Noli Me Tángere, known in English as Touch Me Not (a literal translation of the Latin title) or The Social Cancer, is often considered the greatest novel of the Philippines, along with its sequel, El filibusterismo. It was originally written in Spanish but is more often read in either Tagalog or English in classrooms today. After reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which influenced many white Americans to oppose slavery, Rizal wanted to write a similar novel about Philippine society.
Ibarra, the hero of the novel, is a mestizo, a term generally used throughout the Spanish-speaking world to describe people of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage. In the Philippines, the term specifically refers to people of Filipino and other, typically Spanish or sometimes Chinese, descent. (Rizal himself had Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino heritage.)
Finished in 1887, the novel was quickly banned by Spanish authorities in the Philippines, but it was smuggled into the country often. In the more-than-a-century since its original publication, Noli Me Tángere has become a classic. In 1956, the Philippines’ Congress passed a law known as the Rizal Law, which requires all schools in the Philippines to teach the novel.
The title is the Latin translation of a phrase spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, according to the Book of John. Swiss theologian Maurice Zundel linked this moment to the disciple Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas, reaching out to touch Jesus’s wounds and being told that "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Through this declaration, Jesus emphasizes the importance of believing in his resurrection without tangible, physical proof. In medieval times, the phrase was used in medicine to refer to “hidden cancers” that worsened when swellings associated with them were handled; similarly, the central subject of Rizal’s book can be understood as a hidden cancer that people were too afraid to touch.