The Name of the Rose (Magill's Literary Annual 1984)
Ordinarily, the murder mystery, like the Western and (until recently) science fiction, has been relegated to a literary ghetto and considered unworthy of serious critical attention except by students of popular culture, even though all of these genres may have significant work to offer. The Name of the Rose (published in Italy in 1980 as Il nome della rosa) combines a murder mystery with the historical novel (another genre that generally receives short shrift from the critical establishment) and succeeds brilliantly with them both.
In his first novel, Umberto Eco, a professor at the University of Bologna, brings to bear his skills as a historian, philosopher, aesthetician, and specialist in semiotics, as well as literary skills honed by his study of James Joyce. It would be surprising if he were not also a scholar of Dante, for like The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), The Name of the Rose encapsulates the entire Middle Ages.
It begins with a modern hoax, as Professor Eco presents a first-person introduction in which he claims to have discovered in 1968 a book published in 1842 by a French abbé who claimed in turn to have reproduced a fourteenth century manuscript by Adso, a monk from the German monastery of Melk. Eco claims to have translated Abbé Vallet’s work while sailing up the Danube to Melk, where he could...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Abbey. Unnamed Catholic abbey in northern Italy that provides the novel’s setting. The abbey is modeled on abbeys of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Besides the central area of action—the library—the abbey includes a church, an infirmary, a chapter house, a cloister with dormitory, pilgrim quarters, stables, a smithy, mills, oil presses, granaries, pigpens, gardens, and a cemetery.
Library. Forbidden and mysterious area of the abbey, located in the Aedificium, a large octagonal building housing the kitchen and refectory on its lower floor and the library and scriptorium on its upper floor. The scriptorium is a writing room in the abbey that leads to the main entrance to the library. As was usual in medieval times, the scriptorium is located near the kitchens so that the warmth from cooking fires would help keep the monks warm as they worked.
Most medieval monasteries had libraries because their monks were engaged in religious study and had to undertake daily reading. The abbey’s library serves to preserve manuscripts and provide income and power for the abbey when nobles pay for handwritten copies of manuscripts. Significantly, at this abbey, only the librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter the library itself; they decide who may or may not see certain manuscripts, and only they understand the complex structure of the library.
The labyrinthine design of...
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Italy in the 1970s
While The Name of the Rose is set in the fourteenth century in an unnamed Italian abbey, it may also be read as allegory of Western culture in general, and Italy in the 1970s, specifically. David Richter in his essay, “The Mirrored World: Form and Ideology in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose” argues that whether the reader associates Emperor Louis with the USSR and Pope John XXII with the United States or the reverse, Eco seems to be concerned “with the impact of their struggle on the three billion people elsewhere in nations that might have preferred to remain unaligned . . .” The cold war, reaching its height during the years that Eco wrote the novel, deeply influenced the writer, and it is little wonder that the confrontation between the papal legation and the Franciscans is so heated.
Perhaps even more relevant to the novel, however, is the kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade. The kidnapping took place on March 16, 1978, the month Eco reports he began writing the novel. Moro was the President of the Christian Democratic Party and had been Prime Minister of Italy three times. A series of convoluted negotiations ensued as different parties tried to secure Moro’s release. Much of what happened is ambiguous; however, Moro was eventually murdered. Eco and other Italian intellectuals were deeply shocked by this assassination, and his outrage seems to make it into the pages of...
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Detective fiction is one of the most popular genres of novels in contemporary culture. Yet it seems an unlikely choice of format for such an erudite writer and book. Eco chooses detective fiction very deliberately, however, and not only to make his book more of a commercial success. Detective fiction offers a series of conventions and rules that attract a particular kind of reader, one who knows what ought to happen next. In addition, the reader of detective fiction is not taken in by what people say; rather, they have learned to look carefully at evidence and to make guesses about what might be the reality of the case. Some of the conventions of detective fiction found in The Name of the Rose include the ultra-intelligent detective; his faithful if obtuse young companion; a series of murders; a series of witnesses and interviews; villains who try to foil the investigation; and a final assembly of those involved where the detective reveals the murderer, the motive, and the means of the murder. In The Name of the Rose, Eco plays with his readers’ expectations, creating a tension between what his audience believes will happen and what really happens, calling attention to the novel as a text, not reality. Furthermore, such playing with generic conventions undermines all such conventions, and reminds reader that what they are reading is a novel, not life.
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The novel is structured around the liturgical hours (e.g. Matins, Vespers, Compline) of the seven days that William and Adso spend at the monastery in Northern Italy in 1327. But the entire work, described by the subtitle "Naturally, a Manuscript," is introduced as a copy of an authentic work which has been lost. Eco presents himself not as the traditional novelist, but as yet another amanuensis who transcribes a nineteenth-century reproduction of the original work "as if it were authentic, the manuscript of Adso of Melk." Again, Eco shows that his work not only engenders but also grows out of an individual interpretation.
In Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" Eco explains his choice of genres: "since I wanted you [the reader] to feel as pleasurable the one thing that frightens us — namely, the metaphysical shudder — I had only to choose (from among the model plots) the most metaphysical and philosophical: the detective novel." Yet Eco himself acknowledges that The Name of The Rose is constructed as "a mystery in which very little is discovered and the detective is defeated." Indeed, many of William's theories about the murders prove to be incorrect. Worse, the library and the entire monastery burn to the ground. In his attempt to recover the lost volume of Aristotle, William ends by seeing the best library in all Christendom completely destroyed.
The world of the abbey is meticulously constructed both through floor plans...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Eco's fiction provides an unusual wealth of material for discussion. He is always aware of the reader, and makes it his business to provide plenty of ambiguities and puzzles so as to provoke thought and debate. Despite the formidable difficulties it presents, The Name of The Rose has remained popular since its publication. Its appeal seems likely to endure, at least in part because it gives readers so much to talk about. Whether one considers it as a detective novel, historical fiction, psychological narrative, or philosophy, it offers a well-nigh inexhaustible source of topics.
1. Do William's many failures diminish his stature? Is he truly a Great Detective, or just a parody of one?
2. Adso is represented as an old man recalling events of many years ago. Does he seem to be a reliable narrator? Does Eco ever give us cause to doubt Adso's memory or frankness?
3. Most of the sex in the novel is homosexual. Does Eco feature the illicit relations of the monks with each other simply to reflect a historical reality, or does he have some other reason?
4. How does Eco make the medieval fears and joys of the characters comprehensible to modern readers?
5. Jorge of Burgos proves a formidable antagonist, despite his blindness. How does his blindness actually make him more dangerous?
6. William is forced to discard his apocalyptic theory of the murders. Are they really just random events? Is there a...
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Like the entirety of the novel, the social concerns expressed in The Name of The Rose function on at least two levels: they are applicable to medieval times as well as to contemporary society. As Eco writes in his Postscript to "The Name of the Rose": "The Middle Ages are our infancy, to which we must always return, for anamnesis." In addition to the attention paid to various heresies and sects, Eco deals extensively with conflicting ideas on clerical poverty. The Emperor Louis IV asserts the need for the vow of poverty among the clergy, while the corrupt Pope John XXII argues that poverty would diminish the prestige and power of the Church. Other groups, such as the Fraticelli, argue for complete poverty through the abandonment of all material possessions. These conflicts anticipate the battles between religious, social, and political ideologies today. Especially important are the extremes to which these groups go to combat their opponents. The persecution, factionalism, and hatred depicted in a medieval context have direct contemporary political and social parallels in Europe, the Middle East, and throughout the modern world. Some Italian reviewers, in fact, saw The Name of The Rose as an allegory on contemporary Italian politics.
The Name of The Rose considers diametrically opposed attitudes toward knowledge and learning. The confrontation between a blind monk, Jorge of Burgos, and William pits a repressive, destructive,...
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Topics for Further Study
The Name of the Rose is filled with literary, historical, and philosophical allusions. Use “An Annotated Guide to the Historical and Literary References in The Name of the Rose” in The Key to “The Name of the Rose” (1999) by Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, to select one or more significant historical figures to research. How does Eco draw on this figure in his novel?
Most critics agree that Edgar Allan Poe is the father of the detective story. Read “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” by Poe, stories that all feature his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Identify the most striking conventions of the detective story. What do readers expect to find when they read a mystery? How does Eco meet or subvert these expectations? How does reading Poe change or influence your reading of The Name of the Rose?
Write out a time line of the major historical events in Western Europe in the fourteenth century. How do these events play a role in The Name of the Rose? How does having a background in medieval history affect your reading of The Name of the Rose?
Examine as many copies of medieval manuscripts as you can find. (Good places to look include art history books or on line medieval history sites, such as the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library Western Manuscripts webpages, or the British Library’s Lindisfarne...
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The Bible, the Conan Doyle stories, the works of Aristotle, medieval literature of every sort — herbals, theological studies, romances — and Eco's own writings on semiotics are the most important sources and inspirations for The Name of The Rose. But it would be easier to identify the works that have not in some way contributed to the characters, themes, and plots of The Name of the Rose than those that have. Eco's erudition is so broad, his writing so informed that authors as diverse as James Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges and John Barth, Thomas a Kempis and Thomas Aquinas inform the novel.
In Eco's own terms The Name of The Rose is a postmodern novel that insists on the primacy of plot. As he himself argues: "The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently." There are hundreds of allusions to classical, medieval, and modern works in The Name of The Rose. Eco's novel is replete with instances of untranslated Latin, German, and other languages as well as anachronistic references, often in the form of disguised quotations, to authors like Ludwig Wittgenstein. Eco also sees The Name of The Rose as a historical novel that illuminates the medieval age and shows how modernity derives from that age. As Eco observes: "If a character of mine, comparing two...
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Eco published a companion volume entitled Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" in 1983. Eco's commentary is forthcoming without violating his conviction that the novel must speak for itself. For instance, he explains that the "first year of my work on the novel was devoted to the construction of the world ... I conducted long architectural investigations, studying photographs and floor plans in the encyclopedia of architecture, to establish the arrangement of the abbey, the distances, even the number of steps in the spiral staircase." Consequently, the unlikely events of the novel are set in a highly realistic context.
Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" demonstrates how closely Eco's novel is related to his writings on semiotics. Eco speaks of his novel in terms of cultural codes, literary traditions, and narrative structures. He carefully explains the preparations and decisions he made in writing the novel. But the ingenuous yet coy tone in Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" finally thrusts the reader back upon the text and his own interpretation.
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The Name of The Rose was adapted for film release in 1986. The film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starred Sean Connery as William, Michael Lonsdale as the Abbot, and Christian Slater as Adso. Andrew Birkin, Gerard Brach, Howard Franklin, and Alain Godard are credited with the screenplay. Critical response to the film was generally mixed, but it was not a commercial success. The multiple levels of meaning could not survive the process of cinematic adaptation. Consequently, the emphasis fell largely on the basic elements of the plot — a succession of murders, clues, red herrings, and theories. Reviewers often faulted the film as being little more than a medieval Sherlock Holmes detective story or for failing even to suggest the complexities of Eco's novel.
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The Name of the Rose was made into a film in 1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville, Christian Slater as Adso of Melk, and F. Murray Abraham as Bernard Gui. The film was released on DVD in 2004 and is available from Warner Home Video.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Biasin, Gian-Paolo, Review of Il nome della rosa, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 449–50.
Bondanella, Peter, “‘To Make Truth Laugh’: Postmodern Theory and Practice in The Name of the Rose,” in Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 93–125.
Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, New Directions, 1964, p. 3.
Copleston, Frederick C., Medieval Philosophy, Harper Torchbooks, 1961, p. 121.
D’Amico, Masolino, “Medieval Mirth,” in the Times Literary Supplement, January 9, 1981, p. 29.
De Lauretis, Teresa, “Gaudy Rose: Eco and Narcissism,” in Reading Eco: An Anthology, edited by Rocco Capozzi, Indiana University Press, 1997, p. 243.
Dirda, Michael, “The Letter Killeth and the Spirit Giveth Life,” in Book World–The Washington Post, June 19, 1983, pp. 5, 14.
Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose, translated by William Weaver, with Author’s Postscript, Harcourt, 1994.
Farronato, Cristina, Eco’s Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity, University of Toronto Press, 2003, p. 13.
Haft, Adele J., Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, The Key to “The Name of the Rose,” University of Michigan Press, 1999, p....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLII, July, 1983, p. 108.
Bondanella, Peter. Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Analyzes Eco’s fiction in the context of his literary theory, showing how his semiotics, or theory of signs, is applicable to the detective work in The Name of the Rose.
Caesar, Michael. Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics, and the Work of Fiction. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1999. Comprehensive overview of Eco’s theories, with explanations of how they influence and appear in his fiction.
Christian Science Monitor. December 2, 1983, p. B6.
Coletti, Theresa. Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Discusses Eco’s mingling of medieval and modern and what this means in light of the novel’s reception.
Eco, Umberto. Postscript to “The Name of the Rose.” San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. In the spirit of Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition,” Eco discusses how the novel came to be written, not how it should be read.
Haft, Adele J., Jane G. White, and Robert J. White. The Key to “The Name of...
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