Umberto Eco Essay - Critical Essays

Umberto Eco Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

As a semiotician, Umberto Eco is particularly interested in the study of signs and symbols and how the interpretation of signs and symbols is affected by cultural contexts. In this, he has been influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, who turned to mystery and detective fiction as a means of exploring signs and symbols. Eco, like Borges before him, knows well the conventions and readers’ expectations of detective fiction, and like Borges, he uses these conventions to subvert the very stories he tells.

In a number of his theoretical works, Eco examines detective-fiction writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, G. K. Chesterton, and Ian Fleming to flesh out his theory of signs. He uses his knowledge to both extend and undermine the genre, creating in the process what some critics have termed the “antidetective” novel. In effect, Eco creates a parody of traditional detective fiction by demonstrating the ways that conventions can both reveal and conceal, lead and mislead.

In addition, Eco demonstrates the role that readers play in determining the meaning of a text. For Eco, a text’s meaning is not definitive but is rather a function of a reader approaching a text from a particular cultural context. Writers, according to Eco, produce work out of their own “encyclopedia,” or collection of knowledge. Likewise, readers bring to a text their own particular encyclopedia. The meaning of a text for a particular reader, therefore, takes place in the nexus of the reader and writer encyclopedic intersection, the place where there is an overlapping knowledge base. Necessarily, then, not all readers will take the same meaning from a book because their encyclopedias differ. Moreover, in his detective fiction, Eco uses his main character as a stand-in for the reader, someone who must make a cohesive story out of the many signs and symbols strewn along the way, interpreting these signs through the context of his own knowledge.

By explicitly using his own philosophical work concerning texts, readers, and language within the conventions of detective fiction, Eco has opened the genre dramatically. Eco’s books are nothing if not intertextual: by using references to other works, philosophers, historical figures, and genres, Eco increases the possibilities for interpretation. Unlike the classic detective story where everything is revealed in the final pages, Eco creates stories that, although they appear to be of the genre, actually do not lead a reader to a final interpretation. Instead, readers are left to find their own paths through the labyrinth, leading to a place of possible, but not conclusive, interpretation.

The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose is Eco’s first foray into mystery and detective fiction. In this novel, he uses his deep knowledge of medieval philosophy and his ongoing interest in the study of semiotics to produce an intertextual work that...

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