Did Rizal copy characters from a Spanish novel for his Noli?

January 3, 2022

Most likely, he did.

This speculation has been around for a while, but I hadn’t looked into it until I read Jorge Mojarro’s article in the Manila Times last year.

Benito Pérez Galdós, a renowned Spanish writer, was Rizal’s contemporary. The two are not known to have met. What we can safely deduce is that Rizal was familiar with the Spanish writer’s work. 

Rizal was in Spain when Galdós was at the peak of his popularity. Both writers had progressive political and anti-clerical views. 

The book that is said to have inspired Rizal’s main characters in Noli Me Tangere is Galdós’ Doña Perfecta.

Retrato de Benito Pérez Galdós (Wikipedia Commons)


Here are some similarities between the novels of Rizal and Galdós:

In the same vein as Noli, Doña dealt with social analysis. It presented the social problems of its day. Works of this kind aim to influence change.

Jose “Pepe” Rey is the main character of Doña. Which we can liken to Crisostomo Ibarra. Both were educated at universities in Europe and were progressive thinkers, outspoken and men of science.

Orbajosa is a religiously led and backward town in Galdós novel. Noli has a similar fictional town. Both Ibarra and Pepe Rey were returning to the hometown of their fathers.

Padre Inocencio is an influential priest of the same stature and influence as Padre Damaso in Noli. In their towns, both priests wield tremendous influence.

Rosario, the woman Pepe would marry has the qualities of Rizal’s Maria Clara.

Pepe Rey’s presence was disliked by Padre Inocencio because he considered him a non-believer. The local priest has the same problems with Noli’s Ibarra.

Two different novelas

Even though Noli has obvious elements borrowed from Doña, Rizal has adapted his novel to better suit Philippine conditions. They are really two distinct stories.

Both novels differ in too many ways. Among them is the fact that Pepe Rey’s father, a prominent lawyer, has never been wronged. While Ibarra’s father died in prison due to unjust accusations.

Ibarra and his love interest are not related by blood but she is Padre Damaso’s biological daughter. While Doña’s lead female character, Rosario, isn’t related to Father Inocencio. She was first cousin to Pepe Rey.

Rizal also has exceptional characters in Noli, such as Sisa and his sons, which don’t exist in Doña.

While one could argue that Rizal lifted content from Galdós, Noli has a unique style (a mix of melodrama and satire) and direction that makes it different from Doña.

What is the importance of linking the two novels anyway?

There are two novels credited with inspiring Rizal’s Noli. The Wandering Jew and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

For Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it was an assertion made by an American historian in the early 1900s. 

Perhaps this myth has its origins in the narrative, during the early stages of the American occupation, that the gift of such knowledge and benevolence could only have come from them.

This misinformed historical anecdote persists to this day. As this New York Times article reports, “Rizal… was inspired by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to write about the inequities in Filipino society.”

Rizal and his paisanos did discuss having an Uncle Tom’s Cabin-style story written, but this was dropped. He then wrote independently.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It is fairly certain that Noli, the greatest Filipino novel of the 19th century, was largely influenced by a Spanish novel, not American.

While numerous books in Noli might have inspired Rizal, it is Doña that have significantly shaped his novel. Ironically, most of us have never heard of it.

Nowhere in any of our Rizal studies is Galdós mentioned. I believe we ought to acknowledge his influence.

Noli has, after all, played an immense role in shaping our history.

Lifted characters?

Rizal clearly copied characters from Galdós. Is he a plagiarist?

I can only say, that he is human like you and me and that he too finds inspiration in others, especially in people he admired.

In the famous words of Mark Twain, “there is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We merely combine old ideas in a mental kaleidoscope…”

To quote the Spanish columnist Jorge Mojarro, “The fact that Rizal found inspiration in many books is not an accusation of a lack of originality, not at all, but an acknowledgment of his creative impetus.”

I share the same view. 

Blogger’s notes:

Galdós’ “Doña Perfecta” (Spanish ver.) is free to download in Kindle. See it here. Surely there is an English version online somewhere, I just couldn’t find it.

If you prefer to read Noli in English, my advice is to read Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s translation. It is the closest to Rizal’s original Spanish text.

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