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Umberto Eco takes semiotics to the masses.

Among the select group of literary critics who have had an impact upon popular culture, Umberto Eco, the Italian professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna, should be considered one of the most influential of the past thirty years. Though he has produced a large number of academic treatises, his enduring fame is centered upon his popular novels in which he applies his theories in a practical format that can be (and is) enjoyed by the average reader, allowing him to spread his understanding and viewpoint via non-academic means. Although he has written several scholarly works, and continues to produce more, he is able to use the medium of the novel to connect and communicate with people from all walks of life. Through these avenues of communication--the academic work and the popular work--Eco demonstrates the power of symbols in both written form and images. He uses these symbols to identify with his audience and establishes a wonderful connection with his readers, as discussed by Birgit Eriksson in comments about Eco's novel The Name of The Rose:
  [There is] a connection between the novel and his interests in both
  popular culture and medieval history and aesthetics. Nor [is] it
  difficult to see a connection to his semiotics, and the novel has
  often been read as 'really' being about something besides the dark
  monastery murders: for example as being just a fictionalized version
  of his theoretical work. (1-2)

By understanding this methodology, interpreters of Eco's works have a framework in which to function. He takes his own personal interests and makes application with this theoretical work. He believes that most people can better understand the world around them by reading fiction, rather than academic theories (Eriksson 4).

Eco's Background and Semiotics

Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in Italy, Eco was profoundly shaped by the reign of Benito Mussolini and the events of World War II. This is evident in many of his works, especially The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. His work and study in Semiotics was further affected by his conversion from the Catholic Church to atheism, which had an impact upon his use of specific symbols. After first gaining recognition as a scholar and adept literary and social critic, Eco entered the world of fiction, publishing his first, and most famous, novel The Name of the Rose. He has since published five more popular novels, in addition to continuing to develop his theories on Semiotics and Literary Criticism.

Semiotics investigates signs and the delivery mechanisms "that humans use to convey feelings, thoughts, ideas, and ideologies" (Ryder). Eco exemplifies this sort of study as he describes, in an interview with Theodore Beale, his motivation for writing the novel The Island of the Day Before:
  I asked myself if it was possible to speak in a liberated way about
  Nature. That's where I got the idea of an island, an island in the
  Pacific, untouched by human hands. It was interesting that in the
  case of my character arriving there for the first time--not only for
  himself, but for all humankind--and watching the things that no human
  eye had seen before, he didn't have names for them.

  I was excited about telling the story through metaphor, instead of
  using the names. From my semiotic point of view, it was an
  interesting experience.

In this response, we can see Eco creating a fictional setting in which a character must learn to recognize and relate to the world around him, while that world does not fit into any previous environment the character had experienced. Although the character cannot force that environment into a preconceived understanding, he must struggle with the type of language that should be used to describe the animals. This tension is the result of a prior determination by a cognitive model (Eco, Serendipities Language and Lunacy 55). Roberto, the main character in The Island of the Day Before, resorts to calling exotic birds by more common European names. So parrots might become "colorful doves," for example. Eco's definition of semiotics is further developed and explained in a popular article in Time Magazine:
  For Eco, of course, everything is a potential clue or sign. ...
  "Humans communicate with language but also with everything else we
  do. The books you own, the way you decorate your house, whether you
  wear a tie or not are all signs of something else," he explains.
  "That's semiotics in a nutshell." (Israely)

The impetus of Eco's worldview is his belief that most people "would like that our language was a transparent tool by which we really understand the nature of things" (Beale). It is also important to keep in mind that Eco refers to symbols as "anything that can be used to tell a lie" (quoted in Streeter).

The Importance of the Reader

At the very foundation of Eco's writing is the fact that the attempt to understand, from the reader's perspective, is paramount. He was considered a follower of the Reader Response critical school earlier in his career, before moving into Semiotics. It is apparent that he approaches Semiotics from a Reader Response-influenced perspective. His book on interpretation, The Open Work, advocates "the active role of the interpreter in the reading of texts ..." (Eco, "The Author and his Interpreters"). Yet Eco does not accept the possibility that there are an infinite number of interpretations, or Hermetic semiosis, for any given text, though there may well be many. He believes that to allow for infinite interpretations reduces the world to a linguistic phenomenon, which robs language of "communicative power" (Eco, The Limits of Interpretation 27). In this sense, he appears to be more associated with the Reception Aesthetic school of thought.

Eco's focus on the reader is reminiscent of Michel Foucault: "This foreword should perhaps be headed 'Directions for Use.' Not because I feel that the reader cannot be trusted--he is, of course, free to make what he will of the book he has been kind enough to read. What right have I, then, to suggest that it should be used in one way rather than another?" (ix). That Eco has this same interpretation is evident when he claims that the empirical author of a text is unimportant and should perhaps even die, so as to not disrupt the actual text (Postscript to The Name of the Rose 7).

According to Eco's approach:
  [t]he words you are reading now are signs. The presence of the words
  in themselves is not as important, or as interesting, as the
  "something else" for which they stand; the content they convey. This
  much would seem obvious. As a semiotician, Umberto Eco would ask the
  following questions: How are you able to arrive at this content? How
  are you able to interpret these signs and make sense of them? Like
  the doctor looking at the red spots on the patient's body trying to
  interpret her sickness, so you too must look at these words and
  interpret meaning from them. How is this possible? By what process
  are you able to do this? (Radford)

Understanding the importance of the reader helps to understand the intent of Eco's writings. Granted, it makes a final determination difficult--does Eco have a true purpose, or is he simply trying to present a written environment in which the reader can determine his or her own reality? In any event, Eco does place final interpretation squarely upon the reader, allowing the reader to make interpretations based upon the reader's past experiences. The interpretation is a product of the interaction between the reader and the text.

Interplay of Morals and Symbolism

In spite of, or perhaps because of, his intended distance (as the author) from his writings, Eco himself is difficult to analyze. He will say, "I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth" (Eco, quoted at Yet he also says that people "have a common notion of up and down ... we have universal conceptions of constraint" (Eco and Martini 92). One could possibly infer that he is in fact driving himself mad. This tension in Eco himself is exemplified by the interplay between morals and symbolism in his novel Baudolino.

In that novel, the narrator (Baudolino himself) tells of an experience from his youth and considers the symbols of virginity and debauchery. He enlists the help of a young virgin to attract a unicorn. Yet as he situates her, they become involved and he deflowers her. However, he is not upset at missing the opportunity to see the unicorn because he simply equates his penis with the horn of the unicorn. The interplay between virginity, unicorns, sex, debauchery and Baudolino's attitude toward it all demonstrates the struggle that a reader (and Eco) might have with such a situation.

It appears at first glance that virginity and purity are noble things, able to attract a unicorn. A non-virgin cannot attract a unicorn because she is not pure. Baudolino is not pure (by nature) and deflowers the virgin. She did attract a unicorn, just not the one she anticipated. Baudolino was attracted by her purity, and acting as the unicorn, destroyed that purity. But he took joy in that destruction. The virgin is no longer a virgin, but the reader can assume that she will attract more "unicorns" in the future. So in fact, is purity to be considered noble? Baudolino doesn't seem to care. The reader may or may not, depending upon the worldview through which the events are interpreted. Is virginity something to be cherished? Again, it depends upon the reader. Was Baudolino a villain for deflowering the young maiden? One interpretation will argue that it shows the poverty of his value system. Another will proclaim him a virile champion. Yet another will decide that he was an innocent youth who got carried away.

An important consideration in this regard is the use of the unicorn as a symbol. Traditionally, the unicorn was a noble animal, symbolizing chastity or faithfulness. In Roman Catholic symbolism, the unicorn is even compared to the Passion of the Christ and relates to his relationship with the Virgin Mary, hence the need for a virgin to catch one. At first glance, Baudolino's viewpoint would seem to be this very interpretation of faithfulness and purity. Yet by his actions, he turns the meaning on its head and apparently adopts an earlier pagan symbolism, where the unicorn represents a beguiled lover. So what is Eco's meaning? Following his normal procedure, he leaves the meaning to the reader, allowing the particular worldview of the reader to interpret the symbol. Again, while there may be a limit to the number of interpretations, that number is very large in Eco's viewpoint.

Another common theme to the work of Eco is the concept of "the Other." He writes about this during his debate with Martini where this "Other" is juxtaposed with traditional religiosity (89-102). "The Other" represents someone or something not from within the "group." They are viewed as dangerous and frightening. Eco endeavors to strip away that distrust and fear and make "the Other" simply "Another." The Island of the Day Before again provides a helpful example. Roberto, after being shipwrecked on an abandoned ship (certainly fitting in an Eco novel--what are the limits on that symbolism?), discovers that there is another person living on the ship--the Other. Roberto is terrified of this being, yet is convinced that they are mortal enemies and the Other must be dealt with in no uncertain terms. He eventually discovers that the Other is really a sickly old man in need of care, which Roberto promptly provides. By doing so, Eco provides another glimpse into his own views regarding morals, or at least one possible interpretation of them. He may desire to leave the final interpretation to the reader, but he makes it easy to see that removing the concept of "the Other" is important.

The Use of Images Rather Than Text

Eco's prevalent themes illustrate how he has developed and furthered the field of Semiotics. His purpose is to use signs and symbols to communicate, with meaning supplied by the author, yet interpreted by the reader. In his fictional works to date, none exemplifies this concept better than The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. In this novel, the protagonist Yambo, an amnesiac, attempts to recreate his childhood memories by pouring over old books, school work, and pictures, while listening to era-appropriate music. The book is filled with pictures, drawings, book covers, and more. These non-text portions are interspersed throughout the novel, making the discussion of signs and symbols move beyond that of the written word, but onto literal signs and symbols. Although the novel itself is not Eco's best (at least in my opinion, as I prefer Baudolino), it shows his attempt as an author to communicate with the reader through various media. It may well be the most personal of Eco's books, as the protagonist represents Eco in many respects. Eco seemingly projects himself into this book in a manner that does not exist in such a blatant way in his previous novels. One does not have to "read between the lines" to see the connection between the events of the novel and Eco's life. Although connections with Eco's life do exist in other books, they are much easier to decipher in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Eco as Author

It is in this area of interaction between author and reader that an important area of study emerges. The author's presentation of self, or the ethos, is necessary for readers to take the presented material seriously. As a reader approaches a text, whether it is a novel or an academic treatise, the credibility of the author is important (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters 56). Cicero believed that via ethos, the author could win the audience's good will by a presentation of "favorable character, principles, and conduct" (Johnson 104). In Eco's case, his academic credentials help in his scholarly works, but in his fictional writing he endeavors to present a certain reality that links author and reader. Very often, his characters represent various incarnations of himself. He has explicitly stated that his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is semi-autobiographical. His use of images is closely related to his own childhood and his perceptions of it. In fact, when asked which of his fictional characters he would most like to meet in person, he replied, "To meet? But they are all around me and we chat every day ..." (Interview with Umberto Eco).

Eco's attention is normally focused upon the reader of a work and the signs that are within the writing. However, he does address the author on occasion. In his short book Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the role and habits of the writer are brought into focus on occasion. Primarily, Eco deals with what the author does NOT say in a work. Fittingly, he expects the reader to do much of the work of interpreting and understanding, however he does rely upon the author to provide the necessary framework. In fact, the book regularly brings attention to the practice of the writer and how communication with the reader is enhanced. He uses the metaphor of a "wood" to symbolize a narrative text. The reader is to find his or her own way through the "wood," as there are no developed paths. Yet the "wood" itself is a construct of the author. The author has some amount of control over the "wood" and can influence the reader's reaction in some respects (3-7).

The use of genre signals is a key method of this interaction between author and reader. Whether the signal is "Once upon a time ... "to introduce a fairy tale, or "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago ... I thought I would sail about a little ... "to indicate a sweeping epic of the sea like Moby Dick, the author can help the reader make certain assumptions about the text, thereby limiting the possible expectations the reader might theoretically have. The author and reader develop a partnership of sorts, where one nudges and the other follows the nudge.

Eco indicates that there are several layers of "author" to a work and spends considerable time discussing the "model author," which should not be identified as the person who actually wrote the story--at least not in every respect. In some places, this model author might be only seen as a trace, whereas in others it might be considered a style. Eco refers to this model author as "It" (Six Walks In The Fictional Woods 14). Yet "It" and style are not synonymous but are analogous. "It" serves as a guide to the reader to provide a strategy for navigating the created world of the story. The actual author (who penned the story) projects himself or herself into the text via words and/or images that connect with the reader and serve as "It." The "model author" is "the voice, or the strategy, which confounds the various presumed empirical authors, so that the model reader can't help becoming enmeshed in such a catoptric trick" (Six Walks In The Fictional Woods 20).

There are a myriad of potential approaches in writing to help this ethos be projected and received. The use of humor has been traditionally used to create a bond between writer and reader (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters 59-60). Eco often uses humor in his novels. Admittedly, the humor involved doesn't tend toward the current American slapstick or absurdity-based comedy but is normally more restrained and European-like, focusing upon wit, word play, and juxtaposed actions. In fact, he attempts to avoid being "comic" (which is not the same as utilizing humor) since he seems to define "comic" as being absurd and undeveloped (Six Walks In The Fictional Woods 4). Nevertheless, his intentional use of humor helps the reader to identify with the author and creates an appropriate situation in which the symbolism of the story can be received. His conscientious humor and depth of writing shows that Eco respects his audience. He will often intersperse his humor with un-translated words or phrases. He often refers to historical events, and expects his readers to know what these events are. These things show that he is an educated and thoughtful man and his readers can react to that, by either learning about the events (or foreign words) or using context clues to learn enough about them to make the context understandable. In any event, he has connected with the reader and caused them to engage the text in an intentional way.


Perhaps that is Eco's greatest achievement--the one that sets him apart from the majority of theoreticians. He does not reside simply in academic tomes, but popularizes his theories in novels acceptable to the average reader, prompting the reader to intentionally engage the symbols and text. The author's framework is interpreted in a meaningful way, enriching the reader.

Yet Eco has not left the world of academia, either. He continues to revise and develop his theories in scholarly works. Although he is more famous for his fiction to the general public, he has written many books on theory, opinion, critique, and more. He truly has one foot in the University Hall and one in the Living Room. He endeavors to make Semiotics accessible to everyone by demonstrating his views within his books--not a bad legacy.

Works Cited

Beale, Theodore. "Deep Eco," Umberto Eco: Porta Ludovica (December 12, 1996), (Accessed February 23, 2010).

Eco, Umberto. Baudolino. Trans, by William Weaver (New York: Mariner, 2003). Print.

Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. Trans, by Alastair McEwen (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2001). Print.

Eco, Umberto. Postscript to The Name of the Rose. Trans, by William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983). Print.

Eco, Umberto. "The Author and his Interpreters," The Modern World (1996), (Accessed February 23, 2010).

Eco, Umberto. The Island of the Day Before. Trans, by William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995). Print.

Eco, Umberto. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Print.

Eco, Umberto. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Trans, by Geoffrey Brock (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2005). Print.

Eco, Umberto. "Umberto Eco Quotes,", (Accessed February 23, 2010).

Eco, Umberto and Cardinal Martini. Belief or Nonbelief? Trans, by Minna Proctor (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000). Print.

Eriksson, Brigit. "A Novel Look at Theory." Centre for Cultural Research,University of Aarhus: Aarhus, 2000. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1970. Print.

"Interview with Umberto Eco, author of The Mysterious Flame of Queer Loana." Harcourt Harcourt, n.d, (Accessed December 3, 2010).

Israely, Jeff. "A Resounding Eco," Time Magazine (June 5, 2005),,9171,1069054,00.html (Accessed February 23, 2010).

Johnson, Nan. "Ethos and the Aims of Rhetoric," in Robert J. Conners. Lisa S. Ede, and Andrea A. Lunsford, eds., Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern

Discourse (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 98-114. Print.

Lunsford, Andrea A, John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters. Everything': an Argument. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford, 2010. Print.

Radford, Gary P. "Beware of the Fallout: Umberto Eco and the Making of the Model Reader," Umberto Eco: Porta Ludovica, (Accessed February 23, 2010).

Ryder, Martin. "Semiotics: Language and Culture," Encyclopedia oj Science, Technology, and Ethics, (Accessed February 23, 2010).

Streeter, Tom. "Semiotics and Media," University of Vermont (April 4, 2005) (Accessed December 15, 2010).

Clint Hale is an English instructor and Writing Room Director for Blinn College, in Brenham, Texas. Always an avid reader, the study of language seemed to come naturally to him. After a stint in the military, graduating from the University of Texas at San Antonio (BA in English), and entering into religious mission work, he found himself in Estonia, where he and his family lived for over three years. The cultural differences awakened his understanding of different world views and perspectives. It was at that time he discovered Umberto Eco and was overwhelmed by Eco's language and communication style. Clint later completed his MA in Teaching: English from the University of West Alabama. In addition, while living in Europe, he completed a Post-Graduate Certificate in History: Imperialism and Culture with Sheffield-Hallam University (United Kingdom).
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Author:Hale, Clinton
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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