This novel was written in the nineteenth century by the Philippines’ national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, then an expatriate in Europe waging a propaganda campaign against tyranny and oppression in his native land. It is a sequel to his earlier work, Noli Me Tangere, a socio-political novel that depicted the conditions in the Philippine Islands - a colony of Spain for three centuries - under the Spanish yoke.
Simoun, a mysterious and powerful jeweller who is in good graces with the Captain General plots a coup d’ etat against the Spanish colonial government. He secretly abets the abuses committed against the natives in the hope of stirring them to rise up in revolt. To weaken the regime, he encourages corruption, using his immense wealth to foment injustice and provoke massive unrest. Unknown to all, Simoun is Juan Crisostomo Ibarra, a man who had been wrongfully accused of rebellion and condemned in a plot instigated by his enemies including a friar who had unchaste feelings for his fiancée, Maria Clara. Everybody thought Ibarra had been killed as a fugitive, but in truth he had escaped, enriched himself abroad and has returned to the Islands to avenge himself. He plans to take Maria Clara who, believing Ibarra is dead, had entered the convent. In the course of his plans, Simoun comes into contact with young idealistic Filipinos whom he wants to enlist to his cause. One of these is Basilio, one of the few who know his secret. He had been adopted by Kapitan Tiyago, a wealthy landowner and father of Maria Clara. Basilio is about to graduate as doctor of medicine and plans to marry Huli, his childhood sweetheart. Huli is the daughter of Kabesang Tales, a homesteader who had been dispossessed of his lands by the friars. Turned outlaw, Kabesang Tales and other victims of injustice have been enlisted by Simoun in his plan to overthrow the government. Another student, Isagani, dreams of a progressive future for his country but his fiancée, Paulita, who shares his aunt Dona Victorina’s prejudices against the natives, is not interested in them. Simoun’s plot is aborted when he learns that Maria Clara had died at the convent. Student leaders who have been advocating the opening of an academy for the teaching of the Spanish language hold a party where they lampoon the friars. The next day, posters are found encouraging sedition, and those suspected of involvement are arrested, including Basilio. His foster father having died, nobody intercedes for him, while the rich and influential are released. Meanwhile, Huli is killed in the church after she had sought the help of the parish priest for the release of Basilio. Due to this tragedy, her grandfather, Tandang Selo, joins the outlaws. Embittered by Maria Clara’s death, Simoun plans another coup to be staged at the wedding reception for Paulita, who has been engaged to another man: top government officials including the Captain general who are to attend would be blown away, the house being planted with explosives which will be detonated by a a device hidden in the lamp given as gift by Simoun to the newlyweds. Basilio, who has been released and now wants to take revenge is ordered by Simoun to lead in the uprising. At the appointed hour, the guests are terrified upon reading a note signed by Juan Crisostomo Ibarra; his signature is recognized by Father Salvi, the friar who lusted after Maria Clara. Before the lamp could explode, Isagani, who has been warned by Basilio about the plot, barges in and throws the lamp into the river. Isagani escapes. The uprising again fails to take off, and the armed followersof Simoun, deprived of leadership or devoid of vision, resort to banditry. The lawlessness that reigns in the countrysides leads to harsh measures by the government in its efforts to show it is in control. The plot at the wedding is finally traced to Simoun who escapes into a house near the ocean. After taking poison, he confesses to father Florentino, a Filipino priest, who tells him: “What is the use of independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” After the death of Simoun, Father Florentino throws his treasure into the sea.
This novel, together with the Noli Me Tangere, is said to have sparked the revolution against Spain in 1896. In it, Rizal presented the dilemma faced by the country as the people groaned under the foreign oppressor: to revolt would only lead to a change of masters, while to do nothing would keep the nation enslaved for generations. Rizal proposes a better way, through Father Florentino as he speaks to the dying Simoun: educate the natives, and when they shall have reached that stage where they would be willing to die for their principles, God Himself will supply the weapon, and "liberty will shine, like the first dawn."