The Name of the Rose

Seeking knowledge is like walking through a labyrinth. One fact leads to another and another as you wind around its path. Some facts lead you away from the ultimate answer you’re seeking. Others might be hidden behind secret walls that you can’t pass through without some additional knowledge. Sometimes you’ll find yourself doubling back, revisiting information you’ve already passed through. You may despair of ever reaching the center, or you may decide that the journey is as important as the destination.

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the idea of knowledge as a labyrinth is given shape in the form of a library that actually is a labyrinth. This library, housed at the 14th-century Italian monastery, may contain the key to a series of murders that have taken place there. Investigating the murders is the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, who has come to the monastery with a novice Benedictine monk named Adso—the novel’s narrator—to help settle a theological conflict. When William and Adso arrive, the first death, an apparent suicide, has just occurred. Before long, there’s another death—this one an obvious murder—and the quest begins in earnest.

The murder mystery is one of several vehicles within the novel for discussing how people pursue truth. As he’s investigating, William gets into long conversations with the monks about such questions as whether laughter is sinful or whether poverty is a virtue. (The latter belief among the Franciscans is a source of significant conflict and one of the questions William has come to the monastery to address.) For many readers, these conversations are likely to seem pointless and distracting, but they’re key to the novel as they illustrate the way the characters think. In the end, we see that significant clues appear in some of the conversations. In addition, all of them circle around big epistemological questions. Epistemology—how we know what we know—is the theme; the murder mystery is but one example of how we see it play out. Here’s how William describes his approach:

In the case of some inexplicable facts you must try to imagine many general laws, whose connection with your facts escapes you. Then suddenly, in the unexpected connection of a result, a specific situation, and one of those laws, you perceive a line of reasoning that seems more convincing than the others. You try applying it to all similar cases, to use it for making predictions, and you discover that  your intuition was right. But until you reach the end you will never know which predicates to introduce into your reasoning and which to omit. And this is what I am doing now. I line up so many disjointed elements and I venture some hypotheses. I have to venture many, and many of them are so absurd that I would be ashamed to tell them to you.

William’s hypotheses do lead him in a useful direction, but not in an obvious way. He gets a lot of things wrong, but his activities naturally influence the murderer. A pattern emerges that might not have appeared otherwise, and the pursuer and pursued end up in a strange collaboration as they “read” each other’s actions.

One of my favorite seminary classes was in medieval theology, and I loved being re-introduced to the medieval way of thinking in this book. (Actually, I think Eco might say that modern thought is so colored by medieval thought that we’ve never gotten away from it, nor should we want to.) It’s easy to mischaracterize the Middle Ages in Europe as the “Dark Ages” and ignore the incredible intellectual work that was done during the period. Eco delves deeply into religious, philosophical, and political thinking of the time and shows how sophisticated it truly was. In his lengthy postscript to the novel, he remarks that several readers identified some of the characters’ statements as being too modern, and those statements were always drawn directly from 14th-century sources.

On the flip side, Eco doesn’t act as an apologist for the period. William himself is a former Inquisitor who gave up his post in disgust at the use of torture and other corrupt practices. The church itself is shown to be horribly compromised, although there are enough bright spots to keep the novel from feeling like a diatribe against the church. Eco also lets the medieval characters be medieval, with all the unfortunate attitudes toward women and sex that this includes. This is not historical fiction in which to be good is to have 21st-century values.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I’m not sure it’s a book for every reader, although I do think it’s the most accessible of the three novels by Eco that I’ve read (the others being Foucault’s Pendulum and The Prague Cemetery). There are points when it drags, and it’s sometimes hard to follow the political machinations in the background. In his postscript, Eco says that he went against his editor’s advice to trim the opening chapters because he wanted to use those sometimes turgid passages to develop ideal readers who would go where he was willing to take them. I’m not sure I’m quite his ideal reader, but I was more than willing to go along on this ride, and I think it’s one I would enjoy taking again.

If you decide to read this, I strongly recommend that you get an edition with Eco’s postscript; in fact, the postscript by itself is a great read, filled with information about Eco’s method and about the nature of writing, reading, and knowledge. A fascinating capstone to a thrilling novel.

Translated by William Weaver.

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24 Responses to The Name of the Rose

  1. I read this one for a college course and found it fascinating. We had a separate book called The Key to the Name of the Rose that contained explanations and commentary, etc. Definitely a rich and deep novel.

  2. Michelle says:

    I have been wanting to try one of Eco’s books for ages. Everyone agrees that THE NAME OF THE ROSE is his best book. I will get to it eventually.

  3. Sly Wit says:

    I thought the book suffered a bit too much from “I’m an academic writing my first book” syndrome, but you explain why he writes what he writes very well.

    You almost make me want to reread, but I remember that took a lot of work and resolve to get through some sections so maybe not. Perhaps if I had had a “Key to the Name of the Rose” companion volume it would have been easier!

    In any case, I agree that the postscript is an absolute must.

    • Teresa says:

      I know what you mean, but it didn’t bother me. His other books are even more jam-packed with academic jargon and references to other works. What no doubt helped me here is that he set it in a period I’m especially interested in.

  4. bookmagic says:

    I have been putting this one off though I really want to reads it. I think it’s because the paperback version is so dense. I may need to read this on my Kindle. I’m also a bit intimidated :)

    • Teresa says:

      I’d had this on my list for ages before I got to it. If you want to try Eco, I’d say this is the one to start with, and if you get through the first 150 pages or so, you’ll probably be in good shape!

  5. Jenny says:

    This sounds like one I’d love. I can’t, finally, remember whether or not I read it (I can picture the paperback, but honestly can’t remember actually reading it) so I think it’s fair to say I could stand to read it again even if I did! Definitely going on my list.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel sure you’d love this–and probably remember it better this time since you’d blog about it. I think if I’d read this more than 10 or so years ago, a lot of what’s good about it would have gone over my head—and the rest would have gone out of it—so I’m glad I waited this long.

  6. krismerino says:

    Oh I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I love this book every time I read it, and I think, and with Foucault’s Pendulum, are Eco’s best.

    You’re right about it not being a book for everyone, and and he states in his postscript, he does “test” his readers for the first 150 pages or so, but it is so worth it. It’s beautifully written with a great narrative, along with an astonishing degree of historical accuracy and a pretty deep philosophical base. An impressive work.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that it is totally worth it. I’m fascinated enough by the period that I didn’t find the first 150 pages that much of a test, but I also told myself not to get bogged down in understanding every detail, which helped.

  7. I read this for a class in medievalism at St. Andrews, and I found it a very challenging at first. Eco made me feel that same aspiring confusion as Dorothy Dunnett! I was left feeling sea-sick from riding the unrelenting wave of medieval theology. But then my wonderful, wonderful tutor sat us down and his passion for the novel, his penetrating understanding of the medieval world, lit it up for me. I’ve wanted to re-read it for a while, but I’m too afraid to in case I can’t recapture the clarity I remember at the end of that seminar.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought of your “aspiring confusion” phrase as I read this! It’s very Dunnett-like in that respect. I bet the clarity would come back to you if you did reread it.

  8. Stefanie says:

    I read this a long time ago and liked it very much and you make me want to read it again. I read a mass market and don’t think it has a postscript from Eco in it. I will have to check and see. I hope to re Foucault’s Pendulum this year. It’s on my TBR shelf, but then so are a lot of other books so we’ll see.

    • Teresa says:

      If your edition doesn’t have the postscript, I encourage you to seek out a copy that does, even if you just read the postscript for now. I liked Foucault’s Pendulum, but it didn’t leave me as breathlessly enthusiastic as this did.

  9. Edgar says:

    The Name of the Rose is one of my favorite books. I agree that it helps to have a copy of Postscript of the Name of the Rose (which is a separate small book) because it answers many questions and one may learn on how to write a story/novel.

  10. Kristen M. says:

    It’s probably been 15 years since I read this one. I enjoyed it but I wonder if I would enjoy it even more now that I’m more well-read, etc. I would like to re-read Foucault too because it was the first Eco I read. Maybe I will do an Eco year next year.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten as much out of this 15 years ago, although I might have enjoyed it. Hard to say.

      And an Eco year sounds like fun! I added a couple more of his books to my TBR because I enjoyed this so much.

  11. Just discovered your blog, and really related to this post. As an ex-medievalist (I kept taking classes in while retaining next to no historical information) I think it definitely captures something of the thinking of the day – that sense that logic and reason are divine tools that can achieve anything, but that also makes the cerebral dangerous in a much more sinister way than today’s crime fiction psycho-killers. I struggled with the ponderous tone when I read it, but again, it works for a narrator who’s used to working with vellum, not pen and paper.

    Re: the Eco a year thing – I think that’s probably all I could handle.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree about how Eco captured the way the medieval mind worked. What I loved is that he showed that the monks and friars of the time really were thinking men and that they didn’t all think the same way.

  12. rebeccareid says:

    I’m excited to give this a try. Not sure when I’ll have the mental energy to tackle a book that sounds as complex as it sounds, but I definitely think it sounds rewarding all the same!

  13. Paul says:

    After seeing the movie, I bought the book and read it. It is very detailed and gives the reader insight into medieval history, philosophy, religious thought as well as heretical movements.
    This is one of my favorite books and I am going to re-read it. There is a companion book available for “The Name of the Rose” that will fill you in on the meanings of the various Latin passages and phrases in the book as well as a lot of historical figures. I think it is called “The Key to the Name of the Rose.”

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