The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco

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Order versus chaos

The theme of order versus chaos, or meaning versus meaninglessness, is one that runs throughout The Name of the Rose. William of Baskerville is a man of reason devoted to the then-new ideas of Roger Bacon and William of Occam. This makes him somewhat of an oddity in a medieval setting in which many characters rely on faith, tradition, or superstition in their interpretation of the world. William sets out to solve the mystery of the abbey’s serial deaths using logic and pursues a trail of clues that appear to follow a pattern corresponding to the Book of Revelation. In the end, however, this pattern turns out to be a red herring and William is disillusioned by the fact that he has solved the mystery through a mistaken line of reasoning, helped along by chance. Each of the signs that William and Adso work to interpret in order to understand the abbey, which William regards as a microcosm of the world, have many potential meanings—as well as the potential to bear no relevant meaning at all. The abbey’s library, supposedly the greatest in Christendom, is a revered storehouse of signs, symbols, learning, and meaning; its very layout, modeled on the map of the known world, speaks to the sense of an elegant order to the universe: a divine order. As the library is engulfed by the fire that will eventually destroy the entire abbey, William reflects that there may be, in fact, no order to the universe at all, even leaving up in the air the question of whether God does or does not exist. Adso, remembering these ultimately ambiguous events as an old man, describes having attempted for years to decipher the manuscript he pieced together from the scattered scraps of books that were all that was left of the great library. On the threshold of death, however, he remains unconvinced that there is any meaning or order either to this reconstruction or to the tale he has told.


Lust appears in many forms in The Name of the Rose and can be seen as the driving force behind many of the novel’s events. Sexual lust between the monks runs throughout the narrative, just below the surface of abbey life. Berengar’s lust for Adelmo leads him to betray the secret of the lost volume of Aristotle, Adelmo’s guilt over giving into lust (Berengar’s and his own) leads him to commit suicide, and Malachi’s lust for Berengar leads him to murder Severinus in a fit of jealousy. Ubertino discourses at length on the difference between sexual lust and holy love, although his own behavior toward Adso could be interpreted as indicative of suppressed sexual lust. Adso himself mentions that as an old man, he still feels the presence of the “noonday demon” when he sees a handsome novice. In contrast to these instances of lust between men, which are described as sinful and unnatural, Adso’s youthful lust for the girl from the village is regarded as an understandable folly, one that receives forgiveness from William and Ubertino. His feelings for the girl are, the novice reasons, wrong not in themselves but because he has taken a monk’s vow of chastity. Many of the monks have a lust for knowledge and books, particularly of the forbidden variety. This intellectual lust leads Venantius, Berengar, and Malachi to their deaths as they read the secret manuscript and is at least part of why Adelmo agrees to sleep with Berengar. Benno is perhaps the ultimate symbol of this type of lust, which William characterizes as intellectual pride: the young...

(This entire section contains 1270 words.)

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scholar desires unbridled access to the library so much that he steals the manuscript from the infirmary so that he may return it to Malachi in exchange for being appointed assistant librarian, after which he refuses to aid William any longer in the investigation. At the end of the novel, Benno rushes into the burning library, the repository and symbol of the assembled knowledge of Christendom, and meets his fate in a blaze of passion. Then there is the darker kind of lust William tells Adso he encountered as an inquisitor: lust for pain and death. Inquisition and torture, William explains, bring out this type of lust in their frenzied victims, who, like Remigio, often end up falsely confessing to all manner of crimes. Inquisitors like Bernard Gui, William says, are driven by a lust for power, while the Pope is driven by a lust for wealth.


The concept of heresy—and the threat posed by anything deemed heretical—is a major concern for the monks in The Name of the Rose. Abo, Ubertino, Jorge, Bernard Gui, and William all speak at length on the subject, and the Pope’s readiness to condemn certain Franciscan sects as heretical forms an underlying conflict that builds tension throughout the story. William’s reason for coming to the abbey in the first place is to mediate talks between representatives of the papal court and representatives of the Minorites, an order of Franciscan monks endorsed by the Emperor and led by Michael of Cesena, who has been summoned to Avignon to answer for the Franciscans’ support of ecclesiastical poverty. The Pope sees the Franciscans’ ideas as having given rise to heretical sects like the Dolcinians, who enforce their views by violently targeting the rich and powerful, including church officials. Jorge’s conviction that laughter is heretical motivates him to make sure any monk who reads Aristotle’s lost volume on the subject will meet his doom, and Bernard Gui’s eagerness to discover and punish heresy leads him to try to convict Remigio, Salvatore, and the young woman from the village. The fuzzy boundaries between what is and is not considered heretical are a continual source of consternation to Adso, particularly when he listens to William’s conversations with the mystical Ubertino and the more pragmatic Abo. William attempts to explain the phenomenon of heresy to his young scribe by comparing it to a great river, pointing out that it is society’s most disenfranchised members—those who have not been given a place among the body of the “people of God”—who are swayed by the message of hope they find in the teachings of heretical preachers.


The value of laughter is a subject of frequent debate in The Name of the Rose, with William and Jorge’s opposing views on the matter forming a philosophical conflict that comes to a head during the nemeses’ climactic final confrontation. Indeed, it is Jorge’s belief that Aristotle’s endorsement of laughter and comedy would pose a terrible threat to the social order and the authority of the Church that leads him to hide and later smear with poison the manuscript containing the second volume of the philosopher’s Poetics. William, meanwhile, sees the ability to laugh as a vital component of the ability to reason and think for oneself. The initial debate on laughter between Jorge and the younger monks in the scriptorium before William and Adso’s arrival serves as the inciting incident for the events of the novel. The story itself contains many comedic and absurd moments, and it is Adso’s dream of the parodical poem called the Coena Cypriani, followed by his recounting of a bit of “nonsense” spouted by Salvatore, that inspires William to solve the final pieces of the mystery. After the fire at the novel’s end, William reflects that laughter is perhaps the only thing that can free humanity from the destructive consequences of dogmatism.

Christian Themes

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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. However, the monks, who spend their days working on copying and preserving manuscripts, are most interested in intellectual issues. In fact, the murders occur largely because those who die are seeking knowledge that has been declared inappropriate for them.

This theme of seeking forbidden knowledge extends throughout the novel. Although the abbey houses one of the finest libraries in the world, monks who live and work there cannot enter and must request books from the librarian. The abbot himself must approve some requests, and no one is allowed to see certain books. Even the library’s floor plan is designed to discourage access to materials. Knowledge is potentially dangerous and threatening to religious belief. Jorge, by poisoning the pages, makes the work of Aristotle literally deadly. The cause of most of the deaths, he is in some respects most guilty of intellectual pride. The Bible refers to Jesus as the Word made flesh. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the body of Christ is consumed in the form of bread. Jorge and other monks kills themselves by eating the pages of the forbidden book that he has smeared with poison; the narrator contrasts this act of eating printed words with consuming the body of Christ in the Eucharist.

At the end of the novel, William and Adso are left with the question of whether events occur in a knowable order or at random, with an order that is imposed by the observer. Every clue they study has more than one meaning. This uncertainty in determining truth applies not only to the novel’s murder mystery but also to the religious truths the monks attempt to decipher. God’s ways are not easily revealed to man; Eco thus reinforces the theme that intellectual pride is a sin, inadequate to reveal God’s mystery.


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Many of the concerns in The Name of The Rose are united by a single theme, perhaps the most important in all great literature: appearance and reality. Through his astute observation of events, William of Baskerville attempts to discover the reality which informs appearances. In turn, this leads to extended discussions about the applicability and usefulness of logic, the limitations of the human mind, and the methods of detection. Although these discussions are set in a medieval context, they are obviously and ironically relevant to the present age.

Given Eco's theoretical writings on semiotics, the concepts of logic, reality, and appearance are frequently presented in terms of signs that must be decoded, interpreted, and understood by the individual. The Name of The Rose is, to use Eco's own phrase, an "open work" in that it demands interpretation but insists upon no single interpretation. The work's ambiguity is deliberate and even thematic. One scholar who has collaborated with Eco describes The Name of The Rose as "a completely semiotic book." Like the library, this novel is a labyrinth whose ways and meanings are not easily discovered.

As the conclusion to Postscript to "The Name of the Rose," Eco writes: "Moral: there exist obsessive ideas, they are never personal; books talk among themselves, and any true direction should prove that we are the guilty party." Every reader invariably interprets and understands every text for himself. As William explains to Adso: "Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry."

The final confrontation of the novel pits the blind Jorge of Burgos against William and Adso. Jorge has poisoned the last extant volume of Aristotle's writings on comedy with a diabolical ink that enters the skin of the book's reader and thereby insures death. In Jorge's estimation, Aristotle's encomium of comedy is too inflammatory, too dangerous. Laughter, parody, and the grotesque, while they figure importantly in many of Eco's own works, have no place in Jorge's convictions. The Name of The Rose is, among many other things, Eco's own encomium of comedy. While it cannot replace Aristotle's lost work, Eco's novel celebrates play, laughter, and mirth as an essential part of man's nature.


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Semiotics is Eco’s academic field of study, and greatly influences the ideas on which he builds his novel. Semiotics refers to the study of signs, sign systems and the way meaning is derived. Signs can be nearly anything in a given culture that conveys information. Signs are generally conventional; that is, signs are meaningful to those who understand the unwritten codes that underpin them. A good example of this might be the way that people greet each other from culture to culture. In American culture, kissing someone on arrival is a sign designating a close and intimate relationship between the two people. Men, however, rarely kiss each other, although they might hug and slap each other on the back. In France, however, the sign is subtly different, and strangers meeting for the first time might kiss each other on each cheek. For those who understand such signs, the communication is clear.

The Name of the Rose is nothing if not a story of signs, including religious, political, and social signs, among many others. William prides himself as a savvy reader of signs; yet his mistake—in assuming that the system underpinning the series of murders was following the pattern of the Apocalypse—demonstrates how a faulty initial assumption can lead to a complete misunderstanding of a situation. In such a case, while the signs are still there, they have no meaning because there is no underpinning system. Likewise, the novel’s title is ambiguous and mysterious because it is impossible to assign one meaning to the sign “rose.” As Eco writes in the “Postscript,” “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that by now it hardly has any meaning left. . . . The title rightly disoriented the reader, who was unable to choose just one interpretation.”


Nominalism is also an important topic or theme in The Name of the Rose closely related to language. During the Middle Ages, there was heated debate over the nature of reality. Realists, such as Jorge in the novel, argued that there were such things as universals. Realists support the supposition that to every name and term there corresponds a positive reality that is outside of the mind. Thus, there would be a universal “rose” that exists in reality outside of the mind, and that individual roses only differ accidentally one from another rather than in substance. Nominalists, such as William of Ockham and William of Baskerville, would argue, however, that there are only individuals. Universals are only categories the mind uses to make sense of the world rather than having any extra-mental reality. While this argument seems abstract, it is pertinent to the novel. The closing Latin words, translated into English, demonstrate this: “yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names.” Thus, The Name of the Rose is a book about an empty sign, about the name of the rose, rather than the rose itself.