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Reading Analytically

10.1 Reading with a Purpose

When audiences see the film Citizen Kane today, many view it as long, just barely polychromatic, and possessing so many of the hallmarks of modern film. Many viewers are often forced to watch it in a film class or with an overzealous film student. If nothing else, it is an excellent film to sleep through. But, there is this nagging question that keeps so viewers watching; what is the importance of Rosebud? It was, after all, just a sled given to the main character as a child.

Citizen Kane, like any other film, is a text. Rosebud, in turn, is a symbol, and we only know it is significant because Charles Foster Kane, the main character, calls out for it as he dies. The search for the sled’s meaning takes an epic turn as a reporter explores Kane’s life searching for the answer. Debates often erupt over the symbolic meaning of Rosebud. Is it symbolic of Kane’s lost childhood? A joyless adulthood? The emptiness of a life of ambition? The sadness or self-hatred that drove Kane away from relationships and toward his wealth and power? The answers to such simple questions are many.

To truly understand Citizen Kane and thus better answer questions about it, one may want to learn more about it. A curious student might start with the Orson Welles the eccentric directorial genius who was a mere 25 years old when Howard Hughes’ RKO pictures signed him to a five movie contract. One might also explore what many believe was screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s decision to base the character of Charles Foster Kane on the powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst set out to destroy Mankiewicz’s career after the film was released. Stories swirled around the production of the film as well. RKO executives were rightfully concerned about Welles. He had expensive taste, a unique eye, and no experience directing films. When executives would visit the studio, Welles would tell stories and juggle to distract them from what he was actually filming. How might these facts impact the final product that become the most critically hailed film in American history? The discussion quickly becomes one that exposes facts and ideas, critically examines the film, and evaluates the film based on its shortcomings and attributes.

If you watch the film, you might find yourself debating the merits of Welles’ cinematography. Others may point out the female characters lack strength and autonomy which points toward sexism among the writers. Still others might argue the film is an argument against the corruptive elements of capitalism in an age of growing communist sympathy particularly in Hollywood. In short, consuming the film’s rhetoric provides the opportunity to create a discussion based upon it. This discussion finds permanence in the form of an essay.

An interpretation is a complex process that is unique to every reader. It is a process of meaning-making that relies on your particular position as a reader. Your interpretive position is informed by several factors.

  1. Your purpose – In the same way you have a rhetorical purpose in writing, you often have a purpose in reading, either consciously or subconsciously. What are you trying to accomplish in this encounter with a text?
  2. Your experience – Your lived experiences have trained you to perceive texts with certain assumptions. This background is a blend of cultural, educational, geographical, familial, ideological, and personal influences, among many others.
  3. Your bias – The stance you assume relative to a text will contribute to what meaning you make as you read, think about, and write about that text. This relative position might be emotional (what mood you’re in while reading) or contextual (what situation you’re reading in), and may also be impacted by your background and purpose.

Your perspective – Related to your purpose, lens refers to the way you focus your attention on particular ideas, images, and language used to convey the author’s own perspective


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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