42 pages 1 hour read

José Rizal

Noli Me Tángere (Touch Me Not)

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1887

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Noli Me Tángere (1887)—which translates to “Touch Me Not” in Latin—is a novel written by Filipino writer José Rizal. The novel tells the story of Don Crisóstomo Ibarra, a young man of Filipino and Spanish descent who returns to the Philippines after a seven-year trip to Europe. Upon his return, and because he is now old enough to better understand the world, Ibarra sees the oppression wrought on the Indigenous population by Spanish colonialism. As Ibarra attempts to do something about this, he finds himself confronting forces that view him as a direct threat to their power—and who will do whatever it takes to retain it.

Noli Me Tángere is predominantly narrated in the third person, with occasional shifts to first-person plural. The narrative follows a generally linear plot with occasional shifts that provide historical context. It also tends toward the satirical, especially when the narrator describes members of the wealthy ruling class. At times, the novel depicts the brutality of oppression realistically, hence it is sometimes graphic.

This guide is based on the Kindle edition of the novel, translated by Harold Augenbraum and published by Penguin Books in 2006.

Content warning: This guide contains references to violence, which is depicted in the source text. 

Plot Summary

Noli Me Tángere begins at a dinner party hosted by Captain Don Santiago (Tiago), a wealthy resident of Manila. Guests assembled at the party include other members of the upper class as well as friars of both the Dominican and Franciscan orders. During dinner, Don Crisóstomo Ibarra arrives—the party being his first stop post-returning from Europe. He is there to visit his fiancée María-Clara, Santiago’s daughter. However, the celebratory atmosphere soon turns tense as one of the friars, Father Dámaso, becomes angry at Ibarra’s arrival. After the party, Ibarra learns that his father, Don Rafael, died while in prison and Father Dámaso had his corpse exhumed and removed from the Christian cemetery (i.e., dumped into a river). The dramatic tension between Ibarra and Dámaso forms the central conflict.

As Ibarra reacclimates himself to his homeland, he looks to apply his progressive ideals to make life better for the citizens of San Diego. After meeting with a school teacher, Ibarra’s first act is to build a school. While he gains support from the local government, the religious order within the town views the project with suspicion. They begin to see Ibarra as a threat to their power—with Dámaso in particular seeing him as a rival who must be put in his place.

Ibarra and María-Clara’s relationship dates back to childhood. However, Dámaso is the godfather of María-Clara and opposes the marriage. He wishes to drive the two apart and eventually achieves. He arrives uninvited to a dinner party hosted by Ibarra and dishonors the memory of his late father, which baits the latter into retaliation. Ibarra physically attacks Dámaso, holding him at knife point and threatening to kill him. María-Clara intervenes and prevents Ibarra from completing the deed, but the damage is done. As punishment for the assault, Ibarra is excommunicated and thus, the couple’s engagement is annulled.

The Captain General, the King’s representative in the Philippines, intercedes on Ibarra’s behalf. Once again, Dámaso and his colleague Father Salví are disgruntled and see the Captain General’s respect for Ibarra as a threat to their power. Salví’s role in the novel becomes more prominent after this incident, as he works on a scheme to take down Ibarra once and for all.

Ibarra befriends Elías, a fellow Filipino who is involved with a subversive group planning an uprising. Because Elías is knowledgeable of the town’s underground, he is able to warn Ibarra of the attempts to have him framed and killed. Their friendship is unusual as they are not of the same class, but they have mutual respect for each other—and this respect enables them to strengthen their alliance.

Through no fault of his own, Ibarra’s life is turned upside down by the same forces that claimed the life of his father. As the novel comes to a close, the progress that Ibarra advocated for is put on hold. However, Dámaso suffers a private defeat as María-Clara holds a secret against him, one that would destroy his reputation in town. Dámaso is eventually moved out of San Diego and with him out of the way, the possibility of reform is made more possible than ever.