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Courage, intellect, and success: three typical characteristics which could easily be attributed to the hero of any story. Take cunning, manipulation, and eventual failure, and you have yourself the typical villain. In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco has decided to take upon the usual “good triumphs over bad” theme, and twist it in such a way that readers have their apparent hero, William of Baskerville, ultimately failing in all he sets out to do, and his nemesis, Bernard Gui, succeeding. Why would Eco so deliberately choose to have such a reversal of the usual roles, and how is it that he manages to pull it off so well? To be able to answer such questions, we should look closely at the author’s chosen literary techniques.
William of Baskerville is clearly Eco’s representation of Sherlock Holmes in The Name of the Rose, and Holmes’ adversary, Moriarty, is embodied in the character of Bernard Gui. Throughout the novel, readers see constant demonstrations of William’s similarity to Holmes. He is a detective, has the Watson-type character of Adso of Melk, and has a Moriarty-esque opponent, Bernard Gui. Gui is an Inquisitor, the same job William once had. In fact, they were part of the same team. However, William left the Inquisition, realizing that his rational, enlightened and humanistic character was not suited to the job, and that he was unable to bring himself to condemn people to their deaths based upon the mere suspicion of heresy.
It is interesting to see that when faced with his rival, William fails. The first of numerous instances occurs at the debate on the poverty of Christ: initially, William’s task is to protect Michael of Cesena, ensuring that he is not required to attend the pope at Avignon (where he would surely be executed on the grounds of being a heretic), and essentially, to ensure the meeting with the papal delegation runs as smoothly as possible. It is interesting to see William’s first and foremost mission fail: the meeting results in chaos, and Michael ultimately ends up in Avignon, in mortal peril. In this case, Bernard Gui, sent by the Pope in the hope of causing such disorder, has succeeded.
Gui’s victory in this sense relates to another of his achievements: he is an inquisitor, and the job of an inquisitor is to find heretics and sentence them to their deaths. Whilst at the abbey, Bernard Gui uncovers several “heretics” some of which are entirely innocent. This fact is irrelevant, as all that matters is that Bernard Gui is doing his job. In having these people killed, he is doing his job well, and is thus successful once again. Having had Michael of Cesena end up in Avignon soon after his arrival warns readers that this character is quick on the path to success, whereas by the same point, William of Baskerville appears to be on a losing streak.
After having failed to keep the meeting with the papal delegation in order, and thus having Michael of Cesena in Avignon, “fearing for his life”, William’s second major task is to solve the mysteries surrounding the murders that occur at the abbey. Primarily, the abbot asks William to investigate the unsolved death of Adelmo, the first in a series of an eventual seven. One of the abbot’s first remarks is: “I was very pleased to learn that in numerous cases you decided the accused was innocent” , a statement which tells readers not only that William’s humanitarian nature was a major factor in his leaving the Inquisition, but also that his character is entirely opposite from that of Bernard Gui.
By the point of this character’s introduction, there have been four murders, and William has only managed to identify the circumstances after these four people are dead, which naturally is too late: he is appointed to solve the mystery, and thus prevent any further deaths, but once again, fails in doing so. However, through his use of logical thought and superior intellect in solving the crimes (albeit too late), readers see further similarities to the character of Sherlock Holmes, one who is also renowned for his use of the same qualities.
Looking at the stories (and indeed character) of Sherlock Holmes, readers can see perhaps why Eco would choose to have his hero fail so regularly throughout his novel, rather than succeed in the typical epic fashion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the famous Sherlock Holmes series, actually had the character of Holmes killed off in a struggle with his nemesis, Moriarty:
A few words may suffice to tell the little that remains. An examination by experts leaves little doubt that a personal contest between the two men ended, as it could hardly fail to end in such a situation, in their reeling over, locked in each other’s arms. Any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless, and there, deep down in that dreadful caldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation. …whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.
Through this excerpt, it can be seen that Holmes, a much-loved character, is ultimately defeated. The narrator, Watson, is left with the memory of Holmes as an intelligent and wise man, similar to the fashion in which Adso regards William throughout the course of the novel. Indeed, the only reason that the character of Holmes was revived was due to popular public demand . In Holmes’ defeat, we see the author’s original intention to have his villain triumph over his hero, and can see that Eco’s decision to have a Sherlock Holmes-esque character results in a similar story in The Name of the Rose.
The Name of the Rose is undoubtedly heavily influenced by religion: it contains numerous references to the Bible (for the most part to the Books of Genesis and Revelations), and the theme that evil will sometimes prevail over good can be seen in several Psalms:
His ways are always prosperous; he is haughty and your laws are far from him; he sneers at all his enemies. He says to himself, “Nothing will shake me; I’ll always be happy and never have trouble.”
This Psalm hints at the idea that good doesn’t always triumph, as do the following several lines:
Do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes…A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found…. The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them.
Eco’s use of religious allusions throughout the novel may very well factor into why he chooses to have William fail where Gui succeeds. Using references to the Bible, which alludes to the idea that good does not necessarily always overcome evil, he can have his story portray the same concept, where, although the hero fails in many aspects while the villain succeeds, William is still seen as heroic. He gains knowledge and understanding, and in that sense, regardless of everything else, he is remembered as the hero.
The way in which Umberto Eco chooses to go against the traditional “successful hero” story can be seen as a result of many influences, from William of Baskerville’s indubitable similarity to Sherlock Holmes to influences from the Bible. Though William ultimately fails in every task he is assigned, and Bernard Gui triumphs in all of his, readers still come away from the book having the impression of the former as the hero, which is the principal goal. Through his use of literary techniques and allusions to other stories, Eco manages to reverse the traditional roles of hero and villain and still have them retain their titles, despite their various victories or defeats. This gives readers a far more interesting story than that typically described by the mundane formula of “good hero defeats evil villain”; by transposing the usual roles and still managing to have William appear the hero, Umberto Eco has created a remarkable feat of literature.
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