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Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not)
Jose Rizal
Harold Augenbraum
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INTRODUCTION TO JOSÉ RIZAL'S NOLI ME TANGERE
by Luis H. Francia

Written in Spanish and published in 1887, José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere played a crucial role in the political history of the Philippines. Drawing from experience, the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel, and the ideals of European liberalism, Rizal offered up a devastating critique of a society under Spanish colonial rule.

The plot revolves around Crisostomo Ibarra, mixed-race heir of a wealthy clan, returning home after seven years in Europe and filled with ideas on how to better the lot of his countrymen. Striving for reforms, he is confronted by an abusive ecclesiastical hierarchy and a Spanish civil administration by turns indifferent and cruel. The novel suggests, through plot developments, that meaningful change in this context is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

The death of Ibarra’s father, Don Rafael, prior to his homecoming, and the refusal of a Catholic burial by Padre Damaso, the parish priest, provokes Ibarra into hitting the priest, for which Ibarra is excommunicated. The decree is rescinded, however, when the governor general intervenes. The friar and his successor, Padre Salvi, embody the rotten state of the clergy. Their tangled feelings—one paternal, the other carnal—for Maria Clara, Ibarra’s sweetheart and rich Capitan Tiago’s beautiful daughter, steel their determination to spoil Ibarra’s plans for a school. The town philosopher Tasio wryly notes similar past attempts have failed, and his sage commentary makes clear that all colonial masters fear that an enlightened people will throw off the yoke of oppression.

Precisely how to accomplish this is the novel’s central question, and one which Ibarra debates with the mysterious Elias, with whose life his is intertwined. The privileged Ibarra favors peaceful means, while Elias, who has suffered injustice at the hands of the authorities, believes violence is the only option.

Ibarra’s enemies, particularly Salvi, implicate him in a fake insurrection, though the evidence against him is weak. Then Maria Clara betrays him to protect a dark family secret, public exposure of which would be ruinous. Ibarra escapes from prison with Elias’s help and confronts her. She explains why, Ibarra forgives her, and he and Elias flee to the lake. But chased by the Guardia Civil, one dies while the other survives. Convinced Ibarra’s dead, Maria Clara enters the nunnery, refusing a marriage arranged by Padre Damaso. Her unhappy fate and that of the more memorable Sisa, driven mad by the fate of her sons, symbolize the country’s condition, at once beautiful and miserable.

Using satire brilliantly, Rizal creates other memorable characters whose lives manifest the poisonous effects of religious and colonial oppression. Capitan Tiago; the social climber Doña Victorina de Espadaña and her toothless Spanish husband; the Guardia Civil head and his harridan of a wife; the sorority of devout women; the disaffected peasants forced to become outlaws: in sum, a microcosm of Philippine society. In the afflictions that plague them, Rizal paints a harrowing picture of his beloved but suffering country in a work that speaks eloquently not just to Filipinos but to all who have endured or witnessed oppression.

 

ABOUT JOSÉ RIZAL

Born on June 19, 1861, José Rizal was from an upper-class Filipino family. His mother, Teodora Alonso, a highly educated woman, exerted a powerful influence on his intellectual development. He would grow up to be a brilliant polymath, doctor, fencer, essayist, and novelist, among other things.

By the late nineteenth century, the Spanish empire was in irreversible decline. Spain had ruled the islands since 1565, except for a brief hiatus when the British occupied the islands in 1762. The colonial government was unresponsive and often cruel, with the religious establishment wielding as much power as the state. Clerical abuses, European ideas of liberalism, and growing international trade fueled a burgeoning national consciousness. For Rizal and his generation, the 1872 Cavite Mutiny, in which three native priests were accused of treason and publicly executed, provided both inspiration and a cautionary tale.

Educated at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila and the Dominican University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Rizal left for Spain in 1882, where he studied medicine and the liberal arts, with further studies in Paris and Heidelberg. The charismatic Rizal quickly became a leading light of the Propaganda Movement—Filipino expatriates advocating, through its newspaper, La Solidaridad, various reforms such as the integration of the Philippines as a province of Spain, representation in the Cortes (the Spanish parliament), the Filipinization of the clergy, and equality of Filipinos and Spaniards before the law. To Rizal, the main impediment to reform lay not so much with the civil government but with the reactionary and powerful Franciscan, Augustinian, and Dominican friars, who constituted a state within a state.

In 1887, he published his first novel, Noli Me Tangere, written in Spanish, a searing indictment of clerical abuse as well as of colonial rule’s shortcomings. That same year, he returned to Manila, where the Noli had been banned and its author now hated intensely by the friars. In 1888, he went to Europe once more, and there wrote the sequel, El Filibusterismo (The Subversive), published in 1891. In addition, he annotated an edition of Antonio Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, showing that the Philippines had had a long history before the advent of the Spaniards. Rizal returned to Manila in 1892 and founded a reform society, La Liga Filipina, before being exiled to Dapitan, in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. There he devoted himself to scientific research and public works. Well-known as an ophthalmologist, he was visited by an English patient, accompanied by his ward, Josephine Bracken, who would be his last and most serious romantic involvement.

In August of 1896, the Katipunan, a nationalist secret society, launched the revolution against Spain. Its leaders venerated Rizal and tried to persuade him to their cause. He refused, convinced that the time was not yet ripe for armed struggle. In the meantime he volunteered to serve as a doctor with the Spanish forces fighting against Cuban revolutionaries. En route, Rizal was arrested and subjected to a mock trial in Manila by the authorities although he had nothing to do with the revolution. Found guilty, he was shot at dawn on December 30, 1896. On the eve of his execution, Rizal penned “Mi último adiós” (My Last Farewell), considered a masterpiece of nineteenth-century Spanish verse. He was thirty-five.

Rizal’s martyrdom only intensified the ultimately successful fight for independence from Spain. Because of his role in shaping his country’s destiny, José Rizal is often described as the “First Filipino” and has since served as an inspiration to countless nationalists and intellectuals.

 

ABOUT LUIS H. FRANCIA

Luis H. Francia, the author of this guide, was born and grew up in Manila, Philippines, where he obtained his B.A. in humanities from the Ateneo de Manila University—the same alma mater as that of José Rizal, author of Noli Me Tangere. He teaches Filipino language and culture at the Asian/Pacific/American Studies program of New York University. He has taught Asian-American literature at Sarah Lawrence College and at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

He has written several books, the most recent ones being Museum of Absences, a collection of poems, and the semiautobiographical Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago, winner of both the 2002 PEN Open Book and the Asian American Writers Workshop Literary awards. He is the editor of Brown River, White Ocean, an anthology of Philippine literature in English, and coeditor of Flippin’: Filipinos on America, also a literary anthology, and of Vestiges of War, an anthology of creative and scholarly works dealing with the 1899 Philippine-American War.

He and his wife, art historian and curator Midori Yamamura, live in New York City.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Crisostomo Ibarra and the mysterious and powerful Elias are quite similar, even though the former is an immensely wealthy mestizo and the latter, an impoverished fellow who has seen better days. Both have been victimized by the colonial system, yet have contrasting approaches to addressing the social ills that surround them. In one pivotal scene the two debate passionately about their respective views, as though the author were debating himself. How do their experiences shape these views? What reforms does Ibarra advocate? Why does Elias consider these futile?

  2. Through Ibarra, Rizal the social reformer makes it clear that he believed greatly in the transformative power of secular education. To learn only by rote prevented the ordinary Filipino from truly understanding his situation, hence Ibarra’s proposal to build a school for the town of San Diego. In contrast, what was the conventional view of education in San Diego? Why were Padre Damaso and, later on, Padre Salvi, against such innovation? How did race figure in their opposition?

  3. Tasio, the town sage, is elated by Ibarra’s plan for a school but immediately cautions the young man, “The first advice I will give you is to never come to me for advice again.” What makes the old man say this? What is his reputation in San Diego and what perspective does he add to the novel?

  4. The Noli is clearly anticlerical in its depiction of the friars and of the Catholic church. Padre Damaso and, to a lesser extent, Padre Salvi, personify clerical abuses—the main cause, in the novel, of the population’s discontent. Rizal’s portraits, however, are not one-dimensional; rather, they reveal the all-too-human faults of each priest. How does the novelist individualize them? How do the failings of Damaso and Salvi propel the novel’s action? The two friars have in common their feelings for Maria Clara, yet those very feelings should divide them. Why?

  5. Maria Clara betrays Ibarra even though she loves him. Her motive is to prevent the identity of her true, biological father from being revealed. Discuss the consequences of her act, and how it leads to tragedy.

  6. The novel describes vividly life in the town of San Diego and its social and political hierarchy. If we see San Diego as a microcosm of Philippine society, what kind of portrait emerges, overall, of life under the Spanish colonial system? In particular, how does the planning for the town feast clearly illustrate who holds real power?

  7. Capitan Tiago and Doña Victorina de Espadaña identify completely with the colonial mind-set. In portraying the two, Rizal pokes fun at their pretensions. What pretensions are these and how are they lampooned? Is Rizal gentler with one than the other?

  8. The author also mocks the mindless religiosity exhibited by Tiago and some other characters, especially the equally wealthy spinster, Doña Patrocinio, whom Tiago considers his rival and vice versa. Each strives to make as splashy material offerings as possible to the church, thinking thereby to ensure their spiritual future. Discuss the Catholic notion of indulgences, how this ties in to lavish expenditures, and, more broadly, how it ironically reveals the worldly nature of the church.

  9. The head of the Guardia Civil and his wife, Doña Consolacion, strike fear in the hearts of San Diego’s ordinary inhabitants. The wife is repellent, even to her husband. What do they exemplify and what purpose do these two characters serve in the novel?

  10. Rizal depicts a gap that exists between the Spanish civil administration and clerical rule. How wide or narrow is that gap? What incidents demonstrate the differences between the two sectors?

  11. Sisa goes mad due to her harsh treatment by the Guardia Civil, the death of one son, and the disappearance of another. Critics have said that she is symbolic of the oppressed mother country. Do you agree with this notion? Are there parallels with Maria Clara and her fate and, to a lesser degree, Tiago’s?