On one level, The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery solved by a clever detective. However, like the clues that William and Adso find, there are many layers of meaning. Before publishing the novel, Umberto Eco earned the distinction of being a leading literary theorist, best known for his work in semiotics. Semiotics, the study of signs, is a way of understanding how meaning is created or understood, whether in a work of literature or in life. A sign can be any unit of information that conveys meaning—a word, an article of clothing, a drop of blood at a murder scene. Eco theorized both that signs have multiple meanings and that a methodical approach is the best way of comprehending a series of signs. Many aspects of Eco’s semiotic theory are evident in the novel. Eco theorized that meaning is created in literature in part through reference to other works of literature. In the novel, William’s and Adso’s method of solving the crimes owes an obvious debt to Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson.
The church history and theological debates of the Middle Ages are important factors of the novel’s setting in a medieval abbey. The monks are caught in a political conflict between the pope and the king of France and engaged in power struggles between groups of clergy. They also face the issue of how or whether to remain celibate, and, if they do not, must choose between women, seen as sources of evil and temptation, and fellow monks....
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