María Clara, whose full name is María Clara de los Santos, is the mestiza heroine in Noli Me Tángere, a novel by José Rizal, the national hero of the Republic of the Philippines. Her name and character has since become a byword in Filipino culture for the traditional, feminine ideal.
María Clara is the childhood sweetheart and fiancée of Noli Me Tángere's hero, Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra y Magsalin, the son of Don Rafael Ibarra. Although raised as the daughter of Captain Santiago "Kapitán Tiyago" de los Santos and his wife Doña Pía Alba, who are both native Filipinos. María Clara is in fact the illegitimate offspring of Padre Dámaso, a Spanish friar, and Doña Pia, whom he coerced into sexual relations.
Dámaso is made the girl's godfather; Doña Pia had died giving birth to Mariá Clara. Kapitán Tiyago's cousin, Tía Isabél, then came to be the dominant maternal figure in her life. As her beau Crisóstomo Ibarra was studying in Europe, Kapitan Tiyago sent María Clara to the Beaterio de Santa Clara, a convent school where she cultivated femininity under religion. Later in the novel, María Clara discovers the truth that Dámaso is her biological father.
In the novel, María Clara is regarded as the most beautiful and widely celebrated lady in the town of San Diego. A devout Roman Catholic, she became the epitome of virtue, "demure and self-effacing" and endowed with beauty, grace and charm, and promoted by Rizal as the "ideal image" of a Filipino woman who deserves to be placed on the "pedestal of male honour". In Chapter 5 of Noli me tangere, María Clara and her traits were further described by Rizal as an "Oriental decoration" with "downcast" eyes and a "pure soul".
Because of her parentage, María Clara had semi-European features, described by Rizal thus:
"María Clara did not have the small eyes of her father: like her mother she had them large and black, beneath long lashes; gay and smiling when she played, sad and soulful and pensive when she was not laughing. Since childhood her hair had an almost golden hue; her nose, of a correct profile, was neither sharp nor flat; her mouth reminded one of her mother's, small and perfect, with two beautiful dimples on her cheeks. Her skin had the fine texture of an onion layer, the whiteness of cotton, according to her enthusiastic relatives. They saw traces of Capitan Tiago's paternity in the small and well-rounded ears of María Clara."
María Clara had been described in her childhood as everybody's idol, growing up among smiles and loves. Although Noli Me Tangere only touches upon her briefly in chapters, she is depicted as playful, exchanging wit and banter with Ibarra and expressing jealous possession when talking about him to her friends.
She is also very kind and considerate, and notices people whom others don't; she was the only person who noticed Elias during the fishing excursion, and offered him biscuits. During the eve of the feast of San Diego, she also approached and offered her locket to a leper, despite her friends' warnings and shows of disgust.
During the latter half of the novel, she was often sickly and subdued. Having been separated from Ibarra, and hearing the news of his excommunication, she took ill, and eventually was blackmailed by Padre Salvi into distancing herself from Ibarra. She was also coerced into giving up Ibarra's love letters, which were ultimately used to implicate him.
In spite of her broken engagement with Ibarra, and subsequent engagement to Linares, she remained fiercely devoted to Ibarra. Upon hearing the news of his death, she told Padre Damaso:
"While he was alive, I was thinking on keeping on: I was hoping, I was trusting! I wanted to live to be able to hear about him... but now that they have killed him, there is no longer a reason for me to live and suffer... While he was alive, I could get married... I thought of flight afterwards... my father does not want anything but the connections! Now that he is dead nobody else shall claim me as his wife... When he was alive I could degrade myself, there was left the comfort of knowing he lived and perhaps would think of me. Now that he is dead... the convent for me or the grave!"
This ultimatum caused Padre Damaso to cave and let her enter the cloister at Santa Clara.
Rizal based the fictional character of María Clara from his real-life girlfriend and cousin, Leonor Rivera. Although praised and idolised, María Clara's chaste, "masochistic" and "easily fainting" character had also been denounced as the "greatest misfortune that has befallen the Filipina in the last one hundred years". In Filipino fashion, María Clara's name has become the eponym for a multi-piece ensemble known as the María Clara gown, emulating the character's traits of being delicate, feminine, self-assured and with a sense of identity.