Reasons of the Heart: Ethically Motivated Writing in Tabucchi, Tolstoy, and Joyce

An essay on Pereira Maintains, The Death of Ivan Ilyich,and Dubliners

by Kane Prestenback | return to list of publications

Regarding what constitutes a “correct professional relationship,” Pereira, the editor of the culture page for a small evening paper in Lisbon, wanted to say, “you must learn to write properly, because otherwise, if you’re going to base your writing on the reasons of the heart, you’ll run up against some awfully big obstacles I can assure you” (Tabucchi 38). Despite the writer frequently maintaining many assertions, this is a belief that neither Pereira, the main character in the novel Pereira Maintains, nor the novel’s writer, Antonio Tabucchi, actually maintain. Pereira Maintains ultimately argues for the writing of literature that is engaged with ethical, social, political, and religious concerns. Antonio Tabucchi’s work is intrinsically connected to the work of Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce, whose stories call attention to the value of emotionally motivated writing. Tabucchi, Tolstoy, and Joyce all maintain that proper writing must wholeheartedly interrogate important ethical issues and subsequently run up against the awfully big obstacles of the past to make sense of the present.

In Pereira Maintains, Antonio Tabucchi crafts a socially motivated narrative that depicts the title character’s evolution toward realizing the value of emotionally invested writing and Pereira’s reconsideration of what it means to write properly. JoAnn Cannon points out that “Tabucchi delves into Portugal’s fascist past not only to shed light on that episode in history but also to comment on the present day” (Cannon 73). Despite the political upheaval surrounding Pereira in Lisbon, he naively contributes to what he claims is a “nonpolitical and independent” magazine and avoids acknowledging the effects of the encroaching Salazarist regime, claiming he has “no sense of being in a besieged city” (Tabucchi 2, 13). Through his association with the activist Monteiro Rossi and the subtle influence of Rossi’s politically motivated obituaries, Pereira’s own political perspective emerges in opposition to the dictatorship, realizing that he “must be free to keep people properly informed” (57). Pereira realizes that his apolitical content and laissez-faire attitude has inadvertently enabled the rise of the Salazarist regime. Pereira’s experience leads him to “think things [he] would never have thought and do things [he] would never have done,” ultimately defiantly publishing a scathing indictment of the “direct complicity of certain persons in high places… being perpetrated here in Portugal” to which he signs his name “how he had signed all his crime reports” to signal his personal intent and imply the criminality of the Salazarist regime’s activities (130, 190).

Tabucchi engages with the heritage of socially relevant literature to suggest its ability to affect societal perceptions (Wren-Owens 156). Charles Klopp notes that as a postmodern writer, Tabucchi “is acutely aware of the precedent set by previous practitioners of the literary forms with which he continues to engage” (Klopp 331). Despite Pereira’s initial advice to avoid “writing [based] on the reasons of the heart,” he attests to the importance of social and emotional investment in literature by recognizing the value of other writers such as Bernardo Marques and Aquilino Ribeiro, to whom he says, “the whole of Portugal is proud to have two such artists as you, we have sore need of you” (Tabucchi 38, 94). Earlier, Pereira hinted at literature’s inherent value when he told Rossi that “literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth” (24). Pereira urges the activist-writers to continue the important work they are doing for Portugal’s sake, though the obstacles have already become insurmountable enough for these writers to flee instead. Despite these obstacles, Pereira finally sees the value of writing from the heart and offers his testimony to the police as a final piece of purposeful, heartfelt, and veiled resistance to his many “awfully big obstacles” (38).

Leo Tolstoy’s work, particularly in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, argues for purposeful, personally heartfelt, and socially motivated writing by examining the perils of pursuing false narratives and failing to engage with society toward its betterment. According to Ester Busquets Alibés and Begoña Román Maestre, Tolstoy “emphasises [sic] the idea of art as a moral and educational vehicle” (Busquets Alibés & Maestre 191). In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy follows this moral pursuit to instruct the reader toward a life that is “grounded in love for others” (Busquets Alibés & Maestre 190). Ivan Ilyich has lived his life the safe way, attempting to avoid obstacles and to “lead a decent life approved of by society” by doing what he thinks is expected of him (Tolstoy 52). However, he is overcome by a terrible illness, a “poison… [that] is permeating his whole being more and more,” and a protracted death which leads him to realize his mistaken perception concerning what actions are truly valuable to society; “all those best moments of his pleasant life seemed now not at all as they had seemed then” (66, 84). Ivan Ilyich comes to realize the detriment of his self-deception and his unintentional avoidance of his true obligations, thinking that “All that you’ve lived and live by is a lie, a deception, concealing life and death from you” (89).

By falling into this self-deception, Ivan Ilyich avoids engaging honestly with his true obligations to society, resulting in painful obstacles which he must overcome as he struggles with his death. Ironically, his avoidance of engaging with matters of the heart has resulted in the sort of obstacles which Tabucchi’s Pereira cautions against; in his tormented illness, Ivan Ilyich vacillates as “a drop of hope glimmers, then a sea of despair begins to rage, and always the pain, always the pain, always the anguish, always one and the same thing” (Tolstoy 79). Ivan Ilyich realizes almost too late that the best way to engage with society involves focusing on the needs of other, as shown by his butler Gerasim’s selfless generosity. Failing to engage with reasons of the heart leads Ivan Ilyich to live purely for himself, unwittingly rejecting the true authentic life that comes from living for others (Busquets Alibés & Maestre 191). Ivan Ilyich regretfully engages in facilitating the proliferation of the deceptive lie society tells itself by failing to engage with the difficult reality of life. The harmful effects of this self-deception are seen in the mannered expressions of Ivan Ilyich’s coworkers and family in the “lie for some reason acknowledged by everyone” which “was terribly tormenting for Ivan Ilyich,” as they continue to do what they believe is expected of them while they selfishly consider their own advancement in society, considering “what this death might mean in terms of transfers or promotions of the members themselves” (Tolstoy 75, 41). Tolstoy ultimately argues for a continual advancement toward a person’s true self by living authentically toward the betterment of society, and he does this by revealing the process of moral growth which leads the individual to a deeper morality (Pope 125; Freeman 14). If one were to follow Tolstoy’s sage advice in writing, then the only proper manner of writing is one that is based on a full understanding of the heart and includes that reasoning in its content.

In Dubliners, James Joyce bases his writing on reasons of the heart, coming up against obstacles in publication while also creating allegorical obstacles in the text for his readers, to validate the perspective that emotional motivation is fundamental to socially valuable literature. The collection of stories was seen as quite controversial, and Joyce was met with obstacles leading up to its publication from censors who were not sympathetic to Joyce’s point of view (Herring 7). The stories challenge political and religious expectations, though frequently through enigmatic symbols which deny simple explication – the puzzling final image of the priest “wideawake and laughing-like to himself” in “The Sisters,” the “feeble lanterns” of the street lamps or the “lighted window” gleaming in the back drawingroom which contrast with the darkness of the bazaar in “Araby,” and the title character’s empty expression, “passive, like a helpless animal,” at the end of “Eveline” (Joyce 11, 22, 23, 33). Herring suggests that “by omitting vital evidence or introducing ambiguity, Joyce designed his puzzles to be unsolvable” (Herring ix-x).

Joyce may have intentionally inserted such complex mysteries in these stories to confront the obstacles he faced in publication; these mysteries also engage the reader in confronting obstacles themselves, attempting to decipher the meaning of these mysteries as they expand their understanding of the world. Joyce alludes to this purpose in “The Sisters” when the narrator states that he “puzzled [his] head to extract meaning from… unfinished sentences” (Joyce 5). As seen in Pereira’s frequent refusal to testify about his intimate dreams, which supposedly have “nothing to do with these events,” Tabucchi similarly creates a mystery in Pereira Maintains by holding back information from the reader, refusing to “[delve] too deeply into a character’s personal psychology” and obliging the reader to “create the meanings of the works they are reading” (Tabucchi 99; Klopp 334, 331). Joyce’s characters come up against obstacles in their understanding of the world leading to their characteristic epiphanies while provoking greater intrigue for the reader in deciphering the meaning behind these deceptively intricate discoveries, such as the boys coming face-to-face with the disappointing embodiment of their ill-considered desire for adventure in “An Encounter” and the seaming ease and consequential entrapment with which Lenehan and Corley of “Two Gallants” continue their swindling ways. Joyce thus challenges the reader to interrogate their own understanding of the world, further influencing the reader’s emotional growth and acceptance of reality.

In “A Little Cloud,” the character of Little Chandler demonstrates what happens when a writer is incapable of involving themselves personally in their writing. Gazing out of his office window at “all the moving figures” which Joyce so effortlessly describes, Little Chandler can only feel sadness at his “struggle against fortune” (Joyce 61). He walks through the street, which is teeming with historic importance and beguiling characters, but he “gave them no thought” (61). Though he desires to write “something higher than mere tawdry journalism” he is imprisoned by “his unfortunate timidity” (69). Little Chandler’s inability to engage his conscience on social concerns leads him to fail to realize that he is surrounded by the very stuff which he should write about, as Joyce himself does (Herring 62). Little Chandler does not engage with the needs of society in his work and is thus trapped in a disappointing and mournful stasis of inaccessible ambition.

Focusing once again on Pereira Maintains, Tabucchi’s narrative recognizes the consequences of avoiding the obstacles which result from socially and politically challenging writing. Avoiding his obligation to speak up against the atrocities of the Salazarist regime did nothing to circumvent the eventual obstacles which Pereira sought to avoid for himself and Portugal; Pereira admits that “things aren’t too rosy, the police have things all their own way, they’re killing people, they ransack people’s houses, there’s censorship… the people count for nothing, public opinion counts for nothing” (Tabucchi 56). When he finally begins to subtly allow political expression to enter his editorial writings, Pereira’s delay in taking a decisive opposition to the dictatorship results in obstacles rising up against him with an even greater force, from his editor-in-chief enforcing more “Portuguese patriotism” on Pereira’s contributions to the scandalous murder of Monteiro Rossi by the Political Police (156). In the end, Pereira’s failure to write from the heart has resulted in further apathy of the Portuguese people and the inadvertent bolstering of the Salazarist regime. But Pereira ultimately takes on the fascist regime by publishing an account of his and Monteiro Rossi’s encounter with the Political Police, fulfilling the writer’s proper “obligation to take up the pen to bear witness to crimes against humanity” (Cannon 84). Like Tolstoy and Joyce before him, Tabucchi accentuates the importance of reading seriously for interpretive nuance by framing the story as Pereira’s own incriminating testimony – one final opportunity for Pereira to run up against those awfully big obstacles and convey his heartfelt support for what he believes is right (Klopp 331).

All three writers reveal the power of literature of the past to continually illuminate the troubles of the present and argue that writing properly inherently involves basing one’s writing intentionally on reasons of the heart to combat the awfully big obstacles running up against society.

Pereira never actually voices his initial belief that one must avoid writing based on reasons of the heart. Instead, presumably inexplicably, he maintains the opposite, saying “the reasons of the heart are the ones that matter most, we must always follow the reasons of the heart,” adding that “all the same you must keep your eyes open” (Tabucchi 38). Tabucchi, Tolstoy, and Joyce have done just that; their stories come from the heart, inspired by transgressions perceived with open eyes, imploring their readers and their fellow writers to do the same. Tabucchi’s story denounces the social injustices of Portugal’s past to motivate readers toward engaging with the social injustices of their time and place. Tolstoy and Joyce also engage with the inequities of their time and influence the ethical motivation of literature for decades to come. All three writers reveal the power of literature of the past to continually illuminate the troubles of the present and argue that writing properly inherently involves basing one’s writing intentionally on reasons of the heart to combat the awfully big obstacles running up against society.

Works Cited

Busquets Alibés, Ester, and Begoña Román Maestre. “Tolstoy’s Moral Philosophy: Towards an Ethics of Truthfulness in Clinical Practice.” Ramon Llull Journal of Applied Ethics, no. 10, Jan. 2019, pp. 183–200. EBSCOhost,

Cannon, JoAnn. The Novel As Investigation: Leonardo Sciascia, Dacia Maraini, and Antonio Tabucchi. University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Freeman, Mark. Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward. Oxford University Press, 2010. EBSCOhost,

Herring, Phillip F. Joyce’s Uncertainty Principle. Princeton University Press, 2014. EBSCOhost,

Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York, Vintage Books, 1993.

Klopp, Charles D. “Antonio Tabucchi: Postmodern Catholic Writer.” World Literature Today, vol. 71, no. 2, Mar. 1997, p. 331. EBSCOhost,

Pope, Stephen J. “Compassion and Self-Deception: The Unity of Love and Truthfulness in Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.’” The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, vol. 19, Jan. 1999, pp. 115–29. EBSCOhost,

Tabucchi, Antonio. Pereira Maintains: A Testimony. Translated by Patrick Creagh, Kindle ed., New Directions, 2017.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. 1884., Accessed 19 Oct. 2022.

Wren-Owens, Elizabeth. Postmodern Ethics: The Re-Appropriation of Committed Writing in the Works of Antonio Tabucchi and Leonardo Sciascia 1975-2005. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.