The Name of the Rose | Study Guide

Umberto Eco

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The Name of the Rose | Themes


Signs and Meanings, Truth and Confusion

In his investigation of the deaths at the abbey, William of Baskerville looks for signs as potential indicators of the truth. William is a keen observer of all types of signs—words, letters, languages, images, architecture, etc. He seeks the truth but understands that signs are often incomplete or false and therefore may lack meaning. Throughout the novel, William analyzes signs to determine their meaning but, alas, many signs either lack solid meaning or have a meaning that cannot be discerned.

Signs are noted and analyzed in the hope they may yield the truth William seeks. But the mutability (changeability) or ambiguity of the signs William examines more often leads to confusion rather than clarity. In the novel, signs frequently point to other signs, which may point to still other signs. Thus, correctly deriving meaning from any single sign is essential for following the trail of signs that lead to the truth. The possibility of error is great and signs frequently lead to greater confusion rather than a revelation of truth.

Interpretation: Ambiguity, Doubt, and Perspective

Umberto Eco was an expert in semiotics, the study of signs and how people determine their meaning. Signs are ubiquitous, or widespread, in the novel, but comprehending their meaning depends on how they are interpreted. William of Baskerville uses deductive reasoning to interpret the signs he finds in the abbey. Yet, he is aware that signs are often so ambiguous their meaning is elusive.

For example, the notes left by Venantius of Salvemec are so confusing and ambiguous that William only interprets them correctly at the very end of the novel. It is only when William alters his perspective on the words in the notes that their meaning becomes clear. He changes his analysis from thinking the note's signs are in its words to realizing the true sign is found in the letters. This change of perspective allows William to see the signs in a new and correct way.

Interpretation is also crucial for the Church and how it understands the Bible and Christ's teachings. Christian theology is devoted to explaining how the Bible should be interpreted. William understands that in "a holy text ... meaning goes beyond the letter" and thus a correct interpretation of the Bible should seek meaning that is deeper than the words' literal meaning. Biblical interpretation directly affects the issues of heresy and orthodoxy explored in the novel. The Catholic Church's interpretation of the Bible permits it to amass great wealth. The potentially heretical orders of Franciscans interpret Christ's teachings as endorsing a life of poverty. Other heretical sects interpret the Bible in more unorthodox ways. These differing interpretations fueled the Inquisition and the power struggle between the Church and secular rulers.

Power, Corruption, and Hypocrisy

Power is at the heart of the conflict between the Church and the Franciscans. The Church wants to retain its power over all Christians and exercise that power through its unimaginable wealth. The Church uses its power, through excommunication and the Inquisition, to persecute and destroy those whose beliefs challenge its authority. The conflict extends to the fierce hostility between Emperor Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor who seeks to undermine the Church by supporting the Franciscans, and Pope John XXII, who is determined to exert all his power to retain and expand the Church's influence.

The medieval Church resorted to corruption to retain its authority and wealth. The most despicable forms of corruption, in the view of many Christians of the time, were the selling of indulgences and the power of investiture. Selling indulgences involved offering absolution (forgiveness) to any Christian who paid enough money, or gave enough goods, to the local or regional clerics. Those who could not afford to pay for absolution were in danger of losing their souls. The power of investiture (placing bishops in office) was corrupt because the Church often appointed bishops who would only act to enrich the Church. Bishoprics, as in obtaining the office of bishop, were so lucrative, kings and princes fought with the Church for the right to appoint bishops. At one point in the novel, William of Baskerville wonders aloud if investiture was perhaps the motive behind the abbey murders.

Hypocrisy is rampant among Church officials. In showing off his ring of authority the abbot explains that Christ wanted the Church to pursue wealth. It is a doctrine contradicted by the words of Jesus in the Gospel and thus makes Abo a hypocrite. Bernard Gui is a blatant hypocrite in his attacks on so-called heretics who are merely men trying to live in poverty as Christ did. Gui judges Christians, almost always poor people, for beliefs that are not heretical in a religious sense but for the threat they pose to the wealth and power of the Church. Yet, he couches his attacks in religious reasoning, in arguments that twist and confuse the issue in order to reach a guilty verdict. That at one point Gui describes himself as a humble servant of the Church is the height of hypocrisy. Gui is the powerful face of the Church's persecution and punishment of those who would undermine it.

Knowledge, Secrets, and Dogma

William of Baskerville is an intellectual who uses reason to solve problems and who is, above all else, a seeker of knowledge. William is a scholar who values the learning, wisdom, and diverse points of view found in books. For William, the abbey library is a treasure abounding in knowledge about the world—and this knowledge should be shared. As William says, "Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concept; therefore it is dumb."

For Jorge of Burgos and those he controls—librarians and abbots—the only knowledge anyone should have is contained in the words of the Bible. Knowledge that questions or disputes the Bible is to be kept secret, hidden from both scholars and the world. For Jorge, and perhaps for other monks in the abbey, knowledge should be restricted to Church dogma that is, supposedly, based on the words in the Bible. Thus any book that takes a stand in opposition to Church dogma undermines Church authority and should be kept secret and unread.

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