Noli Me Tángere is a fictional novel written by José Rizal, one of the national heroes of the Philippines, during the colonization of the country by Spain to expose the 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 Filipino or English. Together with its sequel, El Filibusterismo, the reading of Noli is obligatory for high school students throughout the country.
The title is Latin for “Touch me not”, and is taken from John 20:17 in the Bible, where a newly-risen Jesus admonishes a bewildered Mary Magdalene: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.”
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 Country”. The novel contains an epilogue and has 63 chapter.
It begins with a reception given by Capitan Tiago (Santiago de los Santos) at his house in Calle Analogue (now Juan Luna Street) in October.
The reception or dinner is given in honor of Crisostomo Ibarra, a young, rich Filipino who had just returned after seven years of study in Europe. Ibarra was the only son of Don Rafael Ibarra, friend of Capitan Tiago, and a fiancé of beautiful Maria Clara, supposed daughter of Capitan Tiago.
Among the guests were Padre Damaso, a fat Franciscan friar who had been parish priest for 20 years of San Diego (Calamba), Ibarra’s native town; Padre Sibyla, a young Dominican parish priest of Binondo; Señor Guevara, as elderly and kind lieutenant of the Guardia Civil; Don Tiburcio de Espadaña, a bogus Spanish physician, lame, and henpecked husband of Doña Victorina; and several ladies.
Ibarra, upon his arrival, produced a favorable impression among the guests, except Padre Damaso, who has rude to him. In accordance with a German custom, he introduced himself to the ladies.
During the dinner the conversation centered on Ibarra’s studies and travels abroad. Padre Damaso was in bad mood because he got a bony neck and a hard wing of the chicken tinola. He tried to discredit Ibarra’s remarks.
After dinner, Ibarra left Capitan Tiago’s house to return to his hotel. On the way, the kind Lieutenant Guevara told him the sad story of his father’s death in San Diego. Don Rafael, his father, was a rich and brave man. He defended a helpless boy from the brutality of an illiterate Spanish tax collector, pushing the latter and accidentally killing him. Don Rafael was thrown in prison, where he died unhappily. He was buried in consecrated ground, but his enemies, accusing him being a heretic, had his body removed from the cemetery.
On hearing about his father’s sad story, Ibarra thanked the kind Spanish lieutenant and vowed to find out the truth about his father’s death.
The next day, Ibarra visits his betrothed María Clara, the beautiful daughter of Capitan Tiago and affluent resident of Binondo. Their long-standing love was clearly manifested in this meeting, and María Clara cannot help but reread the letters her sweetheart had written her before he went to Europe. Before Ibarra left for San Diego in time for the town fiesta, Lieutenant Guevara, a Civil Guard, reveals to him the incidents preceding the death of his father, Don Rafael Ibarra, a rich haciendero of the town.
After the romantic reunion with Maria Clara, Ibarra went to San Diego to visit his father’s grave. It was All Saint’s Day. At the cemetery, the grave digger told Ibarra that the corpse of Don Rafael was removed by order of the parish priest to be, buried in the Chinese cemetery; but the corpse was heavy and it was a dark and rainy night so that he (the grave-digger) simply threw the corpse into the lake.
Ibarra was angered by the grave-digger’s story. He left the cemetery. On the way, he met Padre Salvi, Franciscan parish priest of San Diego. In a flash, Ibarra pounced on the priest, demanding redress for desecrating his father’s mortal remains. Padre told him that he had nothing to do with it, for he was not the parish priest at the time of Don Rafael’s death. It was Padre Damaso, his predecessor, who was responsible for it. Convinced for Padre Salvi’s innocence, Ibarra went away.
Revenge was not in Ibarra’s plans, instead he carried through his father’s plan of putting up a school, since he believed education would pave the way to his country’s progress (all throughout the novel, the author refers to both Spain and the Philippines as two different countries but part of the same nation or family, with Spain seen as the mother and the Philippines as the daughter). During the inauguration of the school, Ibarra would have been killed in a sabotage had Elías — a mysterious man who had warned Ibarra earlier of a plot to assassinate him — not warned him of the plot (which involved the derrick supporting the cornerstone to be laid on the foundation collapsing on him). Instead the hired assassin met an unfortunate incident and died.
Meanwhile San Diego was merrily preparing for its annual fiesta, in honor of its patron saint San Diego de Alcala, whose feast day is the 11th of November. On the eve of the fiesta, hundreds of visitors arrived from the nearby towns, and there were laughter, music, exploding bombs, feasting and moro-moro. The music was furnished by five brass bands (including the famous Pagsanjan Band owned by the escribano Miguel Guevara) and three orchestras.
In the morning of the fiesta there was a high mass in the church, officiated by Padre Salvi. Padre Damaso gave the long sermon, in which he expatiated on the evils of the times that were caused by certain men, who having tasted some education spread pernicious ideas among the people.
After Padre Damaso sermon, the mass was continued by Padre Salvi. Elias quietly moved to Ibarra, who was kneeling and praying by Maria Clara’s side, and warned him to be careful during the ceremony of the laying of the cornerstone of the schoolhouse because there was a plot to kill him.
Elias suspected that the yellowish man, who built the derrick, was a paid stooge of Ibarra’s enemies. True to his suspicion, later in the day, when Ibarra, in the presence of a big crowd, went down into the trench to cement the cornerstone, the derrick collapsed. Elias, quick as a flash, pushed him aside, thereby saving his life. The yellowish man was the one crushed to death by the shattered derrick.
At the sumptuous dinner that night under a decorated kiosk, a sad incident occurred. The arrogant Padre Damaso, speaking in the presence of many guests, insulted the memory of Ibarra’s father. Ibarra jumped to his seat, knocked down the fat friar with his fist, and then seized a sharp knife. He would have killed the friar, were it not for the timely intervention of Maria Clara.
The fiesta over, Maria Clara became ill. She was treated by the quack Spanish physician, Tiburcio de Espadaña, whose wife, a vain and vulgar native woman, was a frequent visitor in Capitan Tiago’s house. This woman had hallucinations of being a superior Castilian, and, although a native herself, she looked down on her own people as inferior beings. She added another “de” to her husband’s surname in order to more Spanish. Thus she wanted to be called “Doctora Doña Victorina de los Reyes de De Espadaña.” She introduced to Capitan Tiago’s young Spaniards, Don Alfonso Linares de Espadaña, cousin of Don Tiburcio de Espadaña and godson of Padre Damaso’s brother in law. Linares was a penniless and jobless, fortune hunter who came to the Philippines in search of a rich Filipino heiress. Both Doña Victorina and Padre Damaso sponsored his wooing of Maria Clara, but the latter did not respond because she loved Ibarra.
The story of Elias like that of Sisa, was a tale of pathos and tragedy. He related it to Ibarra. Some 60 years ago, his grandfather, who was then a young bookkeeper in a Spanish commercial firm in Manila, was wrongly accused of burning the firm’s warehouse. He was flogged in public and was left in the street, crippled and almost died. His was pregnant, beg for alms and became a prostitute in order to support her sick husband and their son. After giving birth to her second son and the death of her husband, she fled, with her to sons to the mountains.
Years later the first boy became a dreaded tulisan named Balat. He terrorized the provinces. One day he was caught by the authorities. His head was cut off and was hung from a tree branch in the forest. On seeing this gory object, the poor mother (Elias’ grandmother) died.
Balat’s younger brother, who was by nature kindhearted, fled and became a trusted laborer in the house of rich man in Tayabas. He fell in love with the master’s daughter. The girl’s father, enraged by the romance, investigated his past and found out the truth. The unfortunate lover (Elias’ father) was sent to jail, while the girl gave birth to twins, a boy (Elias) and a girl. Their rich grandfather took care of them, keeping secret their scandalous origin, and reared them as rich children. Elias was educated in the Jesuit College in Manila, while his sister studied in La Concordia College. They lived happily, until one day, owing to certain dispute over money matters, a distant relative exposed their shameful birth. They were disgraced. An old male servant, whom they used to abuse, was forced to testify in court and the truth came out that he was their real father.
Elias and his sister left Tayabas to hide their shame in another place. One day the sister disappeared. Elias roamed from place to place, looking for her. He heard later that a girl answering to his sister’s description, was found dead on the beach of San Diego. Since then, Elias lived a vagabond life, wandering from province to province – until he met Ibarra.
Elias, learning of Ibarra’s arrest, burned all the papers that might incriminate his friend and set Ibarra’s house on fire. Then he went to prison and helped Ibarra escape. He and Ibarra jumped into a banca loaded with zacate (grass). Ibarra stopped at the house of Capitan Tiago to say goodbye to Maria Clara. In the tearful last scene between the two lovers, Ibarra forgave Maria Clara for giving up his letter to her to the Spanish authorities who utilized them as evidence against him. On her part, Maria Clara revealed that those letters were exchanged with a letter from her late mother, Pia Alba which Padre Salvi gave her. From his letter, she learned that her real father was Padre Damaso.
After bidding Maria Clara farewell, Ibarra returned to the banca. He and Elias paddled up the Pasig River toward Laguna de Bay. A police boat, with the Guardia Civil onboard, pursued them as their banca reached the lake. Elias told Ibarra to hide under the zacate. As the police boat was overtaking the banca, Elias jumped into the water and swam swiftly toward the shore. In this way, he diverted the attention of the soldiers on his person, thereby giving Ibarra a chance to escape. The soldier fired at the swimming Elias, who was hit and sank. The water turned red because of his blood. The soldiers, thinking that they had killed the fleeing Ibarra returned to Manila. Thus Ibarra was able to escape.
Elias seriously wounded, reached the shore and staggered into the forest. He met a boy, Basilio, who was weeping over his mother’s dead body. He told Basilio to make a pyre on which their bodies (his and Sisa) were to be burned to ashes. It was Christmas eve, and the moon gleamed softly in the sky. Basilio prepared the funeral pyre. As life’s breath slowly left his body. Elias looked toward the east and murmured: “I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land.” You, who have it to see, welcome it! And forget not those who have fallen during the night.
The novel ends with Maria Clara, an unhappy nun in Santa Clara nunnery – forever lost to the world.