Sylvester: Name of the Rose

The Case of the Two Italian Semioticians, or The Demise of the Detective and the Revival of His Genre in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose

Simon Sylvester, Lancaster University

Winter 2003

Seems this Moretti goon has been bumping off writers all over town. But his beef isn’t with your average, everyday writer. He’s got a problem with detective stories. In one long dark afternoon I seen them all drop: Hammett, Chandler, Reggie Hill, Art Doyle, Eddie Poe. Even that nice Christie dame took a tumble. It hadda stop somewhere. I guess it was my unlucky day when Eco walked through my door. He says, “You gotta help me, Sylvester. You gotta take out Moretti before he gets to me.” Eco was spooked, real scared. I don’t know. I knew that limey Doyle. Hell, I liked him. And the only people I like are my friends Smith, Wesson, and Jim Beam. You know Jim. He doesn’t talk too much.

 I told Eco I’d have to think about it.

EcoIn the essay ‘Clues’ in his 1980 book Signs Taken For Wonders, the Italian theorist Franco Moretti explores methods of analysing mass culture through a deconstruction of detective fiction, a work that eventually reveals that the genre is “anti-literary” (148). During this process Moretti addresses, amongst other issues, the ideas that mystery fiction “owes its success to the fact that it teaches nothing” (138), and that it works from a “…literary structure that is anything but experimental” (149). His essay, though “restless and disharmonic” (134), is convincing as an argument against ‘classic’ detective fiction. However, the more recent impact of postmodernism on the genre would seem to call into question certain of the ideas offered in Moretti’s argument. For example, his continual reference to ‘the’ criminal is challenged by a film such asThe Usual Suspects (dir. Singer: 1997), which disowns the conventional demands of the detective thriller by refusing to offer any definite closure on the narrative whatsoever. Similarly, Moretti’s derision of the genre as little more than an appropriation of the short story form is defied by the weaving, evolving plot lines of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Bearing this apparent growth of the style in mind, this essay will apply Moretti’s arguments to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in an effort to prove that traditionally ‘low’ culture genres such as detective fiction have been revived and reconciled to ‘high’ culture with the advent of theoretically sophisticated novelists.

I gotta say I thought twice before taking this job. It had trouble written all over it. They say this Rose book is pretty good. I don’t know much about that. I’m not the gardening type. I wasn’t exactly happy about Eco’s motivation in the matter, neither. I heard he only wrote it ‘cos he wanted to poison a monk… Jesus! What kind of sicko is this punk? Still, I guess he’s the guy shelling out the greenbacks. I just do what I’m told. First thing I gotta do is find out how Moretti killed those poor writer bums…

Moretti’s argument in ‘Clues’ is rooted in the premise that detective fiction can be interpreted on two levels of understanding. The first is “evident and literal”, and the second a hidden set of “cultural rules that form its deep structure” (149-50). These rules are largely concerned with the detective as an economic guardian, whose role it is to protect the bourgeois from the financial enterprise of either the aristocracy or the working classes.  In this way, detectives such as Sherlock Holmes are the “doctors” of their societies (Signs, 135;145). Economic independence is a threat to social unity, and the detective exists to prevent the ambitious individual from achieving autonomy. It is these “deep” levels of analysis that concern a defence of The Name of the Rose, as they move beyond the deconstruction of individual plots to examine generic aspects of detective fiction.

As a preliminary, it is necessary to establish The Name of the Rose as a text that falls into Moretti’s categorisation of detective fiction: otherwise his arguments cannot apply to Eco’s novel. For this reason,The Name of the Rose must first be proven to be anti-literary according to Moretti’s definition: it must be a detective fiction. This is indeed the case, as the mysteries of the plot – why, how, and whodunit – are resolved by revisiting the scene of the crime and recreating the murders. Eco must therefore “return to the beginning” (137), and is complicit in creating a situation where the reader is: “…allowed to discover only what one would have found out anyway. To attempt to ‘guess’ is […] to accept a situation in which the individual’s brain might as well stop working.” (Signs, 148)

Moretti’s argument dismisses the rest of a narrative, no matter how sophisticated, as a verbose attempt at attaining to the novel form. This is a troubling concept considering The Name of the Rose as a work that is so ostensibly literate and intelligent. In addition to this deconstruction, ‘Clues’ reaches the conclusion that as a genre, the murder mystery is anti-literary because it is: “…radically anti-novelistic: the aim of the narration is no longer the character’s development into autonomy, or a change from the initial situation, or the presentation of plot as a conflict and an evolutionary, spiral image of a developing world that it is difficult to draw to a close.” (137)

This lack of “plot as a conflict” is derived from the assignation of a stereotype to each character, which in turn contributes to the “deeper” system of cultural rules. Moretti argues that ‘conflict’ does not exist in the murder mystery because the form of the story is ultimately little more than the delaying of an inevitable conclusion. This premise simplifies the relationship between detective and criminal to the point of a binary opposition, where the detective’s existence is justified solely by the pursuit and eventual capture of the criminal. It is through the breakdown of these opposed roles that William and Jorge transcend this definition, and lift The Name of the Rose into the category of a narrative novel. This breakdown strikes the reader with Adso’s realisation that: “…at this moment these two men, arrayed in mortal conflict, were admiring each other, as if each had acted only to win the other’s applause.” (472)

The opposition is broken down because Jorge is not a criminal: in the 14th Century, his behaviour is that of the truly pious Christian. The venerable monk has acted in defence of an ideology for which he is prepared to sacrifice his life; he has acted upon a method of interpretation of signifiers in exactly the same way as William: “I became convinced that a divine plan was directing these deaths, for which I was not responsible.” (470)

In many ways, Jorge is himself a detective: William’s insistence on revealing Aristotle’s Poetics to the world, and the subsequent ideological weakening of the Christian religion/society that will inevitably result, confer upon him the role of Moretti’s ‘criminal’. This would make William “proceed as if the murderer and I think alike” (418). Jorge acts as a detective in preventing the accumulation of property, albeit intellectual rather than monetary. Eco says: “Jorge is not the villain, he is one of the heroes… He is expressing certain attitudes of his time, but I don’t consider him a villain. It is a confrontation between two worldviews, and a worldview is a system of ideas.”

The ambiguity of interpretation is a vital aspect in a defence of The Name of the Rose. Where Jorge regards the Seven Trumpets of St. John as the manifestation of divine influence, William interprets the same signs as coincidental. The existence of these ambiguities displays a fundamental point of poststructuralism. If both interpretations are valid, then neither ending can be confidently attributed to the novel. This defiance runs counter to Moretti’s accusation that: “Detective fiction’s ending is its end indeed: its solution in the true sense. […] it abolishes narration.” (148)

By removing the certainty and this “true” solution from the novel, Eco not only allows, but demands a re-reading to ascertain not Moretti’s “deeper” meaning; but more immediately the “superficial” meaning that is condemned in ‘Clues’ as an insult to the intelligence of the reader: “(who, in fact, ever ‘re-reads’ a detective story?)” (Signs, 150).

In reconsidering the “anti-novelistic” premise of Moretti’s argument, I would also argue that rather than displaying a lack of “the character’s development into autonomy”, it is only through the course of the novel and specifically his direct engagement with the detection process that Adso can dare “for the first and last time in my life, to express a theological conclusion” (493). His independence in theoretical thought is granted to him only after gaining the ability to interpret: he pieces together the complex signifiers of William’s argument, and uses these to draw a logical, signified conclusion. Adso’s accidental discovery of the peasant prostitute helps to unravel the mysteries of the abbey, while the loss of his virginity simultaneously serves as a metaphor for his emotional growth and intellectual maturation. His autonomy also becomes literal as he is ultimately separated from William. As the assistant/narrator, Adso is totally juxtaposed with Moretti’s gently patronising contempt of “Watson, poor fool” (Signs, 146).

Leaving the “anti-novelistic” aspect aside, I would like to focus now on another facet of Moretti’s argument: the individual as criminal. ‘Clues’ begins with the hypothesis that: “A good rule in detective fiction is to have only one criminal. This is not because guilt isolates, but, on the contrary, because isolation breeds guilt. The criminal adheres to others only instrumentally; for him association is merely the expedient that allows him to attain his own interests.” (134-5)

This premise is more concisely defined as “Innocence is conformity; individuality, guilt”.  Such an assertion is derived from the growth of society into an “organism or social body” (Signs, 135). By manifesting personal desires through socially unacceptable actions, the individual becomes isolated from the coalescent mass: an occurrence that subsequently must associate guilt with isolation: “The idea that anything the individual desires to protect from the interference of society – the liberal ‘freedom from’ – favours or even coincides with crime is gradually insinuated, and is the source of the fascination with ‘locked room mysteries’. The murderer and victim are inside, society – innocent and weak – outside.” (Signs, 136)

As we have already seen, it is inaccurate to simplify the role of detective or criminal in The Name of the Rose: I would now like to challenge these generalisations of ‘individual’ and ‘society’. Moretti’s argument cites as examples the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, in which there tends to be one criminal and one detective, who play out their respective roles around a social “organic body”. However, Moretti’s argument is seriously compromised by the society of the abbey.  By his own definition, an individual is a criminal: the abbey is populated almost without exception by ‘criminals’; who must therefore be individuals. If the social group is made entirely of these individuals, then Moretti’s “organic society” dissolves and returns to the “‘contract’ between independent entities” (135). As proof of their criminality/ individuality, and in no particular order: Malachi, Adelmo and Berengar are guilty of sodomy; Jorge and Adelmo of suicide; Malachi is a murderer; Remegio is a heretical Minorite; Salvatore is both Minorite and pimp; Aymaro is a wilful trouble maker; Bernardo Guidoni is manipulative and cruel; William is guilty of burglary and heresy; Adso breaks his vow of chastity. All are guilty of deception. And without exception, the population of the abbey is guilty of: “Uniqueness and mystery: detective fiction treats every element of individual behaviour that desires secrecy as an offence, even if there is no trace of crime…” (Signs, 135-6).

It is the passions and individuality of all the monks that initiate the proceedings: it is Berengar’s expression of lust for Adelmo that generates the plot, rather than a murder/mystery/crime. The society of the abbey is constructed entirely of ‘guilty’ individuals. In this way, it is possible to challenge Moretti’s assertion that: “Detective fiction, however, exists expressly to dispel the doubt that guilt might be impersonal, and therefore collective and social.” (135)

In The Name of the Rose, guilt proves to be entirely social precisely because every individual is guilty. Indeed, the proliferation of ‘guilty’ parties demands an alteration to Moretti’s premise, a turnaround to: ‘conformity is guilt.’ It ceases to be true that the detective exists to reassure a unified society about the threat posed to them by the individual, but rather the case that the detective is abandoned by the society for which he was once the champion. This is seen in The Name of the Rose as Abo tells William:

“’Naturally, it is not necessary for you to continue your investigations. Do not disturb the monks further. You may go.’

“It was more than a dismissal, it was an expulsion.” (449)

“…expulsion”: the detective is rejected by society. Adso tells of: “the many acts of pride that his intellectual vanity made him commit” (499). William’s individuality and desire to solve the case make him guilty of the desire for personal advancement exactly as if he were the victim or criminal. This exile leaves William both literally and metaphorically outside Moretti’s “locked room”, as he is continually frustrated in his attempts to decode the secrets of the hidden finis Africae. Tellingly, his eventual access owes more to the coincidence of Adso’s bizarre dream than any genuine understanding of the code/world. It is no longer the case that “Murderer and victim meet in the locked room because fundamentally they are similar” (Signs, 136). If this is true, then the finis Africae will necessarily be rather crowded by the conclusion ofThe Name of the Rose.

Moretti states that the “locked room” relationship excludes a “weak and innocent” society, which remains ignorant and safe in conformity. Yet as we have already seen, the society of the abbey is far from weak and innocent. Blackmail, passion, and secrecy are rife: in this society, it is William the detective who is innocent. This innocence would seem to inherently demand that the process of detection is somethingbeyond the detective: in The Name of the Rose this is indeed the case, as “There was no plot,” William said, “and I discovered it by mistake” (491).

And this is my conclusion: the detective is dead. Contemporary detective fiction has been reinvented by the complexities of contemporary culture. In The Name of the Rose, the relationship between signifiers and signified is so convoluted and fragmented that traditional ‘reading’ cannot occur. The multiplicity of language and style that is present in the abbey (and at the risk of generalisation, the very essence of postmodernism) renders effective interpretation impossible, and the detective is nothing if not an interpreter. If he becomes incapable of transforming mystery into fact, signifier into signified, and suspect into criminal, then it is the detective who is the victim: of a shifting and restless shared social language. There are no common ‘truths’ to be understood, and as such, the detective is obsolete; and he must return to the society whence he came. William’s return to conformity is seen in his death “during the great plague that ravaged Europe” (499), an event that removes utterly any vestige of his uniqueness. There is no longer the possibility that the detective “possesses the stable code, at the root of every mysterious message” (Signs, 145), because stable codes no longer exist. Postmodern culture – and theoretically sophisticated postmodern novelists – deny the concept of a unified, comprehensible social organism, and encourage the fragmentation into frightened, homogenised individuality that is witnessed in the abbey. Every lapse into definition and clarity is ultimately merely further evidence of separation and ambiguity, as disparate islands of reason drift further apart: “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 behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.” (492)

Well… there is certainly no order in the convoluted universe of the postmodern detective.


Auster, Paul: The New York Trilogy; Kent, Faber & Faber, 1992.

Beale, Theodore: Umberto Eco Interview. Recorded December 12th, 1996.

Byatt, Antonia Susan:

Cawelti, John G: Detecting the Detective (critical approaches to detective fiction); 06/22/1999.

Dragomán, György: Case Closed (Infinite listings generating infinite listings generating infinite…). docs/Anach_0003/Bk_drago.doc

Eco, Umberto: The Name of the Rose; Reading, Picador, 1984.

Moretti, Franco: Signs taken for wonders; Norfolk, Verso, 1983.