Rizal’s Novel “Noli Me Tángere”
Noli Me Tángere (Latin for Don’t Touch Me) is a novel written by José Rizal, one of the national heroes of the Philippines, during the colonization of the country by Spain to describe perceived inequities of the Spanish Catholic priests and the ruling government.
Originally written in Spanish, the book is more commonly published and read in the Philippines in either Tagalog or English. Together with its sequel, El Filibusterismo, the reading of Noli is obligatory for high school students throughout the country. The two novels are widely considered as the national epic of the Philippines and are performed in non-musical operas throughout the country.
Rizal entitled this novel as such drawing inspiration from John 20:17 of the Bible, the technical name of a particularly painful type of cancer (back in his time, it is unknown what is the modern name of said disease). He proposed to probe all the cancers of Filipino society that everyone else felt too painful to touch.
Early English translations of the novel used titles like An Eagle Flight (1900) and The Social Cancer (1912), disregarding the symbolism of the title, but the more recent translations were published using the original Latin title. It has also been noted by the Austro-Hungarian writer Ferdinand Blumentritt that “Noli Me Tángere” was a name used by ophthalmologists for cancer of the eyelids; that as an ophthalmologist himself Rizal was influenced by this fact is suggested in the novel’s dedication, “To My Motherland”.
José Rizal, a Filipino nationalist and medical doctor, conceived the idea of writing a novel that would expose the ills of Philippine society after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He preferred that the prospective novel express the way Filipino culture was perceived to be backward, anti-progress, anti-intellectual, and not conducive to the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. He was then a student of medicine in the Universidad Central de Madrid.
In a reunion of Filipinos at the house of his friend Pedro A. Paterno in Madrid on 2 January 1884, Rizal proposed the writing of a novel about the Philippines written by a group of Filipinos. His proposal was unanimously approved by the Filipinos present at the time, among whom were Pedro, Maximino Viola and Antonio Paterno, Graciano López Jaena, Evaristo Aguirre, Eduardo de Lete, Julio Llorente and Valentin Ventura. However, this project did not materialize. The people who agreed to help Rizal with the novel did not write anything. Initially, the novel was planned to cover and describe all phases of Filipino life, but almost everybody wanted to write about women. Rizal even saw his companions spend more time gambling and flirting with Spanish women. Because of this, he pulled out of the plan of co-writing with others and decided to draft the novel alone.
Plot of the Novel
Crisóstomo Ibarra, the mestizo son of recently deceased Don Rafael Ibarra, is returning to San Diego in Laguna after seven years of study in Europe. Capitan Tiago, a family friend, bids him to spend his first night in Manila where Tiago hosts a reunion party at his riverside home on Anloague Street. Crisóstomo obliges. At dinner he encounters old friends, Manila high society, and Padre Dámaso, San Diego’s old curate at the time Ibarra left for Europe. Dámaso treats Crisóstomo with hostility, surprising the young man who took the friar to be a friend of his father.
Crisóstomo excuses himself early and is making his way back to his hotel when Lieutenant Guevarra, another friend of his father, catches up with him. As the two of them walk to Crisóstomo’s stop, and away from the socialites at the party who may possibly compromise them if they heard, Guevarra reveals to the young man the events leading up to Rafael’s death and Dámaso’s role in it. Crisóstomo, who has been grieving from the time he learned of his father’s death, decides to forgive and not seek revenge. Guevarra nevertheless warns the young man to be careful.
The following day Crisóstomo returns to Capitan Tiago’s home in order to meet with his childhood sweetheart, Tiago’s daughter María Clara. The two flirt and reminisce in the azotea, a porch overlooking the river. María reads back to Crisóstomo his farewell letter wherein he explained to her Rafael’s wish for Crisóstomo to set out, to study in order to become a more useful citizen of the country. Seeing Crisóstomo agitated at the mention of his father, however, María playfully excuses herself, promising to see him again at her family’s San Diego home during the town fiesta.
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Crisóstomo goes to the town cemetery upon reaching San Diego to visit his father’s grave. However, he learns from the gravedigger that the town curate had ordered that Rafael’s remains be exhumed and transferred to a Chinese cemetery. At this revelation, Crisóstomo’s anger explodes. But the gravedigger confesses that on the night he dug up the corpse, it was raining hard and he feared for his own soul, so defying the order of the priest, he instead threw the body into the lake. At that moment, Padre Bernardo Salvi, the new curate of San Diego, walks into the cemetery. Crisóstomo shoves him into the ground and demands an accounting, but Salvi fearfully tells Crisóstomo that the transfer was ordered by the previous curate, Padre Damaso. Crisóstomo leaves in consternation.
But Crisóstomo, committed to his patriotic endeavors, is determined not to seek revenge and to put the matter behind him. As the days progress he carries out his plan to serve his country as his father wanted. He intends to use his family wealth to build a school, believing his paisanos would benefit from a more modern education than what is offered in the schools run by the government, whose curriculum was heavily tempered by the teachings of the friars.
Enjoying massive support, and even by the Spanish authorities, Crisóstomo’s preparations for his school advance quickly in only a few days. He receives counsel from Don Anastacio, a revered local philosopher, who refers him to a progressive schoolmaster who lamented the friars’ influence on public education and wished to introduce reforms. The building was planned to begin construction with the cornerstone to be laid in a ceremony during San Diego’s town fiesta.
One day, taking a break, Crisóstomo, María, and their friends get on a boat and go on a picnic along the shores of the Laguna de Bay, away from the town center. It is then discovered that a crocodile had been lurking on the fish pens owned by the Ibarras. Elias, the boat’s pilot, jumps into the water with a bolo knife drawn. Sensing Elias is in danger, Ibarra jumps in as well, and they subdue the animal together. Crisóstomo mildly scolds the pilot for his rashness, while Elias proclaims himself in Crisóstomo’s debt.
On the day of the fiesta, Elias warns Crisóstomo of a plot to kill him at the cornerstone-laying. The ceremony involved the massive stone being lowered into a trench by a wooden derrick. Crisóstomo being the principal sponsor of the project is to lay the mortar using a trowel at the bottom of the trench. As he prepares to do so, however, the derrick fails and the stone falls into the trench, bringing the derrick down with it in a mighty crash. When the dust clears, a pale, dust-covered Crisóstomo stands stiffly by the trench, having narrowly missed the stone. In his place beneath the stone is the would-be assassin. Elias has disappeared.
The festivities continue at Crisóstomo’s insistence. Later that day, he hosts a luncheon to which Padre Dámaso invites himself. Over the meal the old friar berates Crisóstomo, his learning, his journeys, and the schoolbuilding project. The other guests hiss for discretion, but Dámaso ignores them and continues in an even louder voice, insulting the memory of Rafael in front of Crisóstomo. At the mention of his father, Crisóstomo strikes the friar unconscious and holds a dinner knife to his neck. In an impassioned speech Crisóstomo narrates to the astonished guests everything he heard from Lieutenant Guevarra, who was an officer of the local police, about Dámaso’s schemes that resulted in the death of Rafael. As Crisóstomo is about to stab Dámaso, however, María Clara stays his arm and pleads for mercy.
Crisóstomo is excommunicated from the church, but has his excommunication lifted through the intercession of the sympathetic governor general. However, upon his return to San Diego, María has turned sickly and refuses to see him. The new curate whom Crisóstomo roughly accosted at the cemetery, Padre Bernardo Salvi, is seen hovering around the house. Crisóstomo then meets the inoffensive Linares, a peninsular Spaniard who, unlike Crisóstomo, had been born in Spain. Tiago presents Linares as María’s new suitor.
Sensing Crisóstomo’s influence with the government, Elias takes Crisóstomo into confidence and one moonlit night, they secretly sail out into the lake. Elias tells him about a revolutionary group, poised for open, violent clash with the government. This group has reached out to Elias in a bid for him to join them in their imminent uprising. Elias tells Crisóstomo that he managed to delay the group’s plans by offering to speak to Crisóstomo first, that Crisóstomo may use his influence to effect the reforms Elias and his group wish to see.
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In their conversation Elias narrates his family’s history, how his grandfather in his youth worked as a bookkeeper in a Manila office but was accused of arson by the Spaniard owner when the office burned down. He was prosecuted and upon release was shunned by the community as a dangerous lawbreaker. His wife turned to prostitution to support the family but eventually they were driven into the hinterlands.
Crisóstomo sympathizes with Elias but insists that he could do nothing, and that the only change he was capable of was through his schoolbuilding project. Rebuffed, Elias advises Crisóstomo to avoid any association with him in the future for his own safety.
Heartbroken and desperately needing to speak to María, Crisóstomo turns his focus more towards his school. One evening, though, Elias returns with more information – a rogue uprising was planned for that same night, and the instigators had used Crisóstomo’s name in vain to recruit malcontents. The authorities know of the uprising and are prepared to spring a trap on the rebels.
In panic and ready to abandon his project, Crisóstomo enlists Elias in sorting out and destroying documents in his study that may implicate him. Elias obliges, but comes across a name familiar to him: Don Pedro Eibarramendia. Crisóstomo tells him that Pedro was his great-grandfather, and that they had to shorten his long family name. Elias tells him Eibarramendia was the same Spaniard who accused his grandfather of arson, and was thus the author of the misfortunes of Elias and his family. Frenzied, he raises his bolo to smite Crisóstomo, but regains his senses and leaves the house very upset.
The uprising follows through, and many of the rebels are either captured or killed. They point to Crisóstomo as instructed and Crisóstomo is arrested. The following morning the instigators are found dead. It is revealed that Padre Salvi ordered the senior sexton to kill them in order to prevent the chance of them confessing that he actually took part in the plot to frame Crisóstomo. Elias, meanwhile, sneaks back into the Ibarra mansion during the night and sorts through documents and valuables, then burns down the house.
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Some time later Capitan Tiago hosts a dinner at his riverside house in Manila to celebrate María Clara’s engagement with Linares. Present at the party were Padre Dámaso, Padre Salvi, Lieutenant Guevarra, and other family friends. They were discussing the events that happened in San Diego and Crisóstomo’s fate.
Salvi, who lusted after María Clara all along, says that he has requested to be transferred to the Convent of the Poor Clares in Manila under the pretense of recent events in San Diego being too great for him to bear. A despondent Guevarra outlines how the court came to condemn Crisóstomo. In a signed letter he wrote to a certain woman before leaving for Europe, Crisóstomo spoke about his father, an alleged rebel who died in prison. Somehow this letter fell into the hands of an enemy, and Crisóstomo’s handwriting was imitated to create the bogus orders used to recruit the malcontents to the San Diego uprising. Guevarra remarks that the penmanship on the orders was similar to Crisóstomo’s penmanship seven years before, but not at the present day. And Crisóstomo had only to deny that the signature on the original letter was his, and the charge of sedition founded on those bogus letters would fail. But upon seeing the letter, which was the farewell letter he wrote to María Clara, Crisóstomo apparently lost the will to fight the charges and owned the letter as his.
Guevarra then approaches María, who had been listening to his explanation. Privately but sorrowfully, he congratulates her for her common sense in yielding Crisóstomo’s farewell letter. Now, the old officer tells her, she can live a life of peace. María is devastated.
Later that evening Crisóstomo, having escaped from prison with the help of Elias, climbs up the azotea and confronts María in secret. María, distraught, does not deny giving up his farewell letter, but explains she did so only because Salvi found Dámaso’s old letters in the San Diego parsonage, letters from María’s mother who was then pregnant with María. It turns out that Dámaso was María’s father. Salvi promised not to divulge Dámaso’s letters to the public in exchange for Crisóstomo’s farewell letter. Crisóstomo forgives her, María swears her undying love, and they part with a kiss.
Crisóstomo and Elias escape on Elias’s boat. They slip unnoticed through the Estero de Binondo and into the Pasig River. Elias tells Crisóstomo that his treasures and documents are buried in the middle of the forest owned by the Ibarras in San Diego. Wishing to make restitution, Crisóstomo offers Elias the chance to escape with him to a foreign country, where they will live as brothers. Elias declines, stating that his fate is with the country he wishes to see reformed and liberated.
Crisóstomo then tells him of his own desire for revenge and revolution, to lengths that even Elias was unwilling to go. Elias tries to reason with him, but sentries catch up with them at the mouth of the Pasig River and pursue them across Laguna de Bay. Elias orders Crisóstomo to lie down and to meet with him in a few days at the mausoleum of Crisóstomo’s grandfather in San Diego, as he jumps into the water in an effort to distract the pursuers. Elias is shot several times.
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The following day news of the chase were in the newspapers. It is reported that Crisóstomo Ibarra, the fugitive, had been killed by sentries in pursuit. At the news María remorsefully demands of Dámaso that her wedding with Linares be called off and that she be entered into the cloister, or the grave.
Seeing her resolution, Dámaso admits the true reason he ruined the Ibarra family and her relationship with Crisóstomo – because he was a mere mestizo and Dámaso wanted María to be as happy as she could be, and that was possible only if she were to marry a full-blooded peninsular Spaniard. María would not hear of it and repeated her ultimatum, the cloister or the grave. Knowing fully why Salvi had earlier requested to be assigned as chaplain in the Convent of the Poor Clares, Dámaso pleads with María to reconsider, but to no avail. Weeping, Dámaso consents, knowing the horrible fate that awaits his daughter within the convent but finding it more tolerable than her suicide.
A few nights later in the forest of the Ibarras, a boy pursues his mother through the darkness. The woman went insane with the constant beating of her husband and the loss of her other son, an altar boy, in the hands of Padre Salvi. Basilio, the boy, catches up with Sisa, his mother, inside the Ibarra mausoleum in the middle of the forest, but the strain had already been too great for Sisa. She dies in Basilio’s embrace.
Basilio weeps for his mother, but then looks up to see Elias staring at them. Elias was dying himself, having lost a lot of blood and having had no food or nourishment for several days as he made his way to the mausoleum. He instructs Basilio to burn their bodies and if no one comes, to dig inside the mausoleum. He will find treasure, which he is to use for his own education.
As Basilio leaves to fetch the wood, Elias sinks to the ground and says that he will die without seeing the dawn of freedom for his people, and that those who see it must welcome it and not forget them that died in the darkness.
In the epilogue, Padre Dámaso is transferred to occupy a curacy in a remote town. Distraught, he is found dead a day later. Capitan Tiago fell into depression and became addicted to opium and is forgotten by the town. Padre Salvi, meanwhile, waits to be made a bishop. He is also the head priest of the convent where María Clara currently resides. Nothing is heard of María Clara, however, on a September night, during a typhoon, two patrolmen reported seeing a specter (implied to be María Clara) on the roof of the Convent of the Poor Clares moaning and weeping in despair.
The next day, a representative of the authorities visited the convent to investigate last night’s events and asked to inspect all the nuns. One of the nuns had a wet and torn gown and with tears told the representative of “tales of horror” and begged for “protection against the outrages of hypocrisy” (which gives the implication that Padre Salvi regularly rapes her when he is present). The abbess however, said that she was nothing more than a madwoman. A General J. also attempted to investigate the nun’s case, but by then the abbess prohibited visits to the convent. Nothing more was said again about María Clara.