The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco

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Critical Overview

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The Name of the Rose, first published in Italian in 1980 and in English in 1983, was both a critical and popular success, staying at the top of the bestseller lists for weeks, and eventually selling more than a million copies in hard cover and more in paper back. The novel has remained in print for more than two decades, and continues to generate a large body of critical commentary. While academic interest might have been predicted, given Eco’s reputation as a scholar, the popular response to the book took all by surprise. Who could have imagined that a long, complicated, multi-layered novel, set in the fourteenth century and with long passages of untranslated Latin, German, and French would appeal to the world-wide reading public?

Contemporary reviews find a variety of reasons for its appeal. Masolino D’Amico, in a review for the Times Literary Supplement, for example, says that The Name of the Rose “is no mere detective story; rather, its framework serves as a vehicle for nothing less than a summa of all the author knows about the Middle Ages . . . Eco’s rare gift for epitome has a chance to shine forth in this book and his own delight in his task is often infectious.” D’Amico argues that the main point of the book is “to vindicate humour.” Likewise, Gian-Paolo Biasin in World Literature Today writes that “Play is at the core of the plot.” Michael Dirda, in The Washington Post review of the novel credits “Gothic hugger-mugger” with lightening “Eco’s operatic gravity.” He also, however, notes the vast scope of the novel: “In its range, The Name of the Rose suggests an imaginative summa, an alchemical marriage of murder mystery and Christian mystery.”

In the years since the book’s publication, scholars have written volumes dedicated to unpacking the novel. Many note the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer, on Eco. Eco himself makes it clear in the “Postscript to The Name of the Rose” that he deliberately invokes Borges in his character Jorge of Borgos, the blind librarian. Other critics note the connections between The Name of the Rose, Sherlock Holmes, and other detective stories. Jorge Hernández Martín, for example, devotes five chapters of his book Readers and Labyrinths: Detective Fiction in Borges, Bustos Domecq, and Eco to this project. He writes, “The name of Eco’s detective, William of Baskerville, evokes in turn the renowned sleuth of Baker Street and Holmes’s best known case, The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Still other critics concentrate on the intertexuality of the novel. Teresa De Lauretis in her chapter “Gaudy Rose: Eco and Narcissism,” suggests that The Name of the Rose is “made up almost entirely of other texts.” Likewise, Peter Bonandello in Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture argues that Eco’s “work represents a pastiche and a parody of a number of other traditions—some obvious, others less so—that enable the novel to appeal to all his intended audiences simultaneously.”

Other readings include Jonathan Key’s “Maps and Territories: Eco Crossing the Boundary,” in which he carefully examines the role that the abbey map and the library map play in the reading of the novel. He argues that “the library as map of the world stands as a metonym for the frequently expressed formulation of the novel as a device for mapping the world.”

Indeed, there seem to be as many readings as there are critics of this novel. All are universal in their praise for the richness of the text, and for the possibilities for continued study.

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Critical Evaluation