51 pages 1 hour read

José Rizal

El Filibusterismo

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1891

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Summary and Study Guide


El Filibusterismo was written by the unofficial national hero of the Philippines, José Rizal, and first published in 1891 in Ghent, Belgium. It is Rizal’s second novel and the sequel to his first novel, Noli Me Tángere. The novel’s alternate title is The Reign of Greed. Rizal wrote both novels in Spanish because at the time of writing, the Philippine islands were Spanish colonies. His two novels were a part of the Filipino Propaganda Movement, which sought greater autonomy from Spain, if not independence. El Filibusterismo addresses topics of great importance to the movement, namely clerical abuses, racism against the Philippine people, and the need for political reform. The novels resulted in Rizal’s exile to Hong Kong, and later, his execution by firing squad in 1896 at the age of 35. His two novels are required reading for all Philippine high school students, having been translated to English, Filipino, and other Philippine languages.

This guide is based on the 2011 Penguin Books Edition.

Content Warning: One of the characters in El Filibusterismo is addressed using a term for a Chinese national that is now widely considered offensive. The guide recreates this language only in chapter titles and direct quotes. The novel also includes instances of racism, a mention of child death, and deaths by suicide.

Plot Summary

The protagonist from the first novel, Noli Me Tángere, Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra, returns to the Philippines in the guise of Simoun, a suspected American jeweler who is close to the Captain-General, the Spanish governor of the colonial Philippines. When first introduced, Simoun is aboard a steamship with other characters from the first novel, notably several clerics, and advises draconian means for dealing with insubordinate Filipinos. The novel’s second protagonist and returning character, Basilio, is below deck. The wealthy Spaniards sit above deck, while the vast majority of the ship, Filipino and Chinese passengers, sit below deck. Basilio is a medical student and speaking with his friend, Isagani. Simoun comes down and speaks with the two students; he invites them to have beer with him. They decline, but Isagani goes above deck to speak to his uncle. There, the reader learns of legends about the Pasig River, specifically the legend about Ibarra’s death.

The novel shifts to Cabesang Tales, an important secondary character in the novel. He’s worked hard to obtain a parcel of land, farm it, and become successful, but a local friar claims the land for the Church and forces him to pay an ever-increasing portion of his earnings. Eventually, Tales is driven from his land; he flees and becomes a bandit, and his daughter becomes a servant. His daughter, Julí, is to wed Basilio, as he’s able to repay the debt she owes and free her from servitude to Señora Penchang.

One evening, Basilio visits his mother’s grave near the mausoleum on the former Ibarra estate. Simoun appears, and Basilio startles him when he recognizes Simoun as Crisóstomo Ibarra. Ibarra and Basilio know each other from the first novel, as Ibarra helped bury Basilio’s mother. Basilio’s brother disappeared in the first novel, supposedly murdered by an angry sexton. Simoun informs Basilio of his plan to sow resentment in the Filipino populace and instigate a revolt against the Spanish government, especially the corrupt clergy. Basilio has found comfort and hope through the patronage of Captain Tiago, and doesn’t want to participate in Simoun’s plan. Simoun lets him go, assured that patience is key, and that the system will eventually drive Basilio to him.

At a Manila university, students Basilio, Isagani, Placido Penitente, Makaraig, and Juanito Peláez suffer from the racial whims of their clerical professors. They’re forced to memorize the contents of books rather than learn their contents. Placido feels so discriminated against that he tells off his professor and leaves. The other students form a Student Union that wishes to establish a Castilian Academy attached to the university, for the sole purpose of teaching the Spanish language. The notion causes political concerns among the Spanish, especially the clergy. Eventually, the Student Union’s plan is approved with a major caveat, devised by Don Custodio: The academy will be established, but it won’t be attached to the university, nor led by the Dominicans, but rather the Franciscans. The students are unhappy with the result and meet to discuss it.

The next day, a series of broadsides against the clergy, government, and university are posted on the university gates. As a result, many students are suspended or arrested; Basilio, Isagani, and Makaraig are all arrested. Everyone is eventually set free, because their families can pay for their release, but because Basilio has no one, he remains in prison. When he is finally freed by Simoun, Basilio is a changed man, no longer confident in the system, and joins Simoun’s plan. Simoun wishes to free María Clara from the convent where she’s been staying ever since she learned of his (Ibarra’s) death, but before he can initiate his plan, he learns from Basilio that María Clara recently died. Simoun falls ill and disappears for a while.

Things slowly go back to normal, except Basilio remains aloof and even loses his patron, Captain Tiago, to death. Student Juanito Peláez, the son of wealthy merchant Timoteo Peláez, is able to win the hand of Paulita Gómez. Their wedding is announced and Simoun, now healthy again, plans to use it to restart his revolutionary plans. He constructs a special lamp filled with nitroglycerin to be used at the wedding. Using his reputation, he is also able to have many bags of dynamite placed under the house where the wedding reception will be held; the lamp will explode, killing everyone in the room, and will ignite the dynamite to kill those who try to escape. Cabesang Tales will then attack the city with his armed bandits. Basilio is to help others secure bridges and kill anyone who opposes their plan.

Basilio secretly follows Simoun to Timoteo Peláez’s house, realizing it’s Captain Tiago’s old house. The upper echelons, including the Captain-General, are present. Basilio sees Simoun leave the house, pale. Isagani passes by, and Basilio warns him of what’s to come and runs away. Because Isagani and Paulita used to be in love, Isagani rushes into the house, grabs the lamp, and throws it and himself into the nearby river.

Rumors of what happened at Timoteo Peláez’s house, and what might have happened had a thief not taken the rigged lamp, course through Manila. Isagani learns of what he hindered, and feels apologetic, as do others who would have liked to have been rid of the people at the wedding party. Simoun is indicted of sedition, but escapes; the Civil Guard tracks him down. He takes shelter with Father Florentino (Isagani’s uncle) at the latter’s seaside retreat. Simoun learns that the Civil Guard is coming for him and takes a vial of poison. He confesses to Father Florentino who he is and tells him his history: After being falsely accused of sedition, Ibarra fled with the help of a friend, Elías. He used some of his family’s wealth, which Elías secured for him, to escape to Cuba where he fought for both sides (Cuban and Spanish), accumulating wealth in the process. He befriended and aided the Captain-General and accompanied him when he became governor of the Philippines. Ibarra then used the Captain-General’s lust for gold to influence him to incite injustice and inflame the Filipino people to revolt. Father Florentino explains that Simoun failed because God could not condone Ibarra’s methods for obtaining freedom. Simoun/Ibarra dies, begrudgingly accepting Florentino’s explanation. Father Florentino then takes Simoun’s jewel case and tosses it into the sea because he doesn’t want the Civil Guard to confiscate it and use the wealth for evil.