And this is surprising for me. We were required to read this in high school (I think it’s still required reading in all Philippine schools, public and private, but I may be wrong). Jose Rizal is one of our national heroes, and perhaps the greatest. But back then I thought it was dry and boring. During Filipino class, my mind wandered elsewhere. As a result, I failed to appreciate it.
What is the story about? (Spoilers ahead!)
Basically, Noli Me Tangere is a love story. The setting is 19th century Philippines, during the latter years of the country as Spain’s only colony in Asia. So in the background, there’s politics.
It’s a love story not only between two individuals, Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara de los Santos, but also between persons and the motherland.
The love stories are tragic. When I finished the novel, I got a bit depressed. But that was just Rizal’s aim. He dedicated the novel to his country. What he did, or what he promised to do, was hold up a mirror in front of Philippine society and allow it to see the truth of its condition. The truth, as he saw it, was that the Philippines is being eaten up by a social cancer. And his countrymen, unfortunately, are asleep. They needed to be awakened from their slumber and see the real state of things so that they can find freedom and happiness.
What is the social cancer?
Rizal believed, I think, that the social cancer eating away the tissues of Philippine society are the following:
1. Corruption and abuse of power (By many of the friars and Spanish administration officials);
2. Ignorance or lack of education;
3. Superstitious beliefs or lack of knowledge about one’s religion;
4. Hypocrisy of the friars;
5. Vices like gambling and tendency to gossip;
8. Cowardice; and
The question is, how faithfully did Rizal’s novel portray Philippine society? We need to consult our history books for that.
Before reading this book, I used to think that the misery that the Filipinos in Rizal’s time experienced was simply inflicted by the friars and Spanish officials. In the Noli, however, it’s not as simple as that. There was an interplay of the above factors: Yes, many of the friars were corrupt, hypocritical, and abusive, but many of the common people were not entirely blameless. Many of the latter were ignorant of their own religion; they held superstitious beliefs alongside Catholic beliefs, even if the two are incompatible. Many were also fond of gambling: For example, Sisa’s husband. His addiction to cock-fighting left him and his family constantly in want of money, so that Sisa had to compensate by working long hours and sending her two sons to the parish house to work under extremely harsh and unjust circumstances. If her husband were more decent and responsible, Sisa’s sons would’ve been spared and her sanity unharmed. So, their family would’ve stayed intact. Many of the Filipinos were also passive and cowardly. When they witnessed injustices done to their fellow indios, they did nothing out of fear.
I think that the Noli does not really indict religion, or Catholicism, itself. It only brings out as ugly, dangerous, and destructive corruption and hypocrisy.
What is the plot?
Here’s a sketch:
Crisostomo Ibarra is the son of a wealthy man in the town of San Diego. He is half-Spanish and half-indio. The novel begins with a social gathering in the house of one Captain Santiago. This party is well-attended by the who’s-who of society: Padre Damaso, Padre Salvi, Padre Sibyla, a Spanish journalist, some members of the Spanish army, and some members of the Philippine elite, like the Españadas.
Ibarra arrived from Europe (after almost seven years, studying and travelling) and joins the assembly. Padre Damaso quickly reveals himself as a very odious man. In contrast, Padre Salvi is more quiet and mysterious, but many times more conniving and downright sinister. They are Franciscans, so it’s highly ironic that they’re not peace-loving, gentle, pure, honest, and holy.
Ibarra soon learns of his father’s fate. He is enraged, but he swallows his bitterness and directs his energies to more constructive efforts, like gifting his town with its own school, something that was sorely needed.
At first, Ibarra was quite optimistic. But he faced stiff and violent opposition from his enemies, so in the end he was radicalized, with the help of the mysterious Elias.
Maria Clara loves him dearly, but she is caught up in her own problems and dilemmas. She’s trapped in a web of lies and evil and she couldn’t get away from it.
The other interesting characters in the story are: Tasio, the philosopher; Sisa, and her two sons; Captain Tiago; Aunt Isabel; the ensign and his wife, Doña Consolacion; Don Tiburcio Españada, the quack doctor, and his wife, Doña Victorina.
Like I said, the ending is pretty grim. So I’m looking forward to El Filibusterismo.
Why “Noli Me Tangere” (Touch Me Not)?
The phrase is taken from John 20:17:
Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”
Perhaps Rizal was simply referring to the Spanish friars, like Padre Damaso and Padre Salvi, who were corrupt and hypocritical but were “untouchables” because of their power. Jesus was the Son of God and is therefore the “fountain of all holiness”, but the friars were vile and violent, so it’s highly ironic that the phrase should refer to them.
My Rating: 4/5
Date Read: August 19 – October 25, 2012