What is the significance of the title "How Much Land Does a Man Require?"

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As I explained in answer to a similar question, Tolstoy used the title because he wanted to answer it himself at the end of his story. Tolstoy experienced a religious conversion in his late middle age and began writing fiction that was quite different from his novels about the upper-class Russians, notably War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church and studied the teachings of Jesus directly. Although he was an aristocrat, he tried to live a humble life in accordance with the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. He began writing simple tales about lower-class people intended to teach Christian morals. In "How Much Land Does A Man Need" he is saying that life is very short and that wasting life in acquiring a lot of possessions is a mistake because you will die and lose everything you have acquired. (The same moral is taught in another beautiful story titled "What Men Live By.") Tolstoy created a particular kind of character to suit his purposes, one who had an insatiable lust for possessions. Not all men would behave as he did. Anyone who has seen the vast flat steppes of Russia or pictures of them can imagine how some men could get carried away with the desire to possess more and more. At the end of "How Much Land Does a Man Need" the narrator says that all the land the greedy protagonist really needed was a plot about six feet long, three feet wide, and six feet deep in which to bury him. He had shortened his own life with his greediness and egotism. What makes the story interesting is not the moral but the unique idea that a man is given the unusual opportunity to acquire all the land he can walk around in one day. Tolstoy had the talent to make the reader feel that he himself is out walking on the vast plains of Russia and even to feel the changing temperature as the day progressed and the sun moved across the sky.


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