The Secrets of Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere

"To this end, I shall endeavor to show your condition, faithfully and ruthlessly. I shall lift a corner of the veil which shrouds the disease sacrificing to the truth everything even self-love---for, as your son, your defects and weaknesses are also mine."

Jose Rizal
1886, Europe

The first time I read Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere, it was a comic book version that my Dad bought from National Bookstore. It was designed for school kids since it was a short and sanitized version.

You can tell that the artist's inspiration for Crisostomo Ibarra was Rizal. I think it was originally made in the 1960s. I still see National Bookstore selling them. 

My first full reading of Noli happened when I was in 6th grade. I borrowed my cousin's Noli textbook which was in Tagalog. It was engrossing and I had fun reading it. I didn't put the book down until I finished the story. 

Years later, I bought a copy of the English translation made by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin. And now, I also have Leon Ma. Guerrero's English version. There's another English translation made by Penguin Random House for it's World Classics collection. It was translated by Harold Augenbraum.

Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere book
Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere

I would love to read the novel in its original Spanish. Maybe I'll ask for help from my brother since he's studying Spanish at Instituto de Cervantes.

With each version and reading, I always discover new things. And along with it, my understanding of the messages that Rizal integrated with his words. It's a beautiful novel that has been relegated as a textbook. Required reading in order to pass Third-year High School Filipino class or the Rizal course in College, our perception of the novel clouded the literary value of the Noli Me Tangere.

Is the Noli still relevant in our modern-day society? Yes, very much so. If only we would be bothered to read it in its full glory and potential without biases.

I'll be using Guerrero's translation for the book excerpts and quotes.

Noli Me Tangere in French

Noli was Rizal's answer to Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. There are some similarities between the themes of both novels. 

Oppression, corruption, failed uprisings, doomed heroines, persecution, and betrayals are just some of the moving parts that I have seen in Noli as well as in Les Miserables.

As France was the center of Artistic and Literary developments during the 19th century plus its leanings towards democracy, it would have been better if Rizal wrote Noli in French than Spanish. It would have gotten more moral and financial support. It could have even been a literary success. 

Unfortunately, Rizal's command of the French language was not enough to write the novel in French. 

The Noli did not make Rizal rich. He gave away more books than sold them. The majority of the copies were held in the Spanish Customs House in Manila because of the book ban.

Penguin's Noli Me Tangere. Cover art by Jose Rizal.

The Noli, a collaborated effort?

In 1884, Rizal proposed to the other expatriates that they collaborate together in coming up with a book that would highlight the real state of the Indios in the Philipines. It would have been a loud and significant roar coming from the expatriates if everyone had the energy and desire to go through the process. But people kept delaying the project and so Rizal decided to just forged on his own. 

19th Century Ilustrados (photo via Wikipedia)

It would take three years for the novel to be written and published. Rizal wrote in longhand. No typewriter for him. He even created the cover art illustration. The Noli was published in Berlin, Germany with monetary support from Rizal's friend, Maximo Viola. Only 2, 000 copies were printed. Rizal never made money from his novel. 

The Real Capitan Tiago's house

The first chapter of the novel starts with A Party. A dinner party that is being given by the richest merchant in Binondo, Don Santiago De Los Santos aka Capitan Tiago.

Residents and neighbors of Capitan Tiago's Anloague mansion were all in a frenzy because of the preparations.

Historians believed that Rizal based a lot of his characters and places on real life. Rizal gave very detailed descriptions of where the house is located as well as the interior.

As described by Rizal in Chapter One of the Noli:

"It was situated in that section of the city which is crossed by a branch of the Pasig river, called by some the creek of Binondo, which, like all rivers of Manila at that time,  combined the functions of public bath, sewer, laundry, fishery, waterway, and should the Chinese water-pedlar find it convenient, even a source of drinking water."

"A wide staircase, green banistered and partly carpeted, rose from the tiled court at the entrance."

"The dinner guests were gathered in the main reception room which had great mirrors and sparkling chandeliers. On a pinewood platform stood enthroned a magnificent grand piano..." 

In modern-day Binondo, Juan Luna Street was previously known as Calle Anloague. And there used to be a house owned by a gentleman, Balvino Mauricio in the 1860s-1870s. Mauricio was implicated in the Cavite Mutiny in which the GOMBURZA priests were executed. He quickly sold his house and emigrated to Hong Kong to avoid imprisonment.

Each letter has a figure painted on it.

But before all of those events happened, in 1864, Balvino Mauricio, hired Letras y Figuras artist, Jose Honorato Lozano to create a painting. Lozano depicted Balvino's life and property through letters and figures. And the different scenes that showcased his Anloague house clearly matched Rizal's description in the Noli.

Teodora Alonso is Don Rafael Ibarra and Sisa 

When Rizal was in the Ateneo Municipal School in 1872, he received word that his beloved mother, Dona Teodora Alonso, was imprisoned because of an accusation made by her sister-in-law, Teodora Formosa, that she tried to poison her. Teodora Formosa was the wife of her brother, Jose Alberto Alonso. She was jailed for more than two years because of this trumped-up charge. She was humiliated and forced to repeatedly confess in order for her to be with her children.

In a separate incident, she was forced to walk for fifty miles as punishment for not using her Spanish surname.

Rizal used her mother's experiences to create the characters of Sisa, the unlucky mother of the two sacristans (Basilio and Crispin). She was made fun by the wife of the Alferez and imprisoned because of the missing money that her sons allegedly stole. She lost her mind because of the various ordeals that she encountered. I consider her the most pitiful and wretched character in the entire book. She did have a lucid moment when she saw that Basilio was still alive but eventually died in his arms.

Crisostomo's father, Don Rafael, just wanted to alleviate the type of society that the town of San Diego had. But he was accused, excommunicated and imprisoned by his enemies. He was later exonerated of the trumped-up charges but he died in prison before being released. 

The characters of Don Rafael and Sisa are composites of the life and experiences of Dona Teodora.

Teodora Alonso. photo credit (Ambeth Ocampo)

Food and the Noli

In several of Rizal's letters to his family, he would often talk about food. If Rizal was alive today, we would have labeled him as a Foodie. There are passages in the Noli that pertain to food or cooking. He used food several times as an allusion to social graces in the 19th Century Philippine society.

As per Rizal's letters to his family and memoirs of his European friends, Rizal knew how to cook. He also was able to partake of Filipino-style fiestas when he was in Spain, together with the other Filipino expatriates. In one of his letters, he wrote how they all contributed to holding a party in Pedro Paterno's house where Lechon (roasted pig) was served. They eat with their hands and had a Filipino fiesta.

Padre Damaso felt that he was treated unjustly during the Dinner Party for Crisostomo Ibarra in Chapter 3 (At Dinner) because of the food portion that he received.

"A great steaming tureen now made its appearance. The Dominican being at the head of the table, served out the contents, after murmuring grace with scarcely an Amen from the rest."

"Whether by oversight or otherwise, Father Damaso's portion turned out to be composed of a lot of squash and broth with barely a chicken neck and wing, while his fellow guests were eating chicken legs and chicken breasts, and Ibarra had the luck of drawing the giblets."

In Chapter 11 (Bosses), The Alferez was giving some pointers to a fellow Spaniard about visiting Padre Salvi.

"So you're going to the parish house to visit Father Wouldn't-Hurt-A-Fly! Look out! If he offers you chocolate, which I doubt, but anyway if he does offer it, keep your ears open. If he calls the servant and tells him, "So-and-so, make a pot of chocolate, hey," then you can rest easy, but if he says, "so-and-so, make a pot of chocolate, ha," then you'd better pack up your hat and get away at a run."

"Chocolate, hey, means really good chocolate; chocolate, ha, means it will be very watery."

Knowledge is Power

Historians agree that Rizal's true advocacy lies in Education --- proper education of the Filipino (Indio) youth. When Rizal was in Dapitan, he built and maintained a school. He would often encourage his nephews and nieces to do good in their lessons. He even tutored them through correspondence!

He showed his frustrations towards the education system in Noli as well as in El Filibusterismo. Don't you ever wonder why Filipinos can't speak nor read Spanish even though we were colonized for more than 300 years?

Restricting access to education was a way to hinder progress and independence. It worked for several generations but during the mid-1800s, more and more Indios were able to go to Europe and study at the universities.  

A hundred years later, we are still encountering the same issues that Rizal wrote about. In some ways, Rizal would be happy to learn that in today's world, the right to education is considered a fundamental human right. 

Ibarra wanted to build a progressive school that would cater to the young men of San Diego. In Chapter 19 (Adventures of a Schoolmaster), he had a serious conversation with an idealistic schoolmaster.

"...I seek inspiration in the man to whom I owe my being. That is why I am interested in education, and I should like to know the difficulties it meets here."

" our present circumstances education will never be possible without the most powerful help, first, because the young have no inducement or encouragement to study, and secondly, because, even if they had, they would be stifled by poverty and other needs more pressing 

than education..."

Then Father Damaso rose and told me seriously in Tagalog: "Don't go around in borrowed clothes. Use your own native tongue and be happy with it. Don't go spoiling Spanish; it's not for you."

In Chapter 32, entitled The Sermon, Padre Damaso was quite impassioned about his sermon and used the lectern to attack his enemies particularly Ibarra.

"...He spoke of sinners who did not go to confession, who died in prison without the Sacrament, of accursed families, of proud and vain half-breeds, of young know-it-alls, of pseudo-intellectuals, pseudo-lawyers, pseudo-students, and so on..."

Even Elias, in the last chapter of the novel, advised Basilio to study.

"Then, if nobody else comes; dig here. You will find much gold. It will all be yours. Study!"

Elias and Salome: The Deleted Chapter

In 1887, before publishing the Noli in Berlin, Rizal decided to remove a chapter from the novel. This chapter named, Elias and Salome, dig deeper into the psyche of Elias through his relationship with Salome. 

There's no explanation as to why Rizal decided to delete this chapter from the published book. In recent editions including Guerrero's, the missing chapter has been reinstated. In some, it's referred to as Chapter X and placed at the end of the novel. Others, have it as Chapter 25, and it occurs after the Fishing Expedition and Lunch in the Woods. 

In my opinion, Rizal was giving more substance to the character of Elias. He wanted readers to be emphatic to him. Could it be that he was thinking of giving Elias a more significant role in preparation for future novels? Or was this another of Rizal's subtle ways of saying that he was prepared to give up everything even love and peaceful existence in exchange for the welfare of the Philippines?

Elias is an enigmatic character. He is seen as the alter-ego of Crisostomo Ibarra. He is the revolutionary compared to Ibarra's pacifist. He was a realist compared to Ibarra's idealism. 

In some ways, Ibarra was naive about the things happening around him. He never had any real-life turmoil. Unlike, Elias, wherein it was destined even before he was born, the kind of life he was going to have.

Elias is given the option to forget his past, forsake his thirst for revenge and just live a peaceful life with Salome. But he chooses to let Salome go and embrace his desire to make a difference in a world that is not ready for his kind of change.

1961 movie version of Noli Me Tangere helmed by Gerry de Leon. Leopoldo Salcedo starred as Elias.

Double Entendres

Merriam-Webster defines Double Entendres as a word or expression that can be understood in two different ways with one way usually referring to sex.

One would be shocked to learn that the Noli is full of double entendres. We don't see Rizal as capable of risque language but he did use it in his novels. 

Going back to Padre Damaso's sermon in Chapter 22, in his endless monologue, he admonished everyone in all manners of shape and sizes. 

'...Jesus said: "If a member of your body lead you into sin, cut it off and throw it into the fire..."'

And two young men who were listening had this conversation.

'Did you hear that?' a young student from Manila asked his companion. 

'Well, are you going to cut it off?'
'Fat chance. Let him do it first.'

Mysterious Man

In Chapter 64 entitled Christmas Eve, while Basilio was mourning his mother's death; he meets a dying man who gave instructions regarding his burial and disclosed the location of a buried treasure.

The identity of the mysterious man was never disclosed at the end of the chapter. 

Basilio went away. The unknown turned his face to the East and whispered as if in a prayer: 'Nothing will remain of me...I die without seeing the sun rise on my country. You who are to see the dawn, welcome it, and do not forget those who fell during the night!'

He raised his eyes to the sky, his lips moved as if to say a prayer, then he lowered his head and fell slowly to the ground...

Maria Clara and Leonor Rivera: A Foreshadowing

Many historians had attributed the character of Maria Clara to Rizal's sweetheart, Leonor Rivera. There are several parallelisms that can be made between Ibarra and Maria Clara's relationship to Rizal's own experiences with Rivera. Rizal and Leonor had a long-distance relationship and corresponded earnestly all throughout. 

But everything changed when the Noli was published. Rizal was tagged as a "Filibuster" and "Subversive" by the Spanish Government in the Philippines. And so, any association with him would be dangerous. He was able to come home to Manila in 1887 but wasn't able to see Leonor. After a year or so, all correspondence between them ended. Leonor Rivera married an Englishman named Henry Kipping and had a son with him. Unfortunately, in 1892, she died in childbirth.

When Crisostomo was imprisoned, Father Damaso persuaded Capitan Tiago to marry off Maria Clara to Linares. The sweethearts had a tearful farewell when Crisostomo was able to escape from the authorities. But upon the news of Ibarra's death, Maria Clara decided to enter the Nunnery instead of being forced to marry Linares. She was able to convince Padre Damaso to allow her to do this or else she would take her own life. 

Leonor Rivera


Rizal wrote about rape, deception, prostitution, suicide, and murder which were Taboo subjects in 19th Century Philippines. 

One of the turning points of the novel was when Ibarra was accused of starting a mutiny. His enemies carefully planted a trail of false evidence that led to him. The most damning of all were letters of instruction bearing his signature. When confronted by these, Ibarra realized that his forged signature was the one that he used when he was younger. He knew right away who could have betrayed him.

During their farewell scene in an Azotea, Maria Clara explained that she exchanged Crisostomo's love letters for her mother in order to protect Kapitan Tiago from the awful truth of her parentage. 

In reading Chapter 51, The Story of Elias, one would wonder how one family could be destined to suffer the indignities of society. His grandfather and sister committed suicide. His grandmother turned to prostitution in order to keep her family alive. 

Crispin, Sisa's younger son, was murdered by the Sacristan Mayor.

Both Maria Clara and her mother were victims of sexual assault by Spanish friars. Maria Clara's fate was implied in the Epilogue.


I hope someday we would see the Noli Me Tangere as a work of literary fiction along the line of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables or Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. The world of literature reveres Hugo and his novel. It was even made into a highly-successful musical. Why not Rizal's? It has the potential to be a worldwide success as well.

All About Jose Rizal books

Additional Bibliographies

If you would like to read more about Jose Rizal, you might want to check the following books:

Ambeth Ocampo 
Rizal without the Overcoat
Meaning and History
Rizal's Teeth and Bonifacio's Bones

Leon Ma. Guerrero 
The First Filipino: A Biography of Jose Rizal

Gregorio F. Zaide
José Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero

Austin Coates
Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr

Asuncion Lopez Bantug
Lolo Jose: An Intimate and Illustrated Portrait of Jose Rizal

Asuncion Lopez-Rizal Bantug
Sylvia Mendez Ventura
Indio Bravo: The Story of Jose Rizal

Rizal Documentaries:

History Channel Asia 
Jose Rizal: The First Hero

I-Witness, GMA Documentaries

Ang Mahiwagang Ngiti ni Rizal
Pluma: Si Rizal, ang dakilang manunulat
Piging para kay Pepe
Mga Lihim ng Pamilyang Rizal
Little Bad Boy


National Museum of Fine Arts: 28 Paintings of Noli Me Tangere


I love your post. Truly, Rizal wrote two masterpieces. I read them again and again when I was a kid until I was in high school. After reading your post, I am going to get me copies again. These are really excellent books that mattered in Rizal's time, and it still does today. After all, the cancer of the society remains.

It occurred to me too. Yes, 333 years of Spanish rule and Filipinos cannot speak Spanish, there is a very good reason for that. Being regionalistic, one of the reasons why revolts keep failing is that the people in different provinces never really got united. One thing that could unite a nation is ... a national language. :)
A very fascinating post , as I am actually a lover of historical write-ups and books .But this is all so far away from here ,I don't think I have ever heard of the author. I have read a lot about the Spanish history and the conquistadors during the medieval days . I was always wondering why you in your language use so many Spanish words , now I know :) The Spaniards have been along , not the nicest guys in these days !
Marjorie said…
This is such a long albeit interesting and informative piece. I am a fan of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, I consider as two of the best books that were ever published and learning them in school were one of the highlights of my highshool life. It's interesting to learn more about it especially about the author, Rizal. I didn't even know this was supposed to be a collaboration, good thing Rizal decided to push through with it.
Unknown said…
It's hard for me to rely to this. I never read books, but your review is very good. Rizal is someone I havent even heard of before. I must start to read, because this is probably really bad haha. Spanish is a beautiful language that more people should master, but it shows that Filipinos maybe would like to stay Filipino! And not talk Spanish.
Claire Algarme said…
I remember when we studied Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in high school. But that was years ago and I think I need to reread the book. The one we read was in Filipino. I would be interested to read the Spanish version, too. I had Spanish subjects during college in UP and I also took a class at Instituto Cervantes Manila.
Charm Gamboa said…
This one of the reasons why I attend my Filipino class in highschool, I love that a story uncovers the reality of our history. But not all people appreciates this story as they don't really read it by heart and you know understanding what it really is saying. Our Jose Rizal is such a smart person and truly patriotic to write this book and the others like El Filibusterismo.
Mr. X said…
That's so interesting ! I'll be honest saying that I didn't know Rizal until now. But they way you talk about him and Noli Me Tangere already piqued my interest, but specially that you say it has similarities with Les Miserables. I'm French and I'm very interested to read this one and then kind of compare them. Probably it would have been great to write in French as well, specially as you say, it was the right period. Since we have already many famous writers for this time, it's probably the reason why I havn't heard about him at school
Thanks everyone for your interest as well as your observations. I do hope everyone gets a chance to read the book. Its worth it.
Nimisha Popat said…
I had the two masterpieces by Rizal and I loved reading it. Your post made me nostalgic. Somehow I have forgotten about this chapter of my life !!!
Master Ryo said…
Patriotic! As a Filipino, I never have dig that much history as like you do Margaux. As a matter of fact, I just knew about the missing chapter of Elias and Salome after reading your post. Thank you for compiling this very meaningful information , I hope history teachers would mind using this post as reference .

BTW, I agree with your thought of ranking this work of art along side with the worlds best.

Ma.Me.Mi.Mommy said…
Wow! I don't know of anyone who found reading the 2 mandatory books interesting enough to read it in their own time. We just took it as something we had to do. I'm wanting to read it again now though after your post. Haha
What an awesome read. I look up to rizal. He is the epitome of greatness. It's amazing how his books greatly influenced huge social changes knowing that majority of Filipinos during his time couldn't read Spanish.
Anonymous said…
I enjoyed reading your blogs.

Until now I still curse that Padre Salvi and Padre Damaso will rot in hell for eternity. Noli and El Fili is my favorite subject in HS and college. Up until now I love reading Philippine History and it is true that if one would re-read Rizal's two novels, would still see the characters in our society today.

Anonymous said…
I do love your post about this book. Way back when I was in highschool, I acted to be the director of this novel when our teacher asked us to present this one in the class.Yes, I personally bought my own copy of that comic you mentioned from the National Bookstore and while I was reading this,it made me questioned if we were really conquered by the Spanish for 333 years and how come we didn't learn much about their language. I was deeply touched of how was the Filipino life before. By the way, I also read about the love story of Jose Rizal and Leonor Rivera and can't help comparing it to the book turned into a movie "The Notebook." I think Nicholas Sparks got inspired by Rizal and Leonor's love story.