Tortoise Tuesday: Motive in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

If you, like me, are finding that you have way too much time on your hands for the foreseeable future, you might be consoled just a little by finally having time to read all the books you never get around to on campus. In between baking, sleeping, and half-hearted thesis editing, I’ve been re-reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – which, at over 500 pages, I wouldn’t have bothered starting at school. The book is a medieval murder mystery that purports to be a translation of an account by a medieval monk called Adso of Melk. As Eco brings Adso and his world to life, he also gives the monk an explicit, if incomplete, motive for his writing:

“Having reached the end of my poor sinner’s life, my hair now white, I grow old as the world does […] confined now with my heavy, ailing body in this cell in the dear monastery of Melk, I prepare to leave on this parchment my testimony as to the wondrous and terrible events that I happened to observe in my youth, now repeating all that I saw and heard, without venturing to seek a design, as if to leave to those who will come after (if the Antichrist has not come first) signs of signs, so that the prayer of deciphering may be exercised on them.” (Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver)

Adso seems to be stuck at a stage that’s familiar to many of us: he knows that he has something interesting to talk about, but he hasn’t quite articulated what it is. Early in the writing process, developing a motive can feel like what Adso calls “the prayer of deciphering,” the step that he describes but leaves undone. He has his evidence (his eyewitness account of “wondrous and terrible events”), and throughout the novel, he even engages in analysis, but he stops short of connecting that analysis to a broader motive for his writing.

Humility might be a virtue for a medieval monk, but in your own writing, you don’t need to leave your motive “to those who will come after.” Once you have your text, your data, or, as in Adso’s case, your corpses of horribly murdered monks, the next step is often the hardest and most important in the writing process: asking yourself, “So what?” What new understanding does your analysis reveal? How do you shed light on a concept that was previously unexamined, incomplete, or incorrect? Once you’ve answered that question, you’ll know why your writing matters, and your reader will know why they should care enough to read it. Assuming, of course, that the Antichrist doesn’t come before your R3 is due.

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto, and William Weaver. The Name of the Rose. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.