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...

(The entire section is 1270 words.)

Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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....

(The entire section is 561 words.)