Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere Themes


Religion takes many forms in Noli Me Tángere. Most obviously, Catholicism is visible in the organized system of the church and its hierarchy. Yet even the clergy often do not truly believe in their religious ideals—Father Salví, for example, is lustful despite being a priest, and he seems to care about his position only because of the power it gives him. Similarly, the seemingly devout Captain Tiago actually cares little about religion except as a means of obtaining power, and he creates the image of being devout by paying others to pray for him. In reality, his belief system leans more towards polytheism, which is deeply contrary to Catholicism. Other figures, such as Elías and the elder Ibarra, hold strong Catholic convictions despite their opposition to the church and its demands. Rafael Ibarra opposes confession on an ethical level, while Elías is against the church hierarchy but believes strongly in God. Despite his loathing of the Spanish colonial system, Elías is grateful to the Spaniards for bringing Catholicism, which he views as the truth, to the Philippines, and indeed no character criticizes the Spanish for imposing their religion on others.


Struggles for power and abuses of power comprise the majority of the conflicts in Noli Me Tángere. Father Salví and the ensign each use the power that they have to try to eclipse the other’s authority—for example, the ensign creates a curfew so Father Salví can’t have mass at night. It is the ordinary townspeople, however, who are harmed in this fight for power—the utterly powerless young sextons are caught between the church’s demands that they stay at work late and the government’s demands that they not stay out past a certain hour at night. Abuses of power are also rampant: Rafael Ibarra was slandered as “heretic and subversive” and died in prison because his religious ideals differed from those of the organized church, and his body was later exhumed from the cemetery at Father Dámaso’s order. Similarly, the younger Ibarra is excommunicated because of Father Dámaso’s grudge against him, which costs him his engagement and his position in society. Throughout the novel, the church and the government fight for power as well.

Radicalism vs. incrementalism

Though both Ibarra and Elías are in favor of significant changes to Philippine society, they disagree about the best means to achieve these changes. Ibarra generally wants to work within existing systems, such as going through established channels and using diplomacy (such as manipulating officials into thinking he is complying with their suggestions regarding the school) to attain his goals, which tend to be less radical than Elías’s. In contrast, Elías favors a more extreme strategy, and he often points out that Ibarra’s generally happy, comfortable life allows him to have faith in the systems that have proved useless or worse to many other people. Yet as the novel progresses, Elías emerges as a more moderate figure in comparison to the truly radical Captain Pablo, who favors violent insurrection against the Spanish colonial regime. Elías fears that Philippine society is not yet ready for this sort of violence, though he does not necessarily oppose it on a philosophical level, and worries that it will hurt the very people he hopes to advocate for.


In Noli Me Tángere, education is portrayed as an important means of fighting oppression. Despite his mestizo heritage, Ibarra is able to become a prominent, respected member of the community because of the education he obtains in Europe, which allows him to create new opportunities for the next generation of Filipino youth by creating a school for them. Yet the power of education has limits. For example, the church prevents Filipinos from learning Spanish in school, which essentially prevents them from obtaining the most prestigious jobs in the colonial society. Furthermore, though he is highly educated, Tasio is ridiculed by most of society because his values and ideas differ from those of the norm. In addition, Rizal shows that the revolutionary potential of education is limited. Despite the education he has obtained, Ibarra is naive when it comes to understanding the extent of the oppression Filipinos face in colonial society, and he requires a great deal of informal education from his friend Elías before he can truly be proud to be a “subversive.”

Family and honor

Family is extremely important in Noli Me Tángere. After his father’s death, Ibarra must decide how best to honor his legacy, setting out to build a school that his father would have loved. When Ibarra is excommunicated, the Captain General advocates for him in part because he admires Ibarra’s desire to honor the memory of his father. Ibarra’s own family history is also closely intertwined with the history of San Diego more broadly. In addition, María Clara’s life is also shaped by her attempts to honor her parents, Captain Tiago and her late mother. She almost marries a man she does not love because she doesn’t want to cause a conflict with them, and ultimately she betrays Ibarra because she doesn’t want to dishonor her mother by revealing her mother’s affair with Father Dámaso, which she learns she is the product of. Elías is also motivated by his family’s history. He grows up wealthy, but when he is revealed to be the son of a poor but virtuous man, he is dishonored and loses everything, and his sister is soon killed. These experiences deeply influence Elías's decision to rebel against the Spanish regime in the Philippines.


Early in the novel, Ibarra declares that every country’s prosperity, or lack thereof, is proportionate to its freedoms and the sacrifices of its ancestors, an idea that Father Dámaso dismisses as obvious. Yet throughout Noli Me Tángere, Ibarra learns how to make such sacrifices so that the Philippines will one day be great and free. In the letter he sends María Clara before leaving for Europe, Ibarra quotes his father as telling him that he should “sacrifice today for a useful tomorrow,” both in his personal life (leaving María Clara to study) and more broadly, in a political sense. This line is ambiguous, but throughout the novel, Ibarra comes to realize his father’s dream, risking his life to improve the conditions of his community. Elías ultimately dies as a result of his fight for the Filipino people, and he emphasizes the importance of honoring the sacrifice of people like him to Basilio, urging him not to forget “those who fell during the nighttime,” before the sun could rise.


Throughout Noli Me Tángere, Ibarra’s allies, such as Elías and Tasio, point to his relative privilege as a wealthy man with Spanish (as well as Filipino) heritage in the colonial Philippines as an obstacle to him truly understanding the pain of the Filipino people. Indeed, Ibarra is reluctant to comprehend the extent of the corruption of the government and church, resolving to improve his people’s conditions by working through the system rather than against it. Yet privilege proves to be fleeting and fickle. For example, Elías loses all of his wealth and social status when it is revealed that he is in fact the son of a poor man. Similarly, after Ibarra is slandered as the leader of a rebellion, his former friends quickly cut ties with him and he is imprisoned for treason, events that recall the campaign of slander against his father, who had been in conflict with the town’s priest. Ultimately, this experience opens Ibarra’s eyes to the true extent of the corruption. Furthermore, Ibarra repeatedly shows himself to be open-minded, listening to the experiences of friends like Elías, who are less privileged, and taking their opinions into account. In this manner, Rizal illustrates that privilege can be insulating, but not completely so.


All the characters in Noli Me Tángere are physically isolated from the seat of the Spanish empire in Spain, living far away in the colonial Philippines. Because of this isolation, Spaniards are able to take advantage of the distance from Spain, manufacturing credentials that no one can check to verify. Filipinos, on the other hand, are disadvantaged by this isolation, as corruption runs rampant and they are forced to travel all the way to Europe to pursue education or further opportunities. (Author José Rizal himself was isolated in this manner, only able to write Noli Me Tángere in Europe and immediately finding himself persecuted upon his return to the Philippines.) Religious isolation also plays a major role in the novel. The elder Ibarra finds himself cut off from the rest of the community when Father Dámaso, his town’s priest, turns against him, and these events ultimately lead to his death, illustrating the profound consequences of this sort of isolation. Finally, the character of Tasio, who is perceived to be a madman, isolates himself from the rest of the San Diego community. While his isolation allows Tasio to pursue his free-thinking ideas, it also limits the impact he can have on the struggle for Philippine freedom—Tasio ultimately dies alone on the threshold of his lonely home, a sharp contrast to Elías’s heroic death for the country.


Over the course of the novel, Rizal shows revenge to be a deeply flawed source of motivation, though it can be an understandable one. Ibarra is frequently tempted to exercise revenge against Father Dámaso, who dishonored and indirectly killed his father, but he ultimately decides to redirect this energy towards fighting for his community, as his father would have wanted. Similarly, Elías is tempted to attack Ibarra when he learns that he is the descendant of the man who ruined the lives of Elías’s ancestors, but he too ultimately decides to let the conflict pass and fight for the future instead. In contrast, Társilo’s fate shows the futility of revenge—as he attempts to rebel to avenge his father’s death, he is caught and killed, showing that vengeance ultimately hurts those who seek it. Revenge is also shown to hurt people outside the conflict, such as the cycle of revenge between Father Salví and the Ensign, which destroys the lives of Sisa’s sons.