The Name of the Rose


Umberto Eco

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The Name of the Rose Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco was a literary critic and professor of semiotics at several universities in Italy and the United States, including Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of Bologna. He pioneered the field of interpretative semiotics—the study of how meaning is conveyed through language—and has also written on anthropology, political theory, and aesthetics. But Eco is perhaps best known as a novelist; his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), was an international bestseller, and he later wrote other critically and popularly acclaimed books including Foucault’s Pendulum (1988). He died of pancreatic cancer in 2016.
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Historical Context of The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose was written and published in the 1970s and 1980s, a period in which postmodernist theory was becoming an increasingly powerful force in European and American literary and intellectual life. Postmodernism is characterized by skepticism about the objective nature of any truth, a distrust of universal explanations, and an emphasis on “intertextuality” (the way in which texts reference or respond to other texts). Many pieces of dialogue and plot points in the novel testify to its postmodern themes, such as William’s statement that “books always speak of other books” and the ultimate failure of his theory that the murders are following a grand design according to the Book of Revelation. William tells Adso that “I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe”—this is a central idea of postmodernist theory. In his lifetime, Umberto Eco witnessed the rise of fascism in Italy and the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini (1922-1943). His later writings argue that fascism is not only a phenomenon of early twentieth-century Europe, but an “eternal” threat than had oppressed people in the past and could continue to do so in the future. The Name of the Rose features a different historically oppressive political regime: the Inquisition, a court used by the medieval Catholic Church to arrest, persecute, and punish heretics and all those accused of subverting the authority of the church. Eco’s interest in the repressive political regimes of medieval Europe in The Name of the Rose is perhaps informed by his perspective as someone who had himself lived under fascism.

Other Books Related to The Name of the Rose

The novel is set in the fourteenth century, and so alludes to works familiar to its medieval protagonists: the writings of Aristotle, especially his Poetics; the scientific discoveries of Roger Bacon, an early natural philosopher; and the theories of William of Occam, a medieval logician who popularized the “Occam’s razor” principle (which holds that among many competing hypotheses, the simplest is probably true.) At the same time, however, Eco also anachronistically references later works. He alludes frequently to tropes of nineteenth and twentieth-century detective fiction, particularly Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series (ca. 1890s – 1920s); with his astonishing powers of deduction and logical reasoning, William of Baskerville bears a strong resemblance to Conan Doyle’s detective. Indeed, his name is probably a nod to the well-known Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901). The character of Jorge of Burgos is clearly an allusion to the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986); like Eco’s Jorge, the historical Borges was blind and worked for many years as a librarian. The library in Borges’s short story “The Library of Babel” (1941) is also a labyrinth of hexagonal rooms strongly resembling the medieval abbey’s library in The Name of the Rose.
Key Facts about The Name of the Rose
  • Full Title: The Name of the Rose
  • When Written: 1970s
  • Where Written: Italy
  • When Published: 1980
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Historical murder mystery
  • Setting: Italy, 1320s - 1390s
  • Climax: A medieval monastic library burns to the ground in a struggle over the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics.
  • Antagonist: Jorge of Burgos
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for The Name of the Rose

Eco on Film. The Name of the Rose was adapted into a 1986 film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. The movie received mixed reviews, including from Eco, who critiqued its simplification of the book’s political and theological content: “A book like this is a club sandwich, with turkey, salami, tomato, cheese, lettuce. And the movie is obliged to choose only the lettuce or the cheese.”

Eco’s Library. The labyrinthine monastic library in The Name of the Rose might not be entirely fictionalized: Eco himself owned over 50,000 books spread out between his houses in Milan and Urbino.