Analysis of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum is the second novel by the highly prolific Italian writer Umberto Eco (1932–2016), and continues the pattern of linguistic games and narrative proliferation established in The Name of the Rose. This time the focus is more contemporary, with the unfortunate narrator-protagonist Casaubon and his colleagues Belbo and Diotellevi becoming immersed in an international conspiracy that involves the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and the Milanese publishing community.

In a story that spans the political turmoil of Italy in the 1970s, Casaubon’s friendship with Belbo leads to his involvement with the Garamond/Manutius publishing house and his exposure to the Diabolicals— self-financing occult writers—as well as Agliè, a man who may or may not be the immortal Count Saint-Germain. Casaubon’s interest in the Templars is initially focused on his doctoral thesis, but his curiosity is piqued by the appearance and almost immediate disappearance of Colonel Ardenti, who claims to have decoded the mystery of the Templars’ fate. As the years pass, Casaubon is continually drawn to the esoteric, and while these links to the Templars seem innocuous at first, he soon becomes enmeshed in the world of hermetic knowledge and is unable to extricate himself. He, Belbo, and Diotallevi combine computer technology with the numerology of the cabala to create the Plan, a system that uses a computer program to generate random connections between seemingly unconnected facts. Very soon they are rewriting world history in order to explain the coded message from Provins that was passed on to them by Colonel Ardenti, and which supposedly alludes to the secret of the Templars. The trio see this as a game, but it soon becomes apparent that their far-fetched explanations are drawing unwelcome attention from the very secret society whose existence they have been debating.

Unlike The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum casually whisks the reader across continents as well as through the finer points of the cabala and occult beliefs. This reinforces the all-pervasive nature of the conspiracy that Casaubon and his friends uncover, but it also encourages the reader to make his or her own connections between apparently disparate events and ideologies. The novel is structured around the 10 sefirot, creative forces that intervene between God and our creative world of the cabala and has 120 chapters, a number of great numerological significance, which plays on the idea that there might be some hidden meaning in the text. Eco may well have cultivated this response in his readership to illustrate the human desire for order and to comment on the climate of postmodern paranoia, a reality in which to think of something is to create it.

This is an extension of the ideas found in The Name of the Rose, but while the earlier novel celebrates the free exchange of thought, Foucault’s Pendulum warns against a society that is completely “open” to interpretation. Casaubon and Belbo’s idle musing about the order of history endanger their lives, while Diotallevi is prepared to attribute the breakdown of his health to their work on the Plan. While none of their theories can be proved, they cannot be disproved either, but rather than accept uncertainty, the trio are intent on finding an answer.

It is this arrogance that is condemned in the novel: Eco’s characters cannot live their lives in the physical present; they must constantly seek to know the secrets of history. Oedipus and other Greek figures certainly come to mind. The most telling episode occurs when Lia, Casaubon’s girlfriend, creates an alternative and innocent interpretation of the message of Provins. Casaubon admits that the list may be about laundry rather than a plan for world domination, but he is unable to control his obsessive hypothesizing, and so the Plan destroys them all.

Foucault’s Pendulum is a clear reflection of Eco’s work on semiotics and the meaning of signs. The novel is a mischievous realization of unconstrained open interpretation, which results in a chaotic and unworkable reality. Although technically a thriller, Foucault’s Pendulum combines literary puns, social observation, and popular culture to comment on the nature of human curiosity and the ultimately transformative effect of narration on reality.

A Brief History of Italian Novels

Cannon, JoAnn. “The Imaginary Universe of Umberto Eco: A Reading of Foucault’s Pendulum.” In Umberto Eco, edited by Mike Gane and Nicholas Gane, vol. 3, 55–68. London: SAGE Publications, 2005.
Hutcheon, Linda. “Eco’s Echoes: Ironizing the (Post)modern.” In Umberto Eco, edited by Mike Gane and Nicholas Gane, vol. 3, 25–41. London: SAGE Publications, 2005.

Categories: Italian Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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