Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is a short story in the form of a parable that illustrates man’s longing for more despite already having all he needs. The overwhelming theme that is portrayed throughout the story is greed. Tolstoy uses the character Pahom to show that everyone can be vulnerable to the Devil’s temptations given that they are tempted by the thing they want the most and, in this case, it is land and wealth that Pahom wants the most. Throughout the story the Devil is continuously working to tempt Pahom to “get [him] into my power” and he ultimately succeeds because Pahom falls victim to greed and temptation.
The story begins with the protagonist, Pahom, at his home with his wife and his wife’s sister. His wife and her sister are in an argument about who lives the better life, the wealthy or the peasants. Pahom’s wife argues that the wealthy’s way of life is full of temptation saying, “[you] are surrounded by temptations; today all may be right, but tomorrow the Evil One may tempt your husband with cards, wine, or women and all will go to ruin.” and the peasant’s way of life is much more simplistic, and they have all that they need .Pahom agrees with his wife and says, “we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” because he thinks he doesn’t have time to be tempted by the Devil. Pahom doesn’t realize this at the time but his words have set him up for his downfall later in the story because the Devil was listening to him the whole time. By saying this, he essentially challenged the Devil and throughout the story Pahom is continuously tested and tempted by the Devil and ultimately succumbs to all temptations which leads to his demise.
The Devil takes the form of various people in the story to tempt Pahom and each temptation and move from place to place is the story’s conflict. His first test from the Devil is when the commune tries to buy the land all together but then the plans fall through, and they end up buying the land in individual plots. Before this, he was just a peasant whose animals wandered onto a lady’s estate and he would get fined for it. Pahom would complain and be very irritated about the fines. However, once he became a landowner he started to fine others and even accused an innocent man of cutting down his trees. Then the Devil takes the form of a peasant passing through town. The peasant tells Pahom about the farm land beyond the Volga that was being settled. Pahom started to dream about more land, more crop and the opportunity to make more money. So, he sold his land, his animals, packed up his family, his home and moved. However, he became unsatisfied again and the Devil took yet another form- the peasant that told him about the Bashkirs. He became fixated on the idea of more land. He was no longer satisfied with what he had, and he decided he wanted more. It becomes evident that greed is consuming Pahom. The climax of the story unfolds as he travels to the place that the Bashkirs live and meets with them to discuss buying land. Basically, they tell him that he can have all the land that he can walk in a day, but he must start and end in the same spot. Pahom eagerly accepts the challenge and the night before he sets off he has a terrifying dream where the Devil is taking many forms and at the end it is just the Devil laughing at him. This dream is a reflection of his life since he became a greedy man. On the walk he decides he needs this extra piece of land but then realizes he is far behind and may not make it back to the Bashkirs. As he is running back the Chief is laughing at Pahom, which is a representation of the Devil. The resolution of the story occurs at the end when Pahom does make it back to the Bashkirs in time, but he dies from exhaustion.
The story itself is a parable. A parable is a short story of life events that exemplifies a moral lesson. In “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” the moral lesson is that we should be content with what we have because if not temptations from the Devil can fill us with greed and in the end leave us with nothing. Tolstoy illustrates this parable by showing a man, Pahom, becoming more greedy and then having him die in the end with nothing but his grave.
The only fully developed character in the story is Pahom. Pahom’s wife and her sister are presented at the beginning to set the stage for conflict in the rest of the story. Like I previously mentioned, the other characters propel the conflict and take the forms of the Devil especially the Bashkir Chief at the end of the story. The story takes place in Russia just after the peasants were able to be landowners. The setting is important because it provides insight as to why Tolstoy actually wrote the story. I think that during this time people were nervous about letting peasants be able to own land because of the fear that they would be greedy with it and take advantage of their newfound freedom. While this was a progressive and positive time in Russian history people were also apprehensive. Tolstoy illustrated his fear as a cautionary tale and having the setting change to bigger and better land emphasized his fear that they will continue to want more and may not be content with what they have.
In the beginning it is evident that Pahom wants more land and also thinks he needs more land when he says, “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!”. It is ironic that he agrees with his wife about the idea that country people are more content and less susceptible to temptation than the wealthy but yet throughout the story he becomes more and more greedy and less and less content. His temptation isn’t “cards, wine or women” but he is tempted by land and wealth. Pahom isn’t able to realize that what he wants isn’t what he needs. He taunts the Devil in the beginning and just when he gets to the place where he thinks he will finally have enough land the Devil comes to him in a dream laughing and the following day as he is struggling to get his land the Bashkir Chief is laughing; so, the Devil, quite literally, got the last laugh before Pahom died.
The title is essential to the story because at the end the servant says, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed” and while this is the literal answer to the question in the title it also invites the reader to think about what else man needs aside from land . He had all that needed in his home at the beginning of the story, but greed took over Pahom and he didn’t realize what he had done until it was too late. By being greedy Pahom lost sight of his family, land and community. He uprooted his family multiple times and alienated his community in the beginning when he was fining people and took the man to court that was innocent. Greed caused him to lose sight of everything that truly matters and because of this he died with his servant burying him and not his loved ones. Tolstoy is illustrating that everyone can be tempted by the Devil, even if you think you can’t be. In the end Pahom had all the land he really needed, the land for his grave.
I think that the moral of this story is applicable to today’s society, not just back in Tolstoy’s era. Looking specifically at American’s, we are stereotyped as glutinous and greedy. So many people in America, especially the top 1%, are so fixated on having more. Especially more money and power. However, there are numerous people that have tons of money and are not fulfilled in life whatsoever. These are the people that turn to drugs, alcohol, and other risky endeavors to find fulfilment but end up even more lost. This is even true for people who don’t have a lot of money. The story has caused me to pause and reflect on my life. I find myself longing for more a lot more often than I should. For me, it’s usually more clothes, shoes, makeup, etc. but I should be content with all the things I do have like my health, family, work community and my friends. In theory, this should be more than enough and after reading this story I find myself asking the question, “I am so happy, so why do I still feel like I need more?”. While Tolstoy didn’t write this for our era, his words carry meaning for all generations.
Tolstoy’s parable about a man constantly needing more land provided a moral lesson about greed, temptation and contentment. Constantly longing for things you don’t have is a sure way to guarantee that you will never be happy. Tolstoy used irony to emphasize his point that if you are tempted by the Devil you will lose sight of all that is important in life and will never be fulfilled. He believed that happiness comes from being appreciative of what you currently have like family, community, and your home.