The novel begins by introducing Don Santiago de los Santos, generally referred to as Captain Tiago, who is hosting a dinner party. The reader learns that Captain Tiago lives in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. (Manila was officially founded by the Spanish in 1571, but settlements in the area date back to the 13th century.) The dinner is hosted in “quite a large structure,” suggesting that Captain Tiago is wealthy. Rizal writes that “if it were up to me, I would spare you a description of the house, but it is too important,” describing it as luxurious and opulent, decorated with paintings of both religious and bucolic scenes, large mirrors, and elaborate chandeliers. Rizal also notes that despite its lavishness, the furniture is uncomfortable, writing that “the owner of the house would never put his guests’ health before luxury.” At the table, the men and women are separated as in a Catholic church, underscoring the importance of religion. Both Filipinos and Spaniards are in attendance—note that the term “Spaniard” refers to anyone of Spanish heritage, regardless of where they were born, while Filipinos are of indigenous descent. (Father Dámaso notes that Captain Tiago himself has indigenous heritage but “doesn’t think of himself as indio.”)
Rizal draws the reader’s attention to a group of men comprised of two friars, a soldier, and two laymen. The soldier, Lieutenant Guevarra, is characterized as quiet and a brusque speaker; the Dominican friar, Father Sibyla, as handsome, young, and serious; and the Franciscan friar, Father Dámaso, as lively and talkative. One civilian has black hair; the other is blond and young and talking with Dámaso. Dámaso dominates the conversation, interrupting his companion and raising his voice. They are talking about the subject of ministerial reforms, which turns into a debate about the nature of “indios,” a derogatory term for indigenous Filipinos. Father Dámaso, who has previously worked in smaller towns in the Philippines, holds racist views and believes that Filipinos are by nature “incredibly lazy,” while the blond man argues that calling them lazy is simply a way to excuse the “backwardness” of the Philippines by blaming its indigenous inhabitants rather than its colonizers. Father Dámaso goes on to characterize Filipinos are “vicious” and “ungrateful,” which the blond man objects to, stating that they are in the house of an “indio,” Captain Tiago. Dámaso argues that the blond man simply isn’t familar enough with the Philippines to understand its native people, revealing that the man has only been there for a few days.
Father Sibyla (“the Dominican”) becomes involved in the conversation, revealing that he also left a town where he served as a priest, but felt that he had to leave the position both for the good of the community and the good of himself, which angers Father Dámaso, who pounds on the arm of his chair and exclaims that “Either there is religion or there isn’t, and that’s that, either priests are free or they aren’t! The country is being lost… it is lost!” Father Dámaso also laments the support he believes the government provides “heretics” against the priests.
Part of the debate is about the burying of “heretics” in Catholic cemeteries. Father Dámaso feels that the priest has supreme authority and that even the Spanish king has no right to intervene or punish the priest for doing so. The soldier illuminates the situation further, explaining that a distinguished man accused of committing suicide was buried while Father Dámaso was away and defending the man, saying he was too honorable to commit suicide, which is viewed as a mortal sin by Catholic doctrine. The group eventually returns to its former peace, and two more guests, Doctor de Espadaña, who is Spanish and disabled, and his wife Doña Victorina, who is Filipina, and are greeted.
As chapter 2 begins, Captain Tiago arrives with a young friend, Crisóstomo Ibarra, the son of a deceased friend who has just arrived from Europe. Ibarra is described as tall and, like Captain Tiago, he is of mixed Spanish and Filipino descent. Ibarra greets Father Dámaso as his village priest and “a close friend of my father’s,” but Father Dámaso denies that he was friends with his father, shocking Ibarra. Lieutenant Guevara reveals that Ibarra is the son of Don Rafael Ibarra, who he characterizes as deeply honorable. Ibarra states that he has been away from the Philippines, his home country, for seven years and introduces himself as Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra y Magsalin.
Though he is hosting the party, Captain Tiago doesn’t sit down or eat, according to social customs. He states that the party is in honor of Ibarra’s arrival and urges him to instead take the last seat. Ibarra reveals that he spent the last two years in Germany and Poland, where he was unreachable by telegram, and does not know how or when his father died. He is fluent in multiple languages, including English, and did not use Spanish much while abroad, except while in Spain. Ibarra states that in Europe, he learned that every country’s prosperity, or lack thereof, is proportionate to its freedoms and the sacrifices of its ancestors, which Father Dámaso dismisses as something that even a schoolboy knows. Ibarra is polite in response but announces that he is leaving soon after, though Captain Tiago wants him to stay longer to see his fiancée, Captain Tiago’s daughter María Clara. Once he leaves, the blond man says that people like Ibarra “can’t stand to be set to rights by the priest,” and says that he believes the government shouldn’t allow young people to travel to Europe.
In chapter 4, the narrative returns to Ibarra, who is walking through the city when Lieutenant Guevara finds him and tells him what happened to his father: he died in jail, which astonishes Ibarra, who is reluctant to believe that his father was a prisoner. “In the Philippines you are not considered to be honorable unless you have been to jail,” Lieutenant Guevara responds, explaining that the elder Ibarra was very wealthy and had many enemies among the priests and the Spanish. Father Dámaso then accused Rafael Ibarra of not going to confession, which was true, but the men had previously been friends. (Rafael Ibarra felt it was wrong to believe that God would pardon a crime simply because it was confessed if true repentance did not occur, so he followed his own moral compass.) He was then imprisoned for inadvertently killing a tax collector who beat up a young boy, at which point all of his enemies began slandering him as a “heretic” and “subversive,” two very serious accusations. Though Lieutenant Guevara tried to help Ibarra’s father by appealing the case, Ibarra’s father died in prison before he could be exonerated.
From the start of the novel, the significant role of priests in the community is clear. Multiple clergymen are present at the dinner full of prominent people, and Father Dámaso dominates the conversation. Furthermore, Father Dámaso is openly prejudiced against indigenous Filipinos, indicating a disconnect between him (and perhaps the church as a whole) and the people who make up the majority of the country’s population. Rizal also portrays Father Dámaso as ignorant, not caring to learn Tagalog (the Filipino language) despite spending two decades living in small communities in the Philippines. The foreigner who argues with him is never named, but he provides a powerful counterpoint to Father Dámaso’s views, pointing out that the backwardness of the Philippines could also be blamed on the Spanish. He doesn’t challenge the idea that the Philippines are backward, however—he just blames it on something else.
Father Dámaso is so confident in the church’s power that he argues the government should not be able to interfere with its affairs, which is illustrated by his viewpoint on the cemetery matter. The lieutenant—who is employed by the government—disagrees strongly, providing the first example of the tension between the Catholic clergy and the government, one of the novel’s central conflicts.
It is not immediately clear why Father Dámaso greets Ibarra so coolly, considering that Ibarra believes they have a friendly relationship. In contrast, the lieutenant greets Ibarra affectionately, which hints that the conflict between Ibarra and Father Dámaso has to do with the earlier debate and aligns Ibarra with the government against the church, though he does not yet realize his position. Indeed, Ibarra is a controversial figure at the dinner for reasons neither he nor the reader yet understand. Father Dámaso furthers the tension between him and Ibarra when he scoffs at the education Ibarra has obtained, which indicates his lack of concern for education as a whole, something that will be relevant later in the novel. Yet the blond man’s belief that Filipinos would be better off if they never visited Europe shows that Ibarra’s education has, in fact, had a powerful impact on him, giving him a new perspective on life at home. The blond man wants Filipinos to remain submissive, which their isolation in the Philippines encourages.
Lieutenant Guevara’s story about Ibarra’s father illuminates the systems of power and hierarchy in Philippine society. The church exerts a powerful influence: Don Rafael Ibarra’s refusal to attend confession makes him socially isolated and indirectly leads to his death, and being slandered as a “heretic” increases his punishment. Furthermore, social status and ethnic background are both very important, and inextricably tied together. When Don Rafael kills a Spanish tax collector, it’s an especially serious crime.