The Abyss of Semiosis in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: The Mise en abyme of Signs

©Cy Twombly, The Rose (III), acrylic on plywood, 2008

Like many of Umberto Eco’s works, The Name of the Rose (1980) is another postmodern novel that deals with the deceiving nature of language. However, although Eco once again makes use of the technique of intertextuality to mock the search for an Edenic language, the theme is illustrated not by the labyrinth of metafictional texts but the Chinese box effect of mise en abyme. The heavy use of such technique creates an infinite regression of images, which forms a visual representation of an abyss. Such effect echoes with the textual game of detection in the novel, and further elaborates that mankind can never seek the signified since the moment Adam and Eve began to name things and to look at words instead of things – the real signified object is forever lost in the process of semiosis.


© Vintage Classics

Eco ingeniously intertwines the effect of mise en abyme together with the labyrinth of texts in the library scene. When William and Adso sneak into the secret library at night to find the key book to solve the murders in the abbey, they find themselves passing through almost identical rooms with the same kind of cases and tables, and arrangements of books. Running from door to door, the imagery of them getting stuck in infinitely recurring images is formed. The library and their search for a fatal book can be interpreted as mankind’s desperate search for the true signified buried under layers of signs. Only God can read the buried signified because ‘he conceives the world in his mind, as if from the outside, before it was created,’ and human can never know the world because we live inside it. In this sense, the human being can never reach the true signified because we are trapped in God’s labyrinth of signs – God creates the signified and we create the signs, therefore, because we can only know what we create as outsiders, we are bound to know only signs but not the signified. Eventually, they unveil the secret to the mechanism of the last secret room because they find out the answer to the riddle lie in the signs themselves but not the signified – “words stand for themselves”. The ultimate answer here symbolises the nature of human language, as William states, the idea is sign of things, and the image is sign of the idea, sign of sign. This creates another mise en abyme as it means that we can always and only speak of “something that speaks to us of something else” – signs within signs.


As the reader may expect from Eco or any postmodern mysteries, the whole Antichrist conspiracy turns out to be empty and fault. Just as the first victim, Adelmo’s, illustration, the discourse of truth is linked to “a discourse of falsehood on a topsy-turvy universe through wondrous allusions in an enigma.” We may laugh at the concepts of zebra-striped dragons and monkeys with horns, but if our signs can never truly signify the real objects, can we still claim what we perceive is the real? Are the ‘absurd’ images real instead? Challenging mankind’s perception of the world, Eco’s William leaves a question to the reader – “the final something, the true one – does that exist?” God’s unicorn may exist, but it can be black and ugly instead of white and beautiful. In this notion, when the real object contradicts with our established sign, does the signified, the true unicorn, still exist? Is semiosis a puzzle of falsehoods?

By Chan Tsz Yan Audrey

Categories: Books, Modernism and Postmodernism

Tags: , , ,

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