Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 919
The Name of the Rose is that rarest of books: a work that manages to be enjoyable without being escapist, an international best seller that crosses literary borders as readily as it does national ones, offering something for all its readers and most for those willing to appreciate the playful plural of this inviting yet intricate novelistic labyrinth. Part of its appeal stems from the fullness with which Umberto Eco depicts his medieval world, a world already made appealing by Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978) and films such as Excalibur (1981).
The Name of the Rose is not merely a historical novel with gothic shadings. It is also, and more obviously, a detective story (according to Eco, “the most metaphysical and philosophical” kind of plot), although in a parodic, metafictional, postmodern key. As indebted to the great Argentinean writer and national librarian Jorge Luis Borges as to Sherlock Holmes’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle, the novel presents “a mystery in which very little is discovered and the detective is defeated.”
The novel’s impure form constitutes a virtual library of literary echoes, ranging from whole genres to specific authors and works, a towering babel of intertextualized voices in the form of a seamless story, a celebration of narrative on one hand, a work not without political and pedagogical import on the other. Among its many pleasures is the way the novel, like the essays in Eco’s Travels in Hyper Reality (1986), makes the subject of Eco’s scholarly writings, semiotics, accessible to a nonacademic audience. The Name of the Rose is not, however, merely a medieval exemplum or detective story dressed up as a roman à these. Eco’s novel is “a machine for generating meanings,” a narrative version of the monastery’s labyrinthine library in which one finds the “maximum of confusion achieved with the maximum of order,” but a confusion intended to seduce, not repel. In this sense, the novel resembles the rose that figures so prominently in the novel’s first words, the title, and its last, where its meaning is both declared and disguised in the unattributed line from Bernard de Cluny’s De contemptu mundi (c. 1140; on contempt for the world): “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” (“Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names”). As Eco explains in his postscript, as a symbol, the rose is so full of meanings as to be virtually empty of meaning—a floating signifier.
Such a novel might have proved—like the numerous passages in Latin—too daunting for most readers were it not for Eco’s decision “to make everything understood through the words of one who understood nothing.” In this way, the reader experiences the shock of the new in much the same way the befuddled Adso does. Because Adso is everything the erudite and ironic William of Baskerville is not—young, naïve, literal-minded, faithful, obedient, credulous—the reader is also allowed, or encouraged, to feel superior to William’s scribe and disciple. In this way, the reader comes to experience some of the same doubleness of vision as Adso the eighty-year-old narrator does in trying to reconstruct himself and his world as they existed in 1327 when he was a differently befuddled eighteen-year-old novice.
A similar dualism is at work, and at play, in the novel’s overall structure. Adso’s manuscript is divided into seven days, or chapters, each chronicling that day’s events and subdivided according to the eight canonical hours (matins, lauds, and so on). The structure is apt and easy to follow, but it is also arbitrary. It organizes time and narrative space and orients the reader, but it also serves as a sign of Adso’s acceptance of the Benedictine rule and of a divinely ordered universe. The novel is further complicated—denaturalized, made enigmatic and therefore suspect—by the unnamed and, therefore, mysterious editor’s untitled preface, dated January 5, 1980. Even as he or she explains how the manuscript came briefly into his possession, the editor’s remarks cast doubt on both the authenticity of Adso’s manuscript and the accuracy of the editor’s translation. Thus, just as there are two worlds at the abbey—one daytime, one nighttime, with the latter being by far the more intriguing—so, too, does The Name of the Rose comprise a whole succession of stories, one inside another, each requiring a certain kind of sleuthing: there is the one Adso tells and then there are the stories of his telling and the editor’s, to which Adso’s narrative serves as a five-hundred-page postscript.
The “game of strange alliances” played out in 1327 infects the novel at every level. Absolute truths and univocal utterances give way to ambiguous relations, the meaning of which involves interpretive codes and contexts. “Books,” William explains, “are not meant to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry.” Inquiry does not necessarily save or solve, however, as William admits when he finds Jorge at the center of the interpretive web: “There was no plot, and I discovered it by mistake,” reaching the right destination by following a series of wrong guesses (abductions). Even in failure, though, there is a certain success of a decidedly humbling kind. As William says and as Eco’s apocalyptic yet comic novel reveals, “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”