Thinking about how Vertigo has usurped Citizen Kane in many Best Film of All Time polls, I decided to pull 1 card to answer the question: What is “Rosebud”?
The card I pulled was Death
“Rosebud” is what Kane, at the beginning of Welles’ film, utters as he dies. A reporter, looking to find out what “Rosebud” means, sets out to interview key people in Kane’s life, allowing the film to indulge in flashbacks from key moments in Kane’s life. At the end of Citizen Kane, the identity of Rosebud is revealed to no one but the audience at the very moment it is destroyed. Ironically, then, Rosebud opens and closes the film and, while signifying death in both instances, it actually becomes the pretext for revealing the life of Charles Foster Kane.
As we know, the Death card can mean the end of life, but more often and more to the point it signifies the end of one stage of life and the start of another. Just as the 13th hour on a clock is 1, or the 13th month in a calendar year is January, Death is the 13th card in the Arcanum and indicates a radical change. In Citizen Kane, Rosebud is the name of Kane’s childhood sled; he is seen playing with it when his mother sends him away from his home to be raised with the family’s new-found wealth. When Kane’s guardian Thatcher makes to take the young boy away from his family, the boy attacks Thatcher with Rosebud. Rosebud, then, represents Kane’s lost childhood, lost family, and his loss of a “normal” life. The AHTDeath card represents death itself, but also the boy Kane becoming the man. The central image is the symbolic death of Cock Robin, from the cartoon seen in Sabotage, which itself represents the death of the young boy Stevie. Also represented is the killing of Gromek, in Torn Curtain, which proves so difficult to accomplish. To my mind, this represents the strength of Kane’s character – his boyish and rebellious quality – which proves so resilient and is slowly whittled down in Citizen Kane. It will be remembered that the young Kane uses Rosebud as a weapon when being taken away from his mother and father and family home; similarly, the lifeforce is painstakingly drained from Gromek in a humble house by a man and woman. After which, he is buried along with his mode of transport – Kane’s sled becomes Gromek’s motorcycle.
Rosebud, to answer the question, is the symbolic death of the young Kane, the death of the adult Kane’s vitality, and Kane’s actual death.