Episode 27: Reflections on MAria Clara


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            Hello everyone! Kumusta ka! Welcome to today’s episode. One in which I continue my exploration of José Rizal’s very important novel Noli Me Tangere. And we’re getting into spoilers now. Yes, the novel was originally published in 1887, so I agree we are probably way passed the window of spoilerability. And maybe you think classic novels shouldn’t be in that spoilable category at all because isn’t the point of novels like that for them to be absorbed into the popular consciousness?

            Well, it’s a good thing is I don’t have to debate that. This is a podcast. You can pause it and go back to read it if you don’t want spoilers, and if you do or you don’t care or it’s not relevant, you can just continue listening. Power’s in your hands. It’s whatever works for you. The new media age gives you plenty of options

            (Pause.) And if you’re still around or if you’re still debating it. Let me explain what I’m going to be talking about this episode.

            Of all the characters of Noli Me Tangere, one in particular stuck with me. Partially because of circumstances and the way this character is presented, but the initial impact fell away and still there was plenty more to hold onto. And all of this is relevant to both my relationship to this novel and what this novel has come to represent. And by the way, if you enjoy this episode or this approach to media, you could always check out one of my other podcasts Miscellany Media Reviews. This is just how my brain operates, and I made an outlet for it.

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            The character in question is María Clara de los Santos. You can also just think of her as María Clara. She is the fiancée of the novel’s protagonist, but if you’ve listened to my other Rizal episodes, you’ll know that many people believe that María Clara was modelled after Leonor Rivera. Now, while Rizal might have been known as a bit of a playboy, Rivera was his tragic love, of sorts. She’s pretty significant to his life, anyway. They met in a family gathering, potentially experiencing a love at first sight moment. But despite his relative youth, Rizal was already being seen as a… contrarian in many regards. He was pushing social boundaries with the Spanish of all people, which made Rivera’s parents very nervous. Understandably so, you could say. When you consider how his story ends, obviously her parents would have reason for their interference. It doesn’t make it justifiable; it just makes it understandable.

            When Rizal was in Europe, Rivera’s parents arranged for her to marry a more proper man, a noble man, a man of class and traditional values. Regardless of whether or not the marriage was actually happy, she died in childbirth a short time later. Tragic but also tragically common at the time. And quite obviously, Rizal was said to have been heartbroken to have everything fall apart like that. To have his love taken from him in so many different ways and in the only way that actually mattered, you could say.

            It could be said that María Clara was his attempt at memorializing her in a way that ties their legacies together. Almost like the marriage could have had that ever happened. A lot of people say that. Even I said that when I made that first episode, but now, I’m not entirely sure. Yes, that might have been Rizal’s intention, but this novel has taken on such a status that it’s harder to see what Rizal meant in the face of his own creation.

            That isn’t to say that none of that exaggeration has been justified. I think it was inevitable when you consider the powder keg that was the circumstances. This novel was always destined to be larger than life, larger than the life of the author. It’s incredibly easy to see why people think that or how we got there.  

            And if you were me, where to take it from there. Rizal positioned Maria Clara to be the ideal Filipino woman, which was interesting to me as a concept as a Filipino woman raised abroad and trying to navigate her way home and understand this aspect of her identity. It’s not that I expected a blueprint of how I need to be and act or what was expected of me, but that I thought this was a short of starting point for me. Which wasn’t entirely wrong. And given the context of this rather iconic novel, it was a completely reasonable thing to think. It seemed like a particularly important point in this process. And I wasn’t wrong, but it’s the road that came after isn’t one anticipated, at all.

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            María Clara takes on this important position in the novel, not just as the protagonist’s love interest but as a model for the feminine side of the Filipino spirit. Remember, this book is about the corruption of the colonial government and the way those sins harmed and stifled the Filipino spirit. Part of this process was exulting the positive qualities of Filipinos, which he does in a variety of ways, but for now, it’s important to note this particularly aspect.

            In many ways, María Clara as a literary device takes on the responsibility of depicting the virtues of a Filipina and her relationship with the man she gives her life to. It’s no small task.

            Now, there’s another part of this. Namely, the supposed inspiration. It’s hard to say which came first the chicken or the egg, just like it’s hard to say whether Rizal thought María Clara was the model of the ideal Filipino woman because she was based off of Rivera or if the foundation of River is what made María Clara the ideal Filipino woman.

            It may seem like splitting hairs to say that because what does it matter? Everything about Rizal’s legacy has gone awry. And it’s about the legend more than anything else. And to that, I say, you’re not wrong, but it is an interesting thought.

            You see, María Clara could become an even important character. The trials and tribulations she suffers in the novel have far reaching ramification for the people reading this book who are drawing their own perils between everything in the text and their own lives. In that sense, María Clara’s narrative arc actually mimics the arc Rizal seems to be proposing or the one that actually resulted. And I do wondered how much was intentional or if there’s a universality to the tale he ended up telling.

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            Now, María Clara’s beauty is apparent. In Chapter Six, she’s described as having these beautiful large, dark eyes with long lashes, fine skin, a well-shaped nose and two dimples on her cheeks. And as for her personality, she’s always been joyful, playful, kind, considerate, and devoted to her partner, to the point that his trials and their impending separation leaves her incredibly ill at one point.

            She’s beautiful and good hearted, but her story is far from as forgiving as she is.

            She was raised as the daughter of Captain Tiyago de los Santos and Doña Pía Alba, who are both native Filipinos. Doña Pía died in childbirth and one of the captain’s cousins took on the maternal role in María Clara’s life.

            She is educated in a convent, so in many ways, her character and femininity, as Rizal might have said given the time period, was cultivated within Catholicism but also somewhat out of the corrupted clerical government Rizal was so critical of. That statement probably should be fleshed out better, but it’s hard to explain exactly why I got that perception. But the convent, as all are, exists in a somewhat sheltered environment, and while it isn’t fully self-governed, it is left to its own devises in day to day matters. I also think it’s telling that Rizal described her back-up plan as returning to the convent. And given so many of his other beliefs—and his repeatedly mentioned desire for reform and not revolution—it isn’t hard to think that Rizal saw cloistered religious life as still retaining some sanctity, some holiness, or as not being the same farce the priests in Noli Me Tangere clearly are.

            It’s also likely worth saying that given, all the variables of that time period, Rizal likely would still have been rooted into his Catholic faith with no real conceptualization of what an alternative might be. This idea kind of falls apart when you realize that he was in Europe in a post-Reformation age, but in terms of doctrine, Rizal clearly seems able to separate church authority and church creed. He condemns priests and friars who abuse the power secular authorities gave to them or made possible for them to seize. I’d be interested to know if this distinction is more clear in some of his other works, which is foreshadowing other episodes of this podcast. But that’s to be discussed then and not now.

Also here’s where we have to get into spoilers. So last chance. Ready? Ready?

            Okay. To be blunt, later in the novel, María Clara finds out that Padre Dámaso, priest and the former curate of the town of San Diego and enemy of the protagonist’s, her betrothed’s father, forced himself onto Doña Pia and actually fathered María Clara. This and a few other events give Dámaso paternal authority over María Clara, allowing him to stand in the way of her marrying her beloved who, let me remind you, is the son of a man Damaso hated, and it also doesn’t help that this young man won’t bow down to Dámaso’s authority either.

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            Now, here’s where things get a bit less tragic and a bit more interesting. If she can’t have her beloved like her surprise father is saying, María Clara wants to go to a convent instead of marrying another man, no matter the circumstances. It doesn’t matter if her beloved is distant or dead, she knows what she to do, which is not marrying anyone else. And this reveals her character arc, or what little she is given. It’s worth saying that this wasn’t a time in history that was famous for women having a great deal of personal autonomy.


            Basically, María Clara starts off with an idyllic life, which is taken from her when she finds out that she was borne from an act of violence, then has to process that information and all the ramifications therein, and finally make her choice according to her values. And every time she stands resolute it’s painted in a favorable light.

            Rizal clearly exults her love and devotion. That it doesn’t matter what her beloved is accused of or goes through, she prioritizes the love they had and any promises implicit or otherwise that were made between them. And from a personal perspective, I do think devotion is a key trait to the entire Filipino culture and mindset. I’ve always been struck by just how bonded my extended family is to each other. We face challenges together, no matter what they are. And no matter what happens, we always come together at the end of the day or when something happens.

            And, yes, devotion is a virtue but an interesting one. It is the ability to remain steadfast, to be predictable, reliable, to keep promises and vows. And those are all good things. Those are all to be exulted. But it’s also the sort of virtue that—if poorly directed—could result in your destruction. Because there is a time to let go, and you have to be ready to follow through on that part.

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            Just to pull out my classic “death of the author” card that lets me make arguments about the meaning of a work with no regard to what the author might have intended. Because what I’m about to say really isn’t just that well-founded in the text or in anything I’ve read about this book. In fact, I was hesitant to even put it in the script, but I really couldn’t move on from this point, so I’m going to pull out this card, and I’m going to do it.

            It many ways, though, Maria Clara’s journey is a mirror of what the Filipino people must go through or must do according to Rizal. And this is where I might lose you. Yes, the Philippines had a history before the Spanish, but colonialism dramatically changed the lives of the Filipino people, to the point that it was almost like a new start. Not a great one. It was a start that was born from violence, even if a charade could have been maintained—intention of that aside. Ultimately though, the violent force can end up seizing or maintaining control, and while it can try to dictate the future, the people can choice to reject it and keep their loyalty to the things they profess to love, like each other, their culture, or their more authentic relationship with God.

            It might not have been Rizal’s intention, but one of the takeaways from María Clara’s story might have been what could be done next or what needed to be done moving forward and not just what a good Filipino woman is

            But admittedly, that’s just my two cents. I want to go more into the actual text next time, and then I think that will be it for Rizal for a little bit. We can always go back to him later, but I think I want mix it up some more. Because I want to do some legends and folktales and maybe even a profile on another famous Filipino. We’ll see exactly what I do, but I have a lot of ideas.

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