Essay on The Name of the Rose

Essay by Joseph Rosenblum
Copyright (c) 1992 Salem Press, Inc. Item Number: 9230000282

The Novel

In his old age, Adso of Melk recalls a momentous week in November, 1327. With William of Baskerville he reached an abbey somewhere along the central ridge of the Apennines. William's mission was to mediate between delegations from Pope John XXII and Michael of Cesena, which would be meeting there. The purpose of this gathering was to ensure Michael's safe passage to and from the papal palace at Avignon, where he hoped to secure endorsement for various church reforms.

Upon arriving at the abbey, William received a second charge, as well: to solve the mysterious death of Adelmo, whose body had recently been discovered outside the monastery walls. The abbot, Abo, wants to know how and why Adelmo died, not only because he is concerned about the welfare of the monks but also because he does not want the papal delegation, led by the inquisitors Cardinal Bertrand del Pogetto and Bernard Gui, to use the suspected murder as an excuse for investigating the abbey.

Despite William's efforts, the mystery is still unsolved when the legations arrive. In fact, it has become even more puzzling. Two more monks have died: Venantius has been discovered with his head in a pail of pig's blood, and Berengar has drowned in a bath. Moreover, Severinus, the herbalist who has been aiding William, is killed on the morning of the meeting, and Malachi dies shortly afterward.

As the abbot feared, the papal inquisitors take advantage of these occurrences to learn that Abo has been harboring monks who once followed the condemned heretic Fra Dolcino. Bernard Gui is convinced that Salvatore and Remigio, former Dolcinians, remain heretics and are responsible for the murders. He also makes clear in the course of the brief trial that Michael of Cesena will not succeed in gaining support for his views; the Church has no use for reformers who challenge its hegemony.

William's first mission, to guarantee the safety of Michael if he visits the Pope, has failed, and Abo dismisses him from his second mission, as well. Since the inquisitors have made their discoveries, he fears that anything William learns will only damage further the reputation of the abbey and consequently his own standing. Despite Abo's order, William persists in his investigation, spurred on by his love of knowledge and perhaps a certain intellectual pride. A few hours after Abo dismisses him from the case, William solves the mystery.

As a young man, Jorge of Burgos left the monastery and returned to his native Spain to secure books for the library. Among those he brought back was a unique copy of the second book of Aristotle's POETICS, which treated comedy as the first book dealt with tragedy. Regarding laughter as the worst heresy, Jorge locked the volume away in the most inaccessible part of the abbey's labyrinthine library, where it remained for decades.

Somehow, Berengar, the assistant librarian, found the book and persuaded Adelmo to have sex with him in return for the chance to examine the rare work. Driven by remorse for his carnal sin, Adelmo killed himself by leaping from the monastery walls. Venantius and Berengar also killed themselves, in a sense, for Jorge had poisoned the pages of the book to guarantee its continued unavailability. As a reader licked his fingers to turn the damp pages more easily, he ingested the poison. Because Berengar had taken the book with him when he fled to the baths next to the herbarium to seek relief from the toxin, Malachi, Jorge's ally, had to kill Severinus to retrieve the volume. Then, overcome by curiosity, Malachi, too, succumbed to the lethal pages.

Although William finds the book and correctly traces the murderous actions of Jorge and the others involved, his victory is temporary. Rather than allow anyone else to read Aristotle's work, Jorge begins eating the pages. A scuffle ensues in the library, Jorge knocks over Adso's lamp, and the entire monastery is destroyed by fire.

The Characters

In addition to challenging the reader to solve the mystery of the monks' deaths, Umberto Eco presents a second puzzle. THE NAME OF THE ROSE is a roman a clef; many of the characters resemble well-known real or fictional figures. William of Baskerville, a tall, thin English detective with a fondness for a substance that induces lethargy, needs only a pipe, deerstalker cap, and cape to be the perfect double of Sherlock Holmes, whose use of cocaine is legendary. Adso resembles Holmes's faithful and not overly bright historian, Dr. Watson. The blind Spaniard, Jorge of Burgos, bears the features of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who also created labyrinths and imaginary libraries. Just as Dante, a contemporary of the events related in the novel, peopled THE DIVINE COMEDY with his fellow Florentines, so Eco adds thinly disguised figures from postwar Italian politics to his novel. For example, Renato Curcio, the leader of the terrorist Red Brigades, resembles the radical reformer Fra Dolcino, who turned to violence the more rapidly to achieve a peaceful world.

Characters may thus be read allegorically, each figure in the book corresponding to another in a different book or in life. In medieval fashion, they may also be read anagogically, representing metaphysical concepts. William can stand for reason, Adso for mysticism, Jorge for the power of evil, and Abo for complacency. The novel then takes on yet another medieval guise, the psychomachia, or war of ideas, as it pits these characters against one another. Unlike the clear resolution of medieval conflicts, Eco's ending is uncertain. William solves the mystery by exposing Jorge. He also, however, becomes Jorge's accomplice by destroying the Aristotelian treatise in the fire that results from his determination to unravel the monastery's riddles.

Themes and Meanings Such ambiguity is fitting for a book about uncertainty. In the typical mystery, detective and reader must interpret a series of signs to find the identity and motive of the criminal. The signs in such works may have several possible meanings, but only one is correct, and only the right reading will lead to the truth. THE NAME OF THE ROSE shuns these conventions. Clues may be understood in various ways, and a false hypothesis nevertheless leads to the solution. As William tells Adso at the end of the book:

I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental. I arrived at Jorge seeking one criminal for all the crimes and we discovered that each crime was committed by a different person, or by no one. I arrived at Jorge pursuing the plan of a perverse and rational mind, and there was no plan.

William believes that signs "are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world," but he knows that one can never be certain about the relation among signs. The uncertainty begins with the book's title, which Eco says he chose because it "rightly disoriented the reader, who was unable to choose just one interpretation." The opening paragraph of Adso's memoir further warns of the impossibility of certainty. Adso begins by quoting the first verse of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In this world one sees God, and hence the Word, whether in the form of language or other signs, as through a glass darkly.

Sensory perception and even logic are therefore untrustworthy. From a distance, the octagonal monastery appears to be a tetragon, and the heptagonal towers look like pentagons. On the mountaintop, Adso cannot tell whether the fog descends from the sky or ascends from the valley, nor can he decide whether the monastery contains holy or damned men. Signs can deceive: The lion and the serpent represent both Christ and Satan.

William, and so Eco, does not deny that truth exists, nor does he deny that one can sometimes read signs properly to reach that truth. The novel opens with a clever bit of deduction, as William determines from a knowledge of literature, and the presence of several agitated monks, broken branches, and horsehair, that the abbot's favorite horse has escaped from the monastery and is hiding nearby. Signs are not, however, always as clear as hoofprints in the snow. When a friar is condemned as a heretic, various spectators comment on his behavior. "He is a madman, he is possessed by the Devil, swollen with pride," some say. Others maintain that "he is not a saint, he was sent by Louis to stir up discord among the citizens." A third group disagrees: "All Christians should be like him." Given such confusion, the proper course is good- natured tolerance. As William tells Adso, "The only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth."

Critical Context

THE NAME OF THE ROSE is filled with Latin phrases, literary allusions, medieval history and theology, and deconstructionist and semiotic theory. It has enjoyed wide acclaim despite its complexity. A critical success, it won the Strega Prize and the Viareggio Prize in Italy and the Medicis Prize in France. Before its translation into English, it sold half a million copies in Italy. It has been on the best-seller lists of Italy, France, Germany, and the United States, and in 1986 it was adapted for film.

Such response reveals the irony of Eco's claim in the preface that the story is "gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day, atemporally alien to our hopes and our certainties." Not only do late twentieth century characters appear thinly disguised, not only does the book reflect late twentieth century skepticism, but also, in its plea for tolerance, it offers a nuclear world its best and last hope for survival.

The novel is no more exclusively a twentieth century book than it is medieval. The eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding, defending the realism of his characters, observed that not only were they living as he wrote, they had been alive for the past two thousand years. So, too, with Eco's characters. The historical background helps clarify the plot, but it also reveals how history repeats itself. Each period has its orthodoxy and its heresies, which may well change places in the succeeding age. Indeed, at any moment it may not be clear which is which. When Nicholas of Morimondo says he would be willing to destroy those who are "enemies of the people of God," William asks, "But who today is the enemy of the people of God? Louis the Emperor or John the Pope?" Eco's claim to atemporality thus contains some validity; like all classics, it stands outside time because it speaks to all ages.

Sources for further study:


Eco, Umberto. "Reflections on THE NAME OF THE ROSE," in ENCOUNTER. LXIV (April, 1985), pp. 7-19.

Reichardt, Paul F. "THE NAME OF THE ROSE: The Sign of the Apocalypse," in PUBLICATIONS OF THE MISSOURI PHILOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION. IX (1984), pp. 1-7.

Yeager, Robert F. "Fear of Writing: Or, Adso and the Poisoned Text," in SUBSTANCE. XIV, no. 2 (1985), pp. 40-53.

Essay by Joseph Rosenblum Copyright (c) 1992 Salem Press, Inc. Item Number: 9230000282