Umberto Eco was a professor of semiotics—the study of how people understand and make meaning out of signs and symbols. So it’s no surprise that The Name of the Rose is so concerned with the process of interpretation and the relationship between signs and their meanings. William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk spend much of the novel trying to solve a series of mysterious murders at an abbey, so they’re constantly searching for and trying to make meaning out of the evidence—whether it’s a corpse, an ox heart, or someone’s suspicious behavior. However, amassing enough evidence to explain the suspicious events proves to be a more complex process than either William or Adso had anticipated. Ultimately, the relationship between signs and their meanings unfolds into a difficult philosophical problem for the characters.
A central concern of Christian religious life is “hermeneutics,” or the study of interpretation. As monks, therefore, William, Adso, and the novel’s other characters are deeply concerned with how to correctly interpret all texts, and the Bible in particular. William explains that in the “words of a holy text…meaning goes beyond the letter,” such that words convey higher truths than their literal meanings. “When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means,” William avows. This can also be true of non-religious texts: even in a “pagan” story about magical creatures, William tells Adso, the unicorn represents an “allegorical, or analogical” truth, “the idea of chastity [as] a noble virtue.” With this example, William demonstrates that anything can be a symbol for something else—an idea, concept, or moral precept.
Because correct interpretation is associated with piousness and morality, characters are particularly concerned about interpretive failure. For example, William tells Adso that God meant for people to understand lepers as a “wondrous parable,” meaning that they symbolically represent all people who are “outcast, poor, simple, excluded, uprooted from the countryside, humiliated in the cities.” The problem, William asserts, is that people were unable to understand the metaphor: “the mystery of leprosy has continued to haunt us because we have not recognized the nature of the sign.” In this way, William demonstrates his belief that everything has symbolic worth, and that when people fail to read the signs, they are failing to see the greater, hidden significance of the world.
Eco also uses the abbey’s labyrinthine library as a metaphor for the difficulty of interpreting signs. “How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths,” William exclaims, seeming to lament not only the difficulty of solving the library’s labyrinth, but the difficulty of solving the mysterious murders that seem to revolve around it. At first William and Adso get lost in the labyrinth—which consists of dozens of identical-looking rooms, each bearing an inscription above the doorway that is sometimes repeated, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. William deduces the internal organization of the library by viewing the abbey at a distance and imagining how the rooms are connected to each other. “So one can know things by looking at them from the outside,” Adso concludes. In this way, Eco seems to suggest that correct interpretation depends not only on looking carefully at signs, but on considering them in their broader context.
Adso becomes increasingly worried about how to seek truth in a world in which the same signs can produce different interpretations, and in which different signs point to the same things. Much of the novel’s action centers on a debate that takes place in the abbey over the theological distinctions between different “heretical” groups and factions within the Franciscan order. Adso begins to feel muddled about what distinguishes one group from another, and even suggests that the categories are meaningless when he says “the trouble is, I can no longer distinguish the accidental difference.” Other characters admit confusion as well. When Adso points out that the Franciscans and the Spiritualist faction both denied the authority of the Pope, Ubertino of Casale concedes that “it is difficult, boy, to make distinctions in these things…the line dividing good from evil is so fine.” Things that seem identical to one person, Eco shows, might have radically disparate meanings for other people. Eco also highlights the ways in which even the same words can have wildly different meanings to different people. For example, Adso tells a German lord that people search the Italian countryside for “truffles,” but the German thinks he means “der Teufel”—the devil. “Such is the magic of human language, that by human accord often the same sounds mean different things,” Adso muses. Similarly, visual signifiers can sometimes look the same but be meant to signify entirely different things. As Adso reads the Book of Revelation in the abbey’s library, he finds that the forms of the Virgin Mary and the whore of Babylon were “womanly in both cases, and at a certain point [he] could no longer understand what distinguished them.”
In later life, Adso reconciles himself to the difficulty of interpreting signs by turning to the authority of the writings of eminent churchmen. He writes, “the fact is that the correct interpretation can be established only on the authority of the fathers.” Still, the novel leaves many questions unanswered, including the meaning of the title itself: what is the name of the rose? Eco may have intended to leave this open-ended, writing in the Postscript that a novel “is a machine for generating interpretations.” He writes that he chose the title, in fact, “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left,” and thus the reader “is unable to choose just one interpretation”—a problem, not incidentally, shared by the novel’s protagonists. The Name of the Rose shows that making a single and incontestable interpretation of any sign is an impossible task, since the nature of symbols is to spawn as many different interpretations as there are different interpreters.
The Interpretation of Signs ThemeTracker
The Interpretation of Signs Quotes in The Name of the Rose
I concluded that Adso’s memoirs appropriately share the nature of the events he narrates: shrouded in many, shadowy mysteries, beginning with the identity of the author and ending with the abbey’s location, about which Adso is stubbornly, scrupulously silent.
On sober reflection, I find few reasons for publishing my Italian version of an obscure, neo-Gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century.
“My good Adso,” my master said, “during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book.”
“Why,” he asked, “do you insist on speaking of criminal acts without referring to their diabolical cause?”
“Because reasoning about causes and effects is a very difficult thing, and I believe the only judge of that can be God. We are already hard put to establish a relationship between such an obvious effect as a charred tree and the lightning bolt that set fire to it, so to trace sometimes endless chains of causes and effects seems to me as foolish as trying to build a tower that will touch the sky.”
Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but
what it means […]. The unicorn, as these books speak of him, embodies a moral truth, or allegorical, or analogical, but one that remains true, as the idea that chastity is a noble virtue remains true.
The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb. This library was perhaps born to save the books it houses, but now it lives to bury them.
The language of gems is multiform: each expresses several truths, according to the sense of the selected interpretation, according to the context in which they appear. And who decides what is the proper context? You know, my boy, for they have taught you: it is authority, the most reliable commentator of all and the most invested with prestige, and therefore with sanctity. Otherwise how to avoid the misunderstandings into which the Devil lures us?
“He wants me to leave tomorrow morning, does he? Very well, it’s his house; but by tomorrow morning I must know. I must.”
“You must? Who obliges you now?”
“No one ever obliges us to know, Adso. We must, that is all, even if we comprehend imperfectly.”
The Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. […]And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.
“I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental. […] Where is all my wisdom, then? I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.”
Mine was a poor harvest, but I spent a whole day reaping it, as if from those disiecta membra of the library a message might reach me. […] At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.