The book is a social novel that narrates the romance of Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara. Crisostomo Ibarra is the son of Don Rafael Ibarra, who went to Europe to study. Maria Clara is a girl blessed with beauty, grace and charm. She is the daughter of a Spanish fray (priest), Padre Damaso and a Filipina, Dona Pia Alba who married Capitan Tiago.
The Spanish authorities, particularly Padre Damaso, hated and feared Crisostomo Ibarra, because this young, wealthy, European-educated Filipino had patriotic ideas of helping his oppressed countrymen.