Amelia Burns, March 29, 2012
In The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Adso, the narrator and novice, accompanies William, a monk, to a Northern Italian monastery in the 1300s in order to attend a theological debate concerning the poverty of Christ. Upon arriving, the abbot informs William of a curious suicide by one of the monks, Adelmo. Knowing William’s history as a former inquisitor, the abbot pleads with William to investigate the suicide before an important group of monks from the Pope and Emperor come to the debate. However, shortly after they arrive at the monastery, more monks die in more strange ways. William begins to suspect that the monks are being murdered, and that they are somehow tied to the library. When Malachi, the librarian, denies William access to the library, William’s interest only becomes more piqued. Why is it so important that only Malachi and the librarian’s assistant, Berengar, enter the library’s labyrinth? William and Adso are then forced sneak into the library, only to discover that the library’s secrets are more extensive than they could have ever imagined. By using the secrets of the library, and William’s own brilliance, he and Adso must discover the reason behind the murders.
As a medieval historian first and a writer second, Umberto Eco is able to brilliantly immerse his readers into a historically accurate setting: a beautiful monastery in the mountains of Italy, November 1327. In his postscript, Eco notes that facts like “the debate over poverty and the Inquisition’s hostility towards the Fraticelli” (514) were important details to embed within his novel to ensure accuracy. For instance, the novel takes place at the end of November in 1327 because “by December, Michael of Cesena is already in Avignon… (and) like the movements of Michael, (such details) depend on the real world, which, in this kind of novel, happens to coincide with the possible world of the story” (514). Eco takes time to ensure the historical context of the book is accurate. The details of the setting, the mannerisms of the monks, the background information concerning the monks’ reasoning for their actions, and the clear knowledge of the biblical Apocalypse, and the frequent, fluent use of Latin (the common language of monks) all help guide the reader to understand the novel. One way that Eco does this is through the method of Adso’s narration.
In his postscript, Eco says that “Adso’s narrative style is based on that rhetorical device called preterition or paralepsis, or ‘passing over’” (519). Because Adso is a novice, he is uneducated. In other words, Eco takes the time to step back from the plot in order to explain situations, and this is done when William must explain situations to Adso. This is very useful when complicated issues arise, such as why the monks are so aroused by talk of heresy, and why the poverty of Christ is such a complicated and heated topic of discussion. Adso narrates the novel in first-person, and through this point-of-view, the reader is able to become more emotionally involved with events in the novel.
A major theme throughout the novel is the pursuit of truth versus knowledge. Some knowledge, whether it is true or not, simply must be kept within the library. Only under special circumstances, with the abbot’s consent, may some books be removed and read from the library. It is up to both the librarian and the abbot to discern between the pursuit of knowledge and truth. When in the library’s labyrinth, Adso asks William, “‘How can we trust ancient wisdom… if it is handed down by lying books that have interpreted it with such license?’” -" to which William replies with, “‘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’” (316). It is with this philosophy the monks in the monastery consider literature. William and Adso pursue the truth of the murders with the help of the forbidden knowledge, but it is up to them to discern what is truth, and what is simply knowledge.
In my opinion, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is beautifully written; however, it cannot be considered light reading. While Eco presents his reader with a captivating mystery, his tendency to deviate from the plot can be rather tedious, and tended to frustrate me when I thought his tangents deviated for too long. The Name of the Rose is often compared to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, as they both relate to mysteries surrounding a biblical context. But while Dan Brown focuses more on the mystery, Umberto Eco not only presents his readers with a mystery, but also allows his reader to enter into the issues and details of the time period, too. If it had not been for my faith-based upbringing, I would have not have been nable to pick up on the subtle biblical allusions to the Apocalypse, biblical events, and other specific details found within the Bible. While it is certainly not impossible to read this novel without biblical understanding, it certainly helps. I can easily see that without this knowledge, the reader could become easily deterred and frustrated while reading the novel. But, Umberto Eco realized this when he wrote the novel. He mentions in his postscript that his goal wasn’t to attract every reader. He says that he wanted readers that would “play his game” - " that would willingly enter into a medieval world and dive into a complex work. He challenges the reader to read beyond the first hundred pages, to push past the things that frustrate you and open your mind and allow him to take you on a journey. And this is why, artistically, the novel exceeds expectations. If you have the patience and the time, you will not be disappointed. However, buyers-beware, do not be surprised or deterred if you have to look up information, because it can be well worth your time if you do.