Noli Me Tangere

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Noli Me Tangere (The Social Cancer as the alternative English title) is a Spanish-language novel written by José Rizal that is credited with the awakening of nationalism among the Filipinos of Rizal's time. It was published in 1887 in Berlin. The novel is commonly referred to by its shortened name Noli. The English translation of Charles Derbyshire was titled The Social Cancer, although some other translations retain the original Latin.


The writing of the novel

When Rizal read Uncle Tom's Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel on the abuse of black slaves in America, he thought that a novel should be written about the abuses that Philippine natives were suffering at the hands of the Spanish friars. He proposed to his Filipino friends in Madrid in 1884 that they collaborate in writing a novel on the Philippines. This group of friends included his hosts, the Paternos (Pedro, Máximo, and Antonio), and Graciano López Jaena. Although the others approved of the idea of writing on Philippine life, they all wanted to write about women rather than about national problems and in any case preferred to gamble and flirt than to write. Rizal then decided he would have to write the entire book himself.

Rizal began work on the Noli while still in Madrid, Spain. Of the remainder, most was written in Paris. He finished the book in Berlin, Germany. Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, a well-known writer and political activist, volunteered to be the proofreader and consultant.

When he was finishing the book in December 1886, Rizal was penniless and despaired of ever publishing it. The novel might never have seen print had it not been for the support of his wealthy friend, Máximo Viola, who came to visit him in Berlin. Rizal gratefully presented him with the galley proofs of Noli on 29 March 1887, the day that Noli was printed.

The title

"Noli me tangere" is a Latin phrase that Rizal took from the Bible, meaning "Touch me not." In John 20:13-17, the newly-risen Christ says to Mary Magdalene: "Touch me not; I am not yet ascended to my Father, but go to my brethren, and say unto them I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God."

It has also been noted by French writer D. Blumenstihl that "Noli me tangere" 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 his dedication, "To My Country":

"Recorded in the history of human sufferings is a cancer of so malignant a character that the least touch irritates it and awakens in it the sharpest pains. Thus, how many times, when in the midst of modern civilizations I have wished to call thee before me, now to accompany me in memories, now to compare thee with other countries, hath thy dear image presented itself showing a social cancer like to that other!"

As shown by this excerpt, the alternate English title, The Social Cancer, is taken from the book's dedication.

Key characters

  • Juan Crisostomo Ibarra, the main character, is a young illustrado who has been studying in Europe for 7 years according to the wishes of his father. Influenced by his father, his studies and his observations of other countries, he has developed patriotic and progressive ideas which he wishes to put into action in his country. He is very much like Rizal himself. Quoted as saying that to achieve liberation, they need the "catuiran ng lakas" , or the use of force.
  • María Clara de los Santos is Ibarra's faithful, pure and modest sweetheart. She is the portrait of an ideal woman, partly drawn perhaps from Rizal's love Leonor Rivera.
  • Padre Dámaso was once a good friend of Ibarra's father. He was, until the start of the novel, the domineering and condescending curate of San Diego, where the property of the Ibarra family is located, and continues to be a powerful figure in San Diego. Biological father of María Clara, as he takes advantage of Doña Pia, mother of María Clara and wife of Capitán Tiago
  • Padre Salví is the new parish priest of San Diego, who lusts after Maria Clara.
  • Elías, a common laborer whose family has suffered much, dreams of revolution. He may be said to represent another side of Rizal.
  • Pilosopong Tasio is an old man who received an excellent education in his youth but was persuaded into discontinuing his studies, which he was told would lead him away from his faith. The character is based on Rizal's older brother, Paciano.
  • Sisa is the mother of two young boys who disappear. With her mother love, her grief and her frustration, she is thought to represent the suffering motherland.
  • Crispín- brother of Basilio. Dies at the hands of the "sacristan mayor" and Padre Salví.
  • Basilio- brother of Crispín and son of Sisa and Pedro. Last person to see Elías alive.
  • Capitán Santiago de los Santos - also known as Capitan Tiago, he accepts María Clara as his own daughter.
  • Doña Victorina is a native woman who desperately tries to look like a Spaniard. She was so determined to marry a Spaniard that she was willing to settle, late in life, for a toothless stuttering man. She convinces him to pretend to be a doctor to raise their status and society.
  • Don Tiburcio is a former customs official who pretended to be a prestigious medical doctor in town as his bread and butter. He is the lame, stuttering husband of Doña Victorina.
  • Doña Consolación is the muse of the cuartel. She is the violent wife of the Alferez and has treated Sisa cruelly.
  • Alfonso Linares is the godson of Padre Damaso and a distant cousin of Don Tiburcio from Spain. He is hard pressed to be Maria Clara's fiance instead of Ibarra.
  • Padre Sibyla is a Dominican friar who is the curate of Binondo. His character is a stark contrast to that of Padre Damaso.


Ibarra's Homecoming

The young Filipino Juan Crisostomo Ibarra has just returned to the Philippines after 7 years of study in Europe. An old family friend, Capitan Tiago (Don Santiago de los Santos), an affluent resident of Binondo, hosts a dinner to welcome him home. He invites prominent figures in society, including Doña Victorina, Padre Sibyla and Padre Damaso, the former curate of San Diego and godfather to his daughter Maria Clara. For reasons Ibarra cannot understand, Padre Damaso first snubs then insults the young man, refusing to acknowledge his friendship with his father, Don Rafael Ibarra. Finally, Ibarra can no longer take his insults, and graciously excuses himself, pretending he has to attend to an important matter. He is followed by another guest, Lieutenant Guevarra (a Guardia Civil).

Although he is unable to explain Damaso's change of attitude toward his father, Guevarra illuminates Ibarra regarding the events preceding his death.

Damaso's change of attitude towards his friend Don Rafael, a wealthy haciendero of San Diego, began not long after Ibarra left for Europe. Damaso accused Don Rafael of being a heretic because he refused to go to confession. Although morally upright, Don Rafael had for many years doubted the value of confession and refused to go. Later Don Rafael was also accused of being a filibuster when a Spanish tax collector died accidentally when he defended a boy the collector was assaulting.

Don Rafael's enemies joined Padre Dámaso in making accusations against him. He was thrown into prison. Guevarra prepared the case for his defense and found a good lawyer to represent him. But just when it seemed the matter would be settled and he would acquitted, Don Rafael died in prison.

Having left the party before she arrived, the very next day Ibarra goes to see his sweetheart María Clara, an exceptionally beautiful young girl. María Clara reveals that she had always carried the letter Ibarra wrote for her before he went to Europe. She rereads it. It begins by detailing Don Rafael's nationalistic reasons for sending Ibarra to Europe to be educated.

Incidents in San Diego

Ibarra then goes to his hometown, San Diego, where María Clara's family also has a house. He goes to see his father's grave at the Catholic cemetery and finds it has been disturbed. Still not content with the sufferings he had put Don Rafael through, Dámaso arranged for Don Rafael's corpse to be dug up and moved to the Chinese cemetery, because he claimed that a heretic such as Don Rafael was undeserving of a Catholic burial ground. However, since it was raining, the gravediggers decided not to take the trouble of burying the corpse again. Instead, they threw Don Rafael's body in the river.

Others in San Diego also suffer at the hands of the clergy. Two young sacristans, Crispín and Basilio, are accused of of stealing from the church. When they disappear their mother, Sisa, goes mad and wanders the town. The town schoolmaster tells Ibarra he was discouraged by the curate from using the new teaching methods that he found effective.

Ibarra invites María Clara and other young people to go fishing then have a picnic on his property. Out of courtesy, he also invites the new curate, Padre Salví, even though Maria Clara complains he has been gazing at her lustfully. Padre Salví can only make it to the picnic, so the young people and their chaperones go fishing without him on Ibarra's pond. They find that a large cayman has eaten all the fish in one of the corrals. A mysterious boatman captures it but is attacked by the creature. Ibarra goes to his aid, saving his life.

During the picnic, Ibarra learns two things: the authorities have approved his plan to put up a school and the mysterious boatman he saved is a man named Elías, who is wanted by the Civil Guard for assaulting a priest.

Run-ins with Authorities

Ibarra discusses his plans with the learned town eccentric, Tasio. He has decided to put up the school as a tribute to his father's belief that the education of the people would lead to the country's liberation. Tasio supports his noble objectives but warns him he must win over the authorities to have a chance of success.

During the school's inauguration, there is an attempt to kill Ibarra but Elías saves him. Ibarra hosts a dinner afterwards, Padre Dámaso among the invited. Dámaso again insults him and his father. In a rage, Ibarra grabs him, holding a knife at his throat. But María Clara stops him from doing any further violence. Greatly upset, María Clara becomes ill with a fever. Ibarra gives her a medicine which cures her, but she remains weak for some time afterward.

Ibarra is excommunicated by the Archbishop for assaulting Dámaso. Because of this disgrace, Dámaso is able to persuade Capitán Tiago to forbid his daughter from marrying Ibarra. Padre Damaso presents a new suitor, a Spaniard named Linares who has just arrived from Spain. Linares is introduced by his relatives, the foolish Spanish quack doctor Don Tiburcio and his absurd pretentious wife, Doña Victorina.

Elías tries to convince Ibarra at this point to lead a revolt, but Ibarra insists that reform, never revolt, is the answer to the country's ills. Elías tries to move him with the story of how his family suffered at the hands of a Spanish merchant and other wealthy and influential members of society, to no avail.

Ibarra meets with the Captain General and wins his support. The excommunication is thus lifted. But soon afterward, Ibarra is accused by Padre Salví of being a subversive. Hearing of this, Elías goes to warn him and together they go over the Ibarra family papers so they can discard anything that appears incriminating. While doing this, Elias discovers that Ibarra's great-grandfather was the very Spanish merchant who set off the chain of his family's misfortunes. His feelings in turmoil, he leaves Ibarra.

Soon afterward, Ibarra is arrested and imprisoned. At first there appears to be no actual evidence against him, thanks to Elías, who had a change of heart and returned to burn Ibarra's papers. Then suddenly, Ibarra's letter to María Clara is produced and his words are manipulated so that the love letter then becomes evidence against him.

The Escape

Ibarra, having escaped from prison with the help of Elías, goes to see María Clara one last time before leaving the country. He wishes to say goodbye to her although he believes that she betrayed him by giving the letter he wrote her to the jury. María Clara explains to Ibarra that she only handed over the letter he wrote her in exchange for a couple of scandalous letters written by her mother before Maria Clara's birth. These letters were found by Padre Salví in the house passed onto him by Padre Damaso. They revealed that Dámaso raped her mother, thus making her not the daughter of Capitan Tiago, but of Padre Dámaso.

Ibarra and Elias continue their flight by boat. Elias tells Ibarra to lie down, then covers him with grass. When some guards spot them, Elias serves as a decoy by jumping into the water. The guards shoot at him, unaware that Ibarra is still in the boat, waiting for a chance to make his getaway.

María Clara hears that Ibarra was killed and is so overcome with grief that she begs Padre Dámaso to confine her in a nunnery, saying: The nunnery or death! Dámaso explains that he only wanted María Clara to have a life of freedom and happiness, which she could never achieve in a marriage to a native. But she holds firm, refusing to marry Linares or anyone else, and he bows to her wishes.

It is Christmas Eve when Elías arrives at the Ibarra forest, bleeding to death. In his last moments in the forest, Elías meets the runaway sacristan Basilio, who had just come back to the town to find his mother. Sadly, Sisa died soon after she recognized her son.

Elías asks Basilio to burn his body, along with Sisa's, upon his death. He then dies lamenting not having seen the liberation of his country.


Rizal described Noli Me Tangere to his friend Blumentritt thus: "The Novel is the first impartial and bold account of the life of the tagalogs. The Filipinos will find in it the history of the last ten years…"

Rizal's main purpose was to expose the abuses of the Spanish friars and government officials. The various friars in the book--haughty, condescending to the natives, greedy, and lustful--possessed well-known faults of the Spanish friars in the Philippines. The brutality of the civil guards and the corruption of government officials are also shown.

The various sectors of native Philippine society, rich and poor, are also represented. Rizal parodies native social climbers who wish to be associated with the Spaniards in Capitan Tiago and, to a greater extent, Doña Victorina. He pokes fun at pious women who are fully sold on the idea of saving their souls with the buying of indulgences and other mistaken religious beliefs. The situation of peasants who choose to become outlaws out of desperation and the fondness for gambling of the common folk are also examined. Contrasting couples are presented: Sisa with her abusive ne'er-do-well husband, the head of the Guardia Civil with his vulgar harridan of a mistress, and Doña Victorina with her pathetic Spanish husband whom she brandishes like a trophy.

These faults of the natives, however, are usually at least in part traced to the abuse of the conquerors. There are hints that the poor are driven to crime and banditry by the injustice of the civil guards and that religious hypocrisy and false beliefs result from the refusal of the friars to properly educate the masses so they may continue to take advantage of their ignorance and dependence. The education that could uplift the people's minds and enable them to work for freedom and justice are denied them for the same reason. Allying oneself with the Spaniards, hence social climbing, is seen as the only way of gaining respect and benefits.

Rizal also presents the positive qualities of his countrymen. Family devotion is seen in the relations of Ibarra, María Clara and others, like the schoolteacher, with their parents and guardians. The self-sacrificing mother is represented by Sisa. The purity and faithfulness of María Clara and other women is also dwelt upon. Then there is the strong and constant expression of gratitude in Elías's behavior to Ibarra.

By presenting different sides of the national situation, Rizal fulfilled his intent of presenting a "bold and impartial account" of Philippine life. In doing so, the novel not only exposed the sufferings of the Philippine natives but took steps towards defining the national identity.

Historical context

Completed when he was 26, Noli Me Tangere was Rizal's first novel. He had already written essays and poetry with nationalistic themes previously.

The book was a call to the assertion of national identity and the fight for equality with the conquerors. With its presentation and analysis of Spanish abuses, it emphasized the need for reforms.

Rizal had problems with the authorities due to their reception of the book. As said by Rizal in a letter to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt on 5 September 1887: "My book has raised a great deal of uproar; everybody is asking me about it. They would like to anathematize (excommunicate) me.... They take me for a German spy, agent of Bismarck (Otto von Bismarck), Protestant, freemason, witch, a half-damned soul, etc. Thus I prefer to stay at home. The civil guard firmly believe in all that and they whisper that I am sketching plans. The corporal (native of Madrid) believes that I hold a foreign passport and that I take a walk at night...."

In other words, Rizal was accused of being a subversive because of the content of the book. Governor-General Emilio Terrero confronted him with this charge, but when Rizal defended himself and gave him the book to read, he accepted Rizal's statement that the book was merely an honest presentation of the country's situation and not a call to revolution. However, the Archbishop of Manila and other friars remained prejudiced against the book, and it was eventually banned.

All this only added to its popularity among the masses, who secretly obtained copies. With its vision of a national identity, the book served to unify the Philippine natives, who had long maintained allegiance only to those of their own region.

Despite Rizal's clearly expressed reluctance for revolution, his Noli Me Tangere and later its sequel, El Filibusterismo, inspired revolutionaries in their cause.

During the visit following the publication of Noli, Rizal had gotten into further trouble with the friars when he aided his townsmen in demanding agrarian reform and had to leave home again. He wrote and published El Filibusterismo while abroad. When he returned to the Philippines after completing his medical studies, he was exiled in Dapitan by the Spanish authorities. The Philippine Revolution broke out soon after his exile ended. He feared the Spanish authorities would credit him as a revolutionary leader. Sure enough, he was soon arrested, tried for rebellion, sedition and forming an illegal association, found guilty and executed.


  • Noli has a Chapter X, which was removed by Rizal to reduce the cost of printing. The chapter, entitled "Elías and Salome," was supposed to follow Chapter XXIV, "In the Woods." In this chapter, Elías visits his sweetheart, Salomé, who has decided to go away to live with relatives. In the course of their conversation, Elías reveals that his family has suffered great injustice and shame that he does not want to inflict on her. Furthermore, though she hoped he would go with her, he felt obliged to remain so that he could repay his debt to Ibarra.
  • Rizal later regretted the death of Elías, saying that if he had known he would have the chance to write a sequel, the noble and self-sacrificing Elías would have been a preferable instigator of revolution to Ibarra, who was only motivated to revolt after he had suffered personal losses.
  • Roger P. Olivares wrote a modern sequel to Noli, Noli Me Tangere 2: "Where to Now, My Country?" (Quezon City: Hero Publishing, 2005). In this book, he reincarnates Crisostomo Ibarra in the current-day Philippines, dealing with modern-day problems of the country.
  • The latest fashion in mestiza dress in 1890 was called María Clara after the novel's heroine.
  • The term "María Clara" is used up to the present time to refer to a demure Filipina. However, Nick Joaquín objected to this view of the heroine, pointing out her courage and conviction in making self-sacrificing decisions.
  • Both María Clara and Sisa, with their griefs, are thought to represent the suffering motherland. This was graphically presented in a ballet in the 2006 CCP Grand Asalto, wherein María Clara transforms into a raving Sisa.

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