Semiotics in Umberto Eco

July 16, 2017 | Autor: Cenk Tan | Categoria: Semiotics, Cultural Semiotics, Umberto Eco, Dan Brown, Name of the Rose
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Semiotic Elements in Umberto Eco's Novels

Umberto Eco is with no doubt one of the most well-known contemporary
writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Eco was born on
January 5, 1932 in Alessandria, Italy. His father always wanted him to
become a lawyer but at a young age, he entered the University of Turin to
study medieval philosophy and literature. He received his doctorate degree
in 1956 and soon proved to be a successful academic with a bright future.
In 1962, he married a German art teacher called Renate Ramge. The Eco
family had one son and daughter. After becoming a professor, Eco has
written many academic texts that have been published at various
Universities. Up to present, he has written six novels. He is mostly known
for his groundbreaking 1980 novel: "The Name of the Rose" ("Il Nome della
Rosa") which brought him an immense fame throughout the world. Being a
philosopher, essayist, literary critic and novelist, Umberto Eco is also
renowned for being an important figure in the field of semiotics.
Semiotics is the study of all kinds of signs and sign processes. It
consists of three elements: Semantics, Syntactic and Pragmatics. As a
semiotician, it can be clearly said that his novels contain countless
examples of semiotic elements.
In this paper, my first aim is to explain the postmodern and post-
structuralist elements in Eco's novels and then give a thorough analysis of
the semiotic elements which are present in his masterpieces. While doing
these, I will make references to his most famous novels, mainly "The Name
of the Rose", "Foucault's Pendulum" and his most recent best-selling novel
"The Prague Cemetery". In addition to that, I will also make a comparison
between Eco and his popular 'rival': Dan Brown.
First of all, I would like begin by pointing out the relationship
between Eco's works and post-modernism together with post-structuralism.
Postmodernism is the name of a general movement in art, literature and
philosophy that gained popularity during the 1950s. In short, the movement
has a philosophical basis that rejects all kinds of scientific and
objective truths in the universe. Postmodernism conveys the strong message
that there can be no single truth but that truth is based upon our
perception. Therefore everyone creates their own truths according to this
philosophy. According to postmodernism, there are no single, certain,
universal truths and truth relies upon people's understanding of the
universe. Thus, postmodernism values subjectivity over objectivity. Post-
structuralism on the other hand is another movement which is closely
related with postmodernism. Post-structuralism is a movement that
originated during the second half of the 20th century in France. It came to
being a reaction against structuralism which defended structure and form
over every other value. In contrast, post-structuralism tends to reject all
kinds of structures and forms imposed on us by the structuralists and
question by examining the binary oppositions that a text constitutes. The
major representatives of the post-structuralist movement are Jacques
Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Julia Kristeva.
As a result, having examined postmodernism and post-structuralism, it can
clearly be said that both movements are closely related to each other. Both
have come to being during the same period, both are against structure and
fixed objective truths. Both movements represent an alternative way of
thinking and analyzing of literary texts.
About postmodernism Umberto Eco says:
"The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that
the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its
destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony,
not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a
man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot
say to her 'I love you madly', because he knows that she knows
(and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been
written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can
say 'As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly'. At
this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly
that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will
nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that
he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes
along with this, she will have received a declaration of love
all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent,
both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the
already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously
and with pleasure play the game of irony… But both will have
succeeded, once again, in speaking of love." (Eco, 1994: 67-68)
In this quotation, Eco gives his opinion about postmodernism in the
sense that postmodernism is a way of saying things in another way that have
already been said earlier. This brings us to intertextuality which is
closely related with post-structuralism. Intertextuality gives us the
message that all literary texts are interrelated and each new text is just
a repetition of an older one. Literary works are re-interpretations of
earlier works. The concept has been put forward by Roland Barthes and is
closely related to both postmodernism and post-structuralism. Roland
Barthes argues that a text is not only shaped by the perception of the
reader but also by the complex network of text invoked in the reading
process. In that sense, each literary text refers to other literary texts.
Eco thereby forms the connection between postmodernism, post-structuralism
and intertextuality. Eco also mentions his loyalty to postmodernism and
intertextuality at the end of "the Name of the Rose", in the postscript:
[…] "Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and
have told us again and again): books always speak of other
books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.
My story then could only begin with the discovered manuscript,
and even this would be (naturally) a quotation. So I wrote the
introduction immediately, setting my narrative on a fourth level
of encasement, inside three other narratives: I am saying that
Valley said that Mabillon said that, Adso said that…. I was now
free of every fear" (Eco, 1983: 19-20) […]
In addition, it can easily be said about Umberto Eco that he conforms
to all of these literary movements. As a contemporary writer, Umberto Eco
conforms to many literary movements. His semiotic genius enables us to
relate him both to postmodernism and post-structuralism.
Eco's novels include symbols and signs in almost all of their pages.
These symbols refer to multiple concepts which make us impossible to draw
clear, objective conclusions. For instance, let's analyze the symbol of the
"Rose" in "The Name of the Rose" (Il Nome della Rosa). Eco himself stated
earlier that he specifically chose the 'Rose' as a symbol because the
'Rose' is so rich in symbols and meanings that by now it hasn't got any
meaning. Moreover, by choosing this title, Eco preferred to disorient the
readers whom could not agree on one single interpretation. It is obvious
that, as he is a postmodern and post-structuralist writer, he wanted to
leave 'gaps' for the reader so that they could form their own
interpretation. This is valid for the whole plot of 'The Name of the Rose.
The symbols and signs are clearly identifiable but all have multiple
interpretations that are the products of the readers. This brings us to
Umberto Eco's 1962 publication of "The Open Text" in which he openly stated
his post-structuralist views about the fact that he was against structure
and form. By doing that, he gave the readers a strong power and authority
over the text as it is the reader that interprets and gives meaning to the
literary text. While Eco was writing "The Open Text", he worked closely
with Roland Barthes. Having been influenced of Barthes and his "Death of
the Author", it can be obviously said that both writers are in complete
harmony regarding their postmodern and post-structuralist views. In the
"Death of the author", Roland Barthes argues that the author has no
authority or power over his work. All the power and authority lays on the
shoulders of the readers for it is their interpretation that shapes the
perception and ultimate meaning of the literary text. However, the reason
that Eco chose 'the Rose' is not totally a coincidence. In fact it is
related with the end of this very complex book, which contains a Latin
hexameter by Bernard of Cluny that translates roughly as 'The rose of the
past endures only in its naked name.' This hexameter is interesting because
'rose' here seems to be a misreading of the original text: earlier texts
refer to 'Rome' ('Roma' as opposed to 'rosa', a one-letter slip). Eco
realized this only later, and admitted the mix-up in a lecture of 1990.
The full quote from the lecture is as follows:
[…] "An author who has entitled his book The Name of the
Rose must be ready to face manifold interpretations of his
title. As an empirical author I wrote that I chose that title
just in order to set the reader free: 'the rose is a figure so
rich in meanings that by now it hasn't any meaning: Dante's
mystic rose, and go lovely rose, the War of the Roses, rose thou
art sick, too many rings around Rosie, a rose by any other name,
a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, the Rosicrucians.'
Moreover someone has discovered that some early manuscripts of
De contempu mundi of Bernard de Cluny, from which I borrowed the
hexameter 'stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus,' read
'stat Roma pristina nomine' – which after all is more coherent
with the rest of the poem, which speaks of the lost Babylonia.
Thus the title of my novel, had I come across another version of
Cluny's poem, could have been The Name of Rome." […] (Eco, 56)
In short, the symbol of the Rose in the title "The Name of the Rose" is a
completely open-ended title with multiple, almost endless interpretations.
However, the 'Rose' is by far not the only symbol in the book. The
novel is so rich and full of symbol that is almost impossible to mention
each and every one of them. Therefore, I will mention the main symbols that
are visible in the book. In general, the plot of "The Name of the Rose" is
a murder mystery set in an Italian abbey during the dark ages of the year
1327. The plot revolves around the quest of a Franciscan monk called
William of Baskerville in a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy.
William is given the duty to investigate the mysterious deaths of several
monks by the monastery. He uses his gift of logic and deduction to unravel
the clues which enable him to solve the mysteries one by one. Brother
William of Baskerville symbolizes reason and knowledge for he is the only
who can bring together the necessary information and use his reason to
solve the mystery. In that sense, he is a radical monk due to the fact that
he is different than any other monk in the novel. All the other monks
symbolize the evil and corrupt society which people are living in. The
monks keep all the knowledge for themselves whereas Williams believes that
all the knowledge should be shared. His reasoning and skills of deduction
allow him to act freely and to advance in a corrupt society. The library
which represents knowledge and power is a significant symbol throughout the
novel. The monks close the library so that nobody else can enter there. By
doing that, they withhold all the knowledge from others. They are the
symbol of hypocrisy. The library is normally a public place where knowledge
should be shared by every member for the progress of the society. In the
novel, on the other hand, the library is confined to the monks. The
institution which controls the libraries and as a result, knowledge is the
Catholic Church. Therefore, we also notice a severe criticism towards the
Catholic Church. The monks virtually abuse the authority given to them by
the Catholic Church. Brother William of Baskerville symbolizes
enlightenment by acting as an opposing force that fights against a dark and
evil mentality.
Another symbolic element is the number seven that appears throughout
the story. There are exactly seven monks who represent the seven deadly
sins. This is another symbol of the fact that the monks represent a corrupt
and evil society. Another symbol is related to 'pride'. Brother William of
Baskerville is a figure that has tremendous pride. He openly shows his
pride at the beginning of the novel when he meets the monks and says the
[…] "And I appreciate your courtesy all the more since, in order
to greet me, you have interrupted your search. But don't worry.
The horse came this way and took the path to the right. He will
not get far because he will have to stop when he reaches the
dungheap. He is too intelligent to plunge down that precipitous
slope. . ." […] (Eco: 1983: 23)
Another symbol is the spectacular carving on the door of the
monastery. The amazing carvings of the front door "dazzled my eyes and
plunged me into a vision that even today my tongue can hardly describe".
This is how Eco describes the spectacular carvings of the monastery's front
door. In the carvings, there is God surrounded by four creatures, a man, an
eagle, a bull and a lion. Around these figures were the 24 thrones. The
doorway is a symbolic depiction of heaven with the throne representing God
as looking down on his people. The decorative carvings at the door also
represent the duality and irony between good vs. evil. The monastery and
the Catholic Church which should have been a symbol of goodness have
actually become representatives of evil. The religious clergy are abusing
their power to look down on the common people and to withhold all the vital
and important information for themselves. In that sense, it can be claimed
that there's a true irony here. Eco specifically creates this irony by
using opposing values at the same time. He uses symbolic elements that are
meant to represent goodness but in reality serve an actual evil purpose.
The labyrinth library is another symbol which symbolically represents the
difficulty of reaching the knowledge that is normally meant for the common
benefit of the society. The altar that guided the way to the library was
described as "A series of Skulls with deep hollow eye sockets which filled
those who looked at them with terror, set on a pile of what, in the
admirable relief, appeared to be tibias." The skulls and bones obviously
represent a warning of death for those who consider entering the library.
Furthermore, the ring that the Abbot is wearing is also symbolical for it
represents power and authority. In medieval times, gems and stones were an
important symbol of their class, power and the rank within their hierarchy.
The Abbot, as the leader of the monks is the main figure who has the power
and authority to make decisions over others. As we can see "The Name of the
Rose" is so full of symbols that it is impossible to mention all of them.
Finally, the whole plot of the book is also symbolic in the sense that is
symbolizes human's quest for enlightenment. Brother William of Baskerville
represents the goodness that is present in all humans whereas the monks and
the Church symbolize the evil and dark side of humanity which abuse power
and keep all the knowledge for themselves.
The second book of Umberto Eco that I will analyze was published in
1988 and is called "Foucault's Pendulum". After The Name of the Rose's huge
success, it was very hard for this new book to top the former's best-
selling record. The plot of Foucault's Pendulum revolves around three
friends: Causabon, Belbo and Diotavelli. These three work for a publisher
in Milan. After reading too many stories related to conspiracy theories,
one day a man comes up to them bringing a manuscript with him to be
published. Laughing at the manuscript, our three friends find it unworthy
of publishing. In the meantime, the man who brings the manuscript is soon
found dead. After his death, the friends start reading his manuscript and
start developing his ideas. They create their own conspiracy story using
the deceased man's ideas. They call this game "The Plan" and they get so
caught up in it that they forget everything else around them and even kill
one of the editors to gain control of the world. The whole plot of the book
revolves around the three friends' imaginary conspiracy story called "The
Plan". Just like all of Eco's novels, Foucault's Pendulum is also full of
symbolic references. As a matter of fact, the whole novel is symbolic in
the sense that it is a magnificent irony. It basically gives us the message
that we should not fear conspiracy theories and underground organizations
but rather be worried about fools that invent them. The plot actually
questions the true nature behind these conspiracy theories and mentions
many organizations including 'The Knights Templar' and 'The Bavarian
The third and last book of Umberto Eco, I will analyze is his most
recent novel called "The Prague Cemetery". The book was first published in
October 2010 and since then is regarded as Umberto Eco's best novel since
"The Name of the Rose". The novel revolves around the adventures of Simone
Simonini, a forger and murderer. The novel is narrated by Simonini, in a
diary format. He sets up a business forging legal documents and begins
working for the French secret service and eventually for the Russian secret
service. The novel follows Simonini through his increasingly complicated
involvement in espionage, a pursuit rife with impersonations, deceptions,
betrayals, bombings, murders, and the creation of fictitious conspiracies
for the aims of various governments. Simonini participates in plots to
discredit the Jesuits, the Masons, and the Jews. The novel is further
developed by additional subplots, including nineteenth-century psychiatry,
the story of Diana the hysteric, Leo Taxil's campaign against the Masons,
and the Black Mass. In general, the novel deals with themes such as power,
world domination and the creation of secret underground fraternities such
as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The whole novel is symbolical in
the sense that certain people create false documents and spread false
information by stating the source of these documents. The message is given
to us that people are always inclined to believe all kinds of
misinformation. People focus more on the source rather than the message
itself. About this Leo Taxil says:
[…] "Man's principle trait is a readiness to believe anything.
Otherwise, how else could the Church have survived for almost
two thousand years in the absence of universal gullibility?" […]
(Eco: 2012: 290)
He is trying to assert that people believe information so easily that they
don't even question the content of it. Having a simple source is enough to
make any information believable. This explains the credibility of
conspiracy theories. That way, evil minded individuals can easily spread
false information and mislead governments and societies. As a result, the
whole book is a critique of the past as well as the present. As a
postmodern book, it has serious references to our modern times. In the 21st
century, we are aware of the power of the media upon the people and upon
governments. What we often don't know is the fact that we're being misled
by the media. The media reshapes and converts information in a very
ideological way. As a result, we tend to believe almost everything we see
on television or read from the newspapers. Once a story is perceived and
accepted as true, it is very difficult to reverse that situation. Along
with the reference to our modern times, it can also be said that this
symbolic message also appeals to the past of our human history. The story
takes part in the 19th century, at a time when secret organizations and
conspiracy theories were at its peak. Even in those times, stories were
created and presented to the public as true. This is done specifically in
order to distract people from the truth. In that sense the novel is both
symbolic and ironic.
After having discussed Umberto Eco's most famous three novels, I will
finish my paper by making a brief comparison of Umberto Eco and his popular
counterpart Dan Brown.
Dan Brown, as the author of "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons" has
become a spectacular phenomenon by selling millions of copies all over the
world. It is obvious that both writers have a lot in common. Both make
excessive use of signs and symbols. However, in my opinion Dan Brown pushes
the limits a little bit too far. Therefore I consider his works of low
artistic creativity and credibility. I see Dan Brown as a populist writer
who is more interested in selling his books and turning them into films
rather than creating an original work of art. As a professor of semiotics,
Umberto Eco's works are of no match for Dan Brown. Perhaps the two writers
have different styles, but Eco stands far above Brown in many aspects. In a
2008 interview Umberto Eco stated that he had read "The Da Vinci Code" and
found it to be an "offshoot" of his novel "Foucault's Pendulum" During this
interview, Eco says:
"The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault's Pendulum!
I invented him. He shares my characters' fascinations—the world
conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the
Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that
everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even
exist." (Umberto Eco)
It is clear that Umberto Eco has mocked Dan Brown and is implying that
Brown has stolen some of his ideas to create a fiction which is not worthy
of artistic value. Eco says that Brown has bad taste and he is right in the
sense that, in his books, the plot revolves too fast, the connections
between the events are not credible and the development of the characters
is insufficient. Dan Brown may have sold over a million copies worldwide; I
believe that it is only his understanding of simple populism that gained
him immense popularity. In my opinion, he is more likely to belong to "the
cheap literature club" as his works lack artistic and creative capability.
A writer as Umberto Eco, with an experience of over 30 years is no match
for others and is obviously the best of his genre.
In conclusion, after having analyzed Umberto Eco's literary canon, I
have discussed the semiotic elements present in his most famous novels and
compared him with his popular counterpart Dan Brown. As a result, if you
decide to read one of these postmodern writers' books, be sure to take my
views into consideration.


Eco, Umberto, Reflections on The Name of the Rose; trans. William Weaver,
London: Minerva, 1994, p. 67-68.
Eco, Umberto, 'The Author and his Interpreters" in Interpretation and
overinterpretation, 1992, p.56.
Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose; trans. William Weaver, London: 1983,
p.19, 20, 23
Eco, Umberto, The Prague Cemetery; trans. Richard Dixon, London: 2012, p.
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