Monthly Archives: September 2012

Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and Dickens’ Oliver Twist: When history becomes literature and literature becomes history

Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and Dickens’ Oliver Twist: When history becomes literature and literature becomes history

I.                   INTRODUCTION

As a people make their mark in building a nation, they leave behind footprints that the future generation will study. Hence, History serves as an aggregate of the different studies man did since time immemorial. To degenerate it as a subject for memorization is to mock the legacy of those who helped build the nation. Humans have limited memory. They tend to remember what they value and forget the trivial things, however important it is.

Thus, to teach History is to integrate all of humanity’s achievement so that it provides a clear picture of the past. In this process, the historian relives the different actions and emotions of men in a particular historical era. To do this, he must associate a particular historical action to the students’ experience. The students will understand History if they can link their experiences to those of the past actors.

Since History is reliant on texts in gaining knowledge about man’s past, the historian may use literature to rediscover the record of man’s experiences and emotions. Literature builds and strengthens the memory of a people. The historian must use it as a springboard in making his students understand the society of a particular era. In so doing, History becomes a bit of Sociology, Economics, Political Science, Philosophy and Science—all rolled into one. Literature then shows man his history as History uses literature to build and strengthen the memory of men.

This paper seeks the unity of literature and history through three novels: Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. It aims to discover some parallelisms and analogies of London and Manila during the 19th century that Dickens and Rizal might have placed in their works. This paper also intends to discuss how the three novels transcend the study of literature alone. That is, how the novels can be a tool in linking the experiences of men in the past to the experiences of the readers in present.



a.      The agents and the structures they created in 19th century London [1]

Towards the end of the 17th century, humans used their senses to obtain knowledge, following Sir Francis Bacon’s idea that as all knowledge passes through the senses; a person gets information from the objects presented to him. This gave birth to the inductive method.

The main purpose of the inductive method is to increase knowledge. As such, it does not depend on the congruence of the universal to the particular. One’s concept of the object may be different from the object itself. Bacon’s induction opposed Aristotle’s deduction, which is using true statements (axioms) to prove other statements (theorem) as true.

Enlightened men used the inductive method as a way to understand nature. They observed, saw patterns and hypothesized before they reached a conclusion. In using the inductive method, these men paved way for the onset of the Scientific Revolution. The enlightened ones—or the scientists—used reason to solve the problems of their time. Inductive reasoning became the foundation of the scientific method: how scientists used mathematics to understand the world. Using mathematics, scientists produced machines that will help man in his daily life. Inventions prospered during this time called the Industrial Revolution.

This Revolution centered in Great Britain, the factories specifically, as it mass-produced goods for the consumption of the growing population. To make these goods, factories needed raw materials. Raw materials came from agriculture. As more and more factories sprang, factory owners exploited natural resources.

As the factories became the new sources of income, a New Society emerged. This society is a direct opposite of the Old Society with the farm as main economic asset.

Whereas the Old Society fostered cottage industries, New Society introduced the factories. To produce goods in a cottage industry is to rely on human labor. This kind of production is slow, costly and yields low output. On the other hand, factories use machines to make goods. For an employer to have the necessary laborers for this kind of capital-intensive industry is to educate them of the necessary skills to operate the machines they will use or the necessary skills in forming an assembly line for production. This brings us to the second difference of the Old Society and New Society.

Whereas the Old Society promoted a humanistic view of education that creates a holistic person, New Society started a functional view that produced “factory cogs”. The shift in education is a response to the need of society at that time. Fundamental skills replaced morality as the core of education. Religion took a backseat, as reason became man’s main tool to react to the changes of his world.

As factories grew so did the communities around them. By then, the factory owners bought the cheap real estate to establish farms for the supply of raw materials. The people who left their jobs as farmers and sought their fortune in the city formed these communities. The farmer became a city dweller devoid of the skills necessary in city life. Eventually, they formed slum areas around the factory.

Slums are densely populated areas where sanitation and health were unknown leading to outbreak of diseases. Since people behave in a different environment, the former country people develop their own culture and create a new value system. Slums became areas where the key for survival is to earn money.

Land use also changed. This is the third difference of the Old Society and New Society.

Whereas the Old Society used land for agriculture, New Society utilized land to build the factory. Agriculture produces goods but it takes time and many expenses to recover the investment. Factories utilized machines to mass produce goods in a short period. These goods promoted consumption, which in turn, means a return of investment for the capitalist. As more and more factories produced more and more goods, capitalists became richer and richer. They became the new ruling class. Landed aristocracy became their equals.

As all of these happened, the poor became the social outcasts of London. Employers subjected their employees to horrible labor practices in the factories. As the capitalist wanted more profit, they demanded more goods. This led to long working hours on the laborer’s part, averaging twelve to fourteen hours daily. Employers treated workers like pawns that they employed children to do some chores that an adult worker cannot do.

Therefore, the change from Old Society to New Society entails a transformation of the social, political and economic situation of London. All of these take its root when the use of deductive method slowly waned and the inductive method surfaced.

Structural change then happens when ideas in a particular historical era contradict the dominant thought and introduces a new one.

b.      The Industrial Revolution in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

The Industrial Revolution was the historical era that Dickens captured in his novel, Oliver Twist. He used the character of Oliver for the reader to have a vivid picture of London at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It was an age when Europe experienced the Revolution’s negative effects as workers faced hardships, urban dwellers swelled, traditions were slowly set aside and the spirit of competition grew. All of this happened, as those who control the source of wealth became the ruling class and those who help in generating wealth remained at the bottom of social class.

Oliver Twist focuses on the life of an orphan as he experienced city life after escaping the workhouse. As a social outcast, he had no choice but to engage in different jobs such as a mourner for a mortician and a thief. From time to time, Oliver finds himself at the care of good people whenever some events not of his own making render him unlucky. He triumphs at the end and reunites with his lost family.

  • Powerlessness stems from control by others.

Oliver as an orphan did not have much opportunity ahead of him. The supervisor of the workhouse where he lived sold him to an undertaker when he wanted more food. He ran away when a co-worker insulted the memory of his mother. Arriving in London, Oliver ran into Jack Dawkins who takes him to a shelter of kids managed by an old man, Fagin. It turns out that the shelter is for children who earn money by pickpocket. This shelter is located at the slums. Fagin is the only adult there. The other adults are in the pubs.

When Oliver was able to escape Fagin the first time, the old man was determined to have him back. Fagin feared that Oliver would expose his young gang of thieves to the authorities so he hired Bill Sikes, Fagin’s best thief, to take him back to the shelter. With the help of Nancy, his lover, Bill kidnaps Oliver and takes the child to Fagin.

Now back at the shelter, Fagin makes sure that the boy becomes a thief. He tells Oliver to help Bill in a burglary. With the murder threat for not cooperating, Oliver entered the small window of a house and followed Bill’s orders.

Certain events constantly tossed Oliver around like a bag of potato chips. He seemed helpless to get himself out of a situation that he knew was not good for him. Oliver followed orders unwillingly yet did not do a concrete action against those who controlled his life. Yet this was only the boy’s natural reaction. He was after all, a child. He depended to those who he thought were the ones who take care of his welfare.

  • A new environment changes individuals who develop a new culture thereby creating a new set of values system.

Dickens juxtaposed sceneries of the country and city throughout the novel. He described the country as a pure, clean and healthy environment. It was in these areas that Oliver received the best treatment in his life. Notice in the following passage Dickens’ description of a typical Sunday in the country:

“There was the little church, in the morning, with the green leaves fluttering at the windows: the birds singing without: filling the homely building with its fragrance. The poor people were so neat and clean, and knelt so reverently in assembling there together; and though the singing might be rude, it was real, and sounded more musical (to Oliver’s ears at least) than any he had ever heard in church before.”[2]

The city did not receive the same treatment. Oftentimes, Dickens used negative images in describing London. In Chapter 8, the author describes the streets where Oliver passed when he first arrived:

“Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from inside.”[3]

The behavior of people was also different in both places. The people in the country spent time teaching, talking of books and singing. Those in the city were “smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarreling, joking”.[4]

When Jack Dawkins introduced Oliver to Fagin’s gang, Oliver thought that the pickpocket the other children demonstrated is all play. The next days proved him otherwise when a rich man wrongly accused Oliver of stealing a handkerchief. A mob followed him as he escaped his pursuers. Dickens described this in Chapter 10:

“‘Stop thief! Stop thief!’ The cry is taken up by a hundred voices, and the crowd accumulate at every turning. Away they fly, splashing through the mud, and rattling along the pavements: up go the windows, out run the people, onward bear the mob, a whole audience desert Punch in the very thickest of the plot, and, joining the rushing throng, swell the shout, and lend fresh vigour to the cry, ‘Stop thief! Stop thief!’

‘Stop thief! Stop thief!’ There is a passion FOR HUNTING SOMETHING deeply implanted in the human breast. One wretched breathless child, panting with exhaustion; terror in his looks; agaony in his eyes; large drops of perspiration streaming down his face; strains every nerve to make head upon his pursuers; and as they follow on his track, and gain upon him every instant, they hail his decreasing strength with joy. ‘Stop thief!’ Ay, stop him for God’s sake, were it only in mercy!”[5]

In Sociology, a mob is a group of people a group of persons stimulating one another to excitement and losing ordinary rational control over their activity.[6] In the cited paragraphs, Dickens showed how busy people dropped everything to take part in the hunt for the ‘thief’. He also detailed how the hunt transformed persons from being individuals to a mob.

A single cry served as cue for everyone to have one aim: stop the thief. The people did not think of the consequences of their actions when they hunted the boy for to accomplish their goal was their concern. In the process, they forgot their individual responsibilities. If something bad happened to Oliver during the hunt, no one will take the blame.

As people lived so close together, they lose their individuality and this changed them from being persons to being a mob. When this happened, the mob drowned out the few voices of reason in a society. They have created their own culture and their own values system.

c.       The agents and the structures they created in 19th century Manila

To a similar extent, Manila experienced her own Industrial Revolution. In Great Britain, the shift from the deductive to inductive method served as the Revolution’s nucleus. The core of change inManila is the shift of the dominant thought from conservatism to liberalism that stems from the opening of Manila to the world trade in 1834. Goods entered and exited as the Port of Manila linked itself to the world. Steamships arrived and brought products and ideas (through some books) from Europe.

Binondo became the center of trade and the British, American, French, German, Indian and Spanish businesspersons were among those who established their shops there.[7] It maybe the center for trade but the farm remained the economic center that produced the raw materials for export.

Transportation of goods from the farm to the city can be tedious so a change in the mode of transportation happened. “Spanish military engineers, later, civil engineers applied the most advanced construction techniques in planning Manila.” The Spaniards laid out plans for railways, tramway lines and telegraph lines on 1876, 1878 and 1868, respectively. Potable water was also a priority and authorities finalized a plan on 1882.[8]

The nonstop exchange of goods and services triggered the influx people at areas outside Intramuros, also called “Extra-muros”.[9] “Towards 1814, the population of Intramuros was over 8,000 people, while the population in the outlying areas was over 50,000. In 1840, the right bank areas of the Pasig had become densely-populated neighborhoods.”[10]

As merchant-houses flourished, a new class of people emerged: the middle class or the mestizo. They are those who lived close to Intramuros and engaged in the trade at the port that they were able to acquire enough wealth to send their children abroad. Their wealth and their intent to educate their sons of the European way of life triggered la emigracion Europa.

Figure 1. Manila and its districts. 1884. SHM[11]

Figure 2. Plan of Manila with the general layout of the different tramways. 1878-1879. AHN.[12]

Figure 3. Plan for the 1st and 2nd class carriages for a tramway.[13]

Figure 4. General plan for the supply of fresh water to Manila. 1874-75. This comprises the distribution layout from Sampaloc, on the outskirts of the city, as far as the Intramuros precinct and the districts near the port. Within the capital itself, subterranean sections were combined with others at ground level.[14]

These sons returned as men imbibed with the ideas of the Enlightenment; hence the name, ilustrado. They took liberal ideas seriously because they were educated in the liberal arts, the education of free men.[15]

When the ilustrado returned to the Philippines, he faced a dilemma on how to deal with the political and moral authority of that time, the friar. Eventually, they stepped up to spread the liberal ideas in the country. The friars raised a dissent. The battle between conservatism and liberalism ensued with the ilustrado and the friar at the helm, making this century a “period of the turning of cultural consciousness: from divine right to human right; from authoritarianism to liberalism; from dogmatism to rationalism; from metaphysics to science”[16]

The root of the opposition runs deep. The friars were trapped with the medieval idea that Truth comes from authority. Rituals anoint those who will be figures of authority. Thus, the voice of authority is the voice of truth. The friars tried to emphasize their authority in the Philippines. They believed that people must obey their command since the Church “chose, anointed and sent” them to be the voice of truth. [17]

Thus, to oppose the friar is to oppose the Church. To oppose the Church is to oppose God. To believe in liberal ideas is to oppose the figures of authority: the friar, the Church and God.

 d.      Conservatism versus Liberalism in José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo

The greatness of Rizal’s novels lies on their effect. Both aimed to portray the 19th century Philippines as the writer used his characters as a vehicle to express his ideas. He believed that Spain, through the friars, changed the Philippines. Upon colonization, the Filipinos “gradually lost their ancient traditions, their recollections—they forgot their writings, their songs, their poetry, their laws, in order to learn by heart other doctrines, which they did not understand, other ethics, other tastes, different from those inspired in their race by their climate and their way of thinking.”[18]

Rizal was partly successful in his aim to portray the Philippines during the Spanish colonization. He wrote both novels in Spanish, the language of the rich and educated in the Philippines. That tells us that the novels are not for the lower class but for the middle and upper classes only. He saw the impoverishment of his fellow Filipinos yet he thought that for them to alleviate themselves of poverty, they must have moral change.

Some themes from Oliver Twist parallel to those of the Noli and El Fili.

  • Powerlessness stems from control by others.

Ibarra returned from his studies in Europe and finds his town almost the same as he left it: the priests—ignorant, scheming and prying—control the religious, political, economic and cultural affairs. Ibarra believed he could change his town if he can establish a school. In the process, he engaged in a “mortal tangle with the conservatism of hierarchy and clergy”[19] as his liberal ideas clashed with the friars’ conservative beliefs.

For instance, when Ibarra interviewed the resident schoolteacher, he discovered the difficulty of initiating educational reforms. The schoolteacher told Ibarra:

“What could I do against him, the chief moral, political and civil authority in the town, supported by his Order, feared by the Government, rich, powerful, consulted, listened to, believed and obeyed always and by all?”[20]

No less than the incumbent Governor-General confirmed this to Ibarra during their private conversation:

“Furthermore, if a high official comes with great and generous ideas, he soon hears such advice as this, while behind his back, taken for a fool: “Your Excellency does not know the country and the character of the natives; Your Excellency will do well to trust So and So, and so on.” And as His Excellency really does not know the country, which heretofore he had thought was somewhere in America, and besides, has weaknesses and faults of his own like any mortal, he finally allows himself to be convinced.”[21]

The Governor-General obeyed those who are knowledgeable of the country since he did not know the country that much. He knew that his “advisers” think he is a fool but he still followed them.

  • A new environment changes individuals who develop a new culture thereby creating a new set of values system.

For Rizal, change should start at the personal level. It is evil inside the human heart that is the root of the evils in society.[22] To reform the heart through education is to reform society. Education is the only way that this change can happen for it fosters the use of reason. The Filipinos’ poverty stemmed from the people’s blind obedience, a result of the people’s inability to use reason in distinguishing right from wrong.

The character of Basilio in El Filibusterismo explained this when he talked to Simoun at Sisa’s grave:

“In a few centuries, when humanity shall have been redeemed by knowledge, when racial differences shall have disappeared, when all people shall be free, when there are no longer tyrants and slaves, colonies and empires, when there is one rule of justice, when man shall be a citizen of the world, only the pursuit of science will remain; the word patriotism will sound like fanaticism, and whoever shall then take pride in patriotic virtues will surely be blocked up as a dangerous maniac, a disturber of the harmony of society.”[23]

Basilio summarizes Rizal’s belief that progress will still be slow until education shifts to a scientific orientation and government lifts its repression against reforms.[24] Hence, education entails the use of the mind and conscience, as they are gifts from God.[25] Should this come to fruition, the light of the day shall reveal “the monstrous creatures of the night” as “all the forces stifled for centuries, the poisons distilled drop by drop, all the repressed emotions, will come to light in a great explosion.”[26]

III.             CONCLUSION

The study of a work of literature involves the study of its historical context. It is necessary to inquire on the prevalent intellectual trends when the author wrote that work of literature to analyze the influence of those trends to him.

In Oliver Twist, the Industrial Revolution introduced a life too harsh for the workers that inequality became apparent in 19th century London. They became aware of the “glass ceiling” in the workplace that prevents them from reaching the top of the business, no matter how good they are. Writers saw this as an opportunity to exalt the poor. They became the hero or heroine in their novels. Thus began Romanticism in literature. Charles Dickens is one of the many Romanticists of this era.

As writers continually wrote works of literature on the same theme, people began to conceive a sensation of power with the number of persons sharing the same feeling. Liberal ideas began to spread as writers portrayed more and more of the inequality they experience in their lives. Literature gave way to the development of the democratic ideas that rocked monarchial Europe in the 19thcentury.

Rizal was one of those persons who read these works of literature. He valued the ancient Philippines, one that is ‘uncorrupted’ by the Spaniard. He used emotion and not reason to judge his people. These are among his many ideas that reflect the Romantic themes of

  • returning to the original before civilization spoiled man; and
  • the dominance of emotion over reason.

When Rizal wrote his two novels, costumbrismo had influenced him as a writer. Costumbrismo is a literary trend where “plots were often mere excuses for the description of country customs; and even when the plot was the main interest, it was often interrupted by the description of peculiar customs rendered in objective detail.”[27] This trend pays attention to local culture while maintaining national culture. Rizal had a faint idea of this when he used the word ‘Patria’[28] in Amor Patria to refer to the Philippines.

The Noli and El Fili retained this trend. Here are works that describe in detail the Philippines and the Filipinos during the 19th century but also echo the ilustrado’s interests, fears and concerns: that Spain should give liberty to the Philippines when she has developed an enlightened citizenry through education. A complete separation from Spain will only result to chaos. Liberty is for those nations ready for self-government.

The present educational curriculum in secondary schools employs the teaching of Rizal’s novels. It is necessary then for the teacher to interpret them in the historical context and not on the literary level alone. Dickens wrote his novels as commentaries on the social issues of his time as Rizal wrote his novels to start a ‘revolution from above’.

To confine the discussion of these novels literally is to neglect the role of literature in recording man’s history. The study of History transforms these novels into tools by which men link their experiences in the past to the experiences of the readers in present.

Hence, the historian must study the necessary strategies on how teachers must teach the Noli an El Fili in secondary schools using this train of thought, but that is for another discussion.




Hornedo, Florentino H. Ideas and Ideals. Manila: University of Santo Tomas, 2001.

Rizal, Jose. Noli Me Tangere: a completely new translation for contemporary reader. London: Longman, 1961.

_________. The Subversive (El Filibusterismo): a completely new translation for contemporary reader. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.



Gabriel, Pedro, “An Outline of A Toynbeean Approach to Philippine History during the Spanish Regime (II)”, Philippiniana Sacra, Vol XVII No. 49 (1982): 7-75.


Electronic sources

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. [Ebook online] accessed on 23 March 2011; Available from:; Internet.

Ocampo, Ambeth. “Looking Back : Pre-Spanish Manila”, [article online] Philippine Daily Inquirer, 25 June 2008, accessed on 24 March 2011; available from:; Internet.

Rizal, Jose. Letter to the Young Women of Malolos. [Webpage] accessed on 29 January 2011; available from; Internet.

_________. The Philippines A Century Hence. [Webpage] accessed  on 29 January 2011; available from; Internet.

Philippine Academic Consortium for Latin American Studies. Manila Extramuros. [Research paper online] accessed on 23 March 2011, available from; Internet.

The Gran Manila. [Webpage] accessed on 20 March 2011; available from; Internet.

Mob. [Webpage] accessed on 23 March 2011, available from:; Internet.

[1] This is a summary of Dr. Hornedo’s discussion last 5 February 2011. The topic was, if I recall it correctly, ‘Transition of Ideas’. I took the liberty of entitling it that way so as to divide the second part into four sections.

[2] Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist. [Ebook online]( accessed on 23 March 2011); Available from:, p. 370; Internet.

[3]Ibid., p. 88

[4] Ibid., p. 635

[5] Ibid, p. 108.

[6] Mob. [Webpage] (accessed on 23 March 2011), available from:; Internet.

[7] Philippine Academic Consortium for Latin American Studies. Manila Extramuros. [Research paper online] (accessed on 23 March 2011), available from; Internet.

[8] The Gran Manila. [Webpage] (accessed on 20 March 2011); available from

[9] Ambeth Ocampo. “Looking Back : Pre-Spanish Manila”, [article online] (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 25 June 2008, accessed on 24 March 2011); available from:; Internet.

[10] The Gran Manila. [Webpage] (accessed on 20 March 2011); available from; Internet.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Pedro Gabriel, “An Outline of A Toynbeean Approach to Philippine History during the Spanish Regime (II)”, Philippiniana Sacra, Vol XVII No. 49 (1982).

[16] Florentino H. Hornedo, Ideas and Ideals (Manila: University of Santo Tomas, 2001), 102.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jose Rizal. The Philippines A Century Hence. [Webpage] (accessed  on 29 January 2011); available from; Internet.

[19] Hornedo, Loc. cit.,  p. 118

[20] Jose Rizal. Noli Me Tangere: a completely new translation for contemporary reader. (London: Longman, 1961), 99.

[21] Ibid, p. 158

[22] Hornedo, Loc. cit., p. 118.

[23] Jose Rizal. The Subversive (El Filibusterismo): a completely new translation for contemporary reader. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968), 54.

[24] Hornedo, Loc. cit., p. 122

[25] Jose Rizal. Letter to the Young Women of Malolos. [Webpage] (accessed  on 29 January 2011); available from; Internet.

[26] Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, p. 158-159

[27] Hornedo, Loc. cit., p.111

[28] In Spanish, it means “Motherland”.