One of the primary ways characters in Noli Me Tangere are disempowered is through isolation: political isolation, religious isolation, or intellectual isolation. Politically, all of the characters are isolated from Spain, the governing body that controls the Philippines. While the friars take advantage of this remoteness, the townspeople suffer. Religiously, any character who disagrees with Catholic doctrine is isolated and labeled a heretic. This religious seclusion is often related to intellectual isolation, which characters like Tasio experience when they openly voice an affinity for alternative ideas, such as those promoted by philosophy or logical reasoning. For Tasio, intellectual isolation almost seems liberating, since he embraces his status as a supposed “madman” and is therefore free to think whatever he wants. However, Rizal ultimately implies that estrangement and the loss of community most often lead to disenfranchisement and woe.
The most obvious form of isolation in the novel has to do with colonialism. First and foremost, this type of isolation is a geographic reality, since the Philippines is an island chain in Southeast Asia, while Spain—its colonial overlord—is in Europe. The fact that Spain colonized and controls the Philippines means that the friars and government officials who travel from Madrid and other Spanish cities are significantly removed from what they refer to as the “homeland.” Unfortunately, as Tasio points out, this means that the Spaniards in the Philippines have an inordinate amount of control. Since their government is so remote, they can manipulate with impunity rules and policies passed down from Spain. This confirms the notion that geographic isolation easily turns into a form of political isolation that benefits the friars. Furthermore, as Tasio points out, the friars find a way to use their political isolation to their advantage even when somebody influential bothers to make a trip to the Philippines from Spain. On these rare occasions, the friars tell the Spanish visitor that, because he is so unfamiliar with the Philippines, it would be best to trust the priests who have power over the population. Therefore, the region’s top authorities are able to use their own remoteness to their advantage as a way of holding onto their influence.
Another type of isolation that disempowers the Filipino characters of Noli Me Tangere is religious isolation. The threat of excommunication hangs heavily over the town, since banishment from the church leads to social and even economic estrangement. Furthermore, despite the fact that the friars are supposedly in the Philippines to spread religion, they often keep the townspeople from fully integrating into Spain’s Catholic tradition. Harold Augenbraum makes this clear in his introduction to Noli Me Tangere when he notes that “in 1817, only 171 of the 782 parishes in the Philippines were led by native or mestizo priests.” This exclusion of Filipinos is in keeping with Father Dámaso’s insistence that the schoolmaster not speak in or teach Spanish, instead telling him to use Tagalog, the country’s native language. Whereas the friars are able to use their geographic isolation to their advantage, they keep the townspeople from integrating into Spanish life, which leaves them without access to institutional power. In other words, the friars allow the citizens to participate in the church, but only insofar as the church benefits monetarily from the community involvement. Consequently, friars isolate Filipinos in their own country as a way of ensuring the strength and power of the church.
As an intellectual who believes in reason rather than religion, Tasio experiences intellectual isolation, since everybody calls him a “madman” due to his secular viewpoints. However, at the same time, he is perhaps the novel’s only character who seems to feel liberated by isolation. This is because he sees his own estrangement as license to live unencumbered by outside perceptions. He takes comfort in the fact that the people he disagrees with think he’s crazy; “the day on which they restore my reason is the day they deprive me of the small bit of freedom I’ve purchased at the price of a reputation as a sane person,” he tells Ibarra, meaning that he feels somewhat liberated as a result of being ostracized for his ideas. “I neither think nor live according to their laws,” he says. “My principles, my ideals, are different.” It’s worth noting that the difference between Tasio’s isolation and the other townspeople’s isolation is that his is willful. He is intellectually isolated because he chooses not to partake in the society’s customs. As a result, he exercises his own personal agency within an otherwise oppressive context. And instead of lamenting that his ideas have estranged him from his own culture, he celebrates his ability to disagree with the church.
While Tasio’s intellectual isolation may seem liberating, Rizal tacitly condemns embracing this kind of private existence. This is made clear when Tasio dies alone, having perished “on the very threshold of his solitary refuge.” The phrase “solitary refuge” emphasizes the old man’s isolation, and because the sentence containing these words tells readers of Tasio’s death, Rizal subtly implies a connection between his sad demise and his “solitary” ways. If Ibarra and Elías each represent two ways of dealing with oppression (working to improve the system from within or striving to overthrow the system completely), Tasio represents a third: a retreat into the intellect. This, Rizal suggests, is a futile and defeatist way to deal with the country’s problems. A more effective way of addressing oppression, then, is to establish strong communities capable of collective political action. Although the characters in Noli Me Tangere never accomplish this, they come close to doing so when they build the school, which is a project that brings together the town’s secular minds and even gains support from high-ranking likeminded government officials like the Captain General. Furthermore, if Ibarra had more people like Elías on his side—people looking out for him and trying to protect him from the friars’ evil schemes—it is quite possible he and his group of forward-thinking citizens would have been able to effect meaningful change.
Isolation Quotes in Noli Me Tangere
But the poor and indigent, who barely earn enough to sustain life and who must bribe bureaucrats, clerks, and soldiers to leave them in peace, they do not sleep with the tranquility described by courtly poets who have never felt the loving hand of poverty. The poor are sad and pensive. Tonight, if they have prayed a little, they have made many requests, with pain in their eyes and tears in their hearts. They have no novenas, nor do they know the jaculatory prayers or the verses or the oremus the friars have composed to prevent them from developing their own ideas or their own emotions, nor do they understand them. They pray in the language of their misery. […] You who blessed the poor, and you, shadows in torment, will the simple prayer of the poor make you happy […]? Or do you long for tapers placed before bloody images of Christ or small-mouthed Virgins with glass eyes, or with a priest’s mechanical droning of the mass in Latin? And you, your religion created for a suffering multitude, have you forgotten your mission of consoling the oppressed in their misery, and humbling the hubris of power, and now render promises only to the rich, those who can pay?
“You write in hieroglyphics? But why?” the young man asked, finding it hard to believe his eyes and ears.
“So that no one will understand what I’m writing.”
Ibarra looked him up and down, wondering if indeed the old man was crazy. He gave the book a quick examination to see if he was lying and saw well-drawn animals, circles, semicircles, flowers, feet, hands, arms, and other things.
“But why are you writing if you don’t want anyone to read it?”
“Because I’m not writing for this generation, I’m writing for the ages. If they could read these, I would burn my books, my life’s work. On the other hand, the generation that can decipher these characters will be an educated generation. It will understand me and say, ‘In the nights of our grandparents, not everyone was asleep.’ Mystery and these curious characters will save my work from the ignorance of men, just as mystery and strange rites have saved many truths from the destructive priest class.”
“Because sane people,” he went on with a bitter irony, “will think you are crazy, too. People believe that madness is when you don’t think as they do, which is why they take me for a madman. And I’m grateful for that, because, well, the day on which they restore my reason is the day they deprive me of the small bit of freedom I’ve purchased at the price of a reputation as a sane person. And who knows if they are right? I neither think nor live according to their laws. My principles, my ideals, are different. Among them the mayor enjoys a reputation as a sane individual, since he has not learned anything more than how to serve chocolate and suffer Father Dámaso’s ill humor.”
“The government, the government,” muttered the philosopher, lifting his eyes to the ceiling, “for all its enthusiastic desire to increase the benefit of this and the mother country, for all the generous spirit of the Catholic Monarchs that some functionary or other remembers and repeats to himself, the government neither sees, nor hears, nor judges any more than the priest or the mayor wants it to see, or to hear or to judge. The government is convinced that it relies on them, that if it maintains itself it is because of them, that if it lives, it is because they allow it to live, and the day it falters, it will fall like a puppet without a stick. The government is terrified of raising its hand against the people and the people of the forces of government. […]
A man who, like me, has spent his youth and maturity working for his own future and for that of his children, a man who has been at the beck and call of his superiors, who has carried out difficult tasks conscientiously, who has suffered his whole life in peace and in the possibility of tranquility, when this man, whose blood has been made cold by time, renounces at the brink of the grave his entire past and his entire future, it’s because he’s made the mature judgment that peacefulness neither exists nor is the supreme good. Why would I live out such miserable days in a foreign land? I had two sons and one daughter, a home, a fortune. I benefited from respect and esteem. But now I’m like a tree shorn of its limbs, a wandering fugitive, hunted like a wild animal in the forest, and everything that goes along with it. And why? Because a man undid my daughter, because her brothers demanded this man make restitution, and because the man’s station was above everyone else’s, with the title of God’s minister.