ravenous urge for collecting statues, filling his lonely fortress, so the booming newsreel voice tells us, with “the treasure of 10 museums!” In convoluted pursuit of the simple pleasures of a lost childhood Kane slides downhill, all the while.

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Living in that echoing mansion Susan missed companionship most, and so turned to playing with the jigsaw as consolation. Her particular misfortune is this, because in real life the unfinished puzzle draws kibitzers like a magnet. A passerby will see where a stray piece belongs and can’t keep the secret. The commotion attracts others. The pull and the pace of play intensify as pieces fall into place. Even when no one is playing, the unfinished picture lies temptingly on the table, slyly demanding just a minute or two.

Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D., is vice president for play studies at The Strong, editor of its American Journal of Play, and lead contributor to its re:Play Blog.

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