How do the sisters' conversation at the beginning of Tolstoy's story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" foreshadow what happens later?
As my colleague rightly explains, the sisters argue passionately about the ramifications of their different lifestyles. Each remains convinced that her way of life is much safer, more dependable, and more satisfying. The sisters' argument centers on the theme of contentment.
Pahom, the husband of the younger sister, thinks that more land will ensure his security to the point that he wouldn't have to fear the Devil himself. His wife's assertion that the land is the center of the peasant's security prompts Pahom to covet more land. In due time, Pahom becomes a landowner, and he is justly proud of everything he manages to accomplish on his land. However, Pahom discovers that ownership comes with sundry annoyances and trials he would rather do without. His neighbors encroach on his land and test his patience. Pahom finds himself quarreling with them and imagines that he would be happier if he had even more land.
Here, we begin to see how the sisters' argument foreshadows Pahom's eventual downfall. The younger sister accuses her older sister of living a decadent and covetous lifestyle. She asserts that city life comes with too many temptations and uncertainties; she claims to be contented with a simple peasant's life. However, it is her own husband who faces ruin and eventual death because of his covetousness. Pahom never realizes that the temptations in his path will ultimately destroy him.
The author foreshadows Pahom's downfall beautifully by shining a spotlight on questions regarding temptation and covetousness. The sisters' argument sets the stage for Pahom's story to unfold. When he thinks that he has gotten a good bargain at the expense of the Bashkirs, Pahom is ecstatic. He imagines that he can get as much land as he wants for a trivial price. But, how much land does a man really need? If he loses his life in the act of procurement, has he really gained anything? The sisters' conversation foreshadows Pahom's destruction, but it also highlights a main theme of the story: discernment is lacking in someone who is covetous. The unfolding story clearly shows that a man is not exempt from temptation, whether he lives in the country or the city.
The story ends on an ironic note, but does answer the question posed in the title:
His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.
The sisters' conversation at the beginning of the story acts as an introduction to the story itself. They talk about their respective lives and the benefits of each style of living. The rich sister talks about all that she has—the rich foods, the fashionable dresses, the posh social engagements—and how easy it is when one has more than enough money not only to make ends meet, but to enjoy the luxuries. The poorer sister, however, claims that although she has less, she doesn't have the worries associated with having money and hanging on to it. Being rich can lead to greed, and then lascivious behavior may follow, causing one to fall into a life of self-destruction. The poorer sister notes that "Loss and gain are brothers twain," meaning that one might think one is gaining when one has more than one needs to survive, but in the end, that gain may cost more than one bargained for. Considering what happens to Pahom in the end, this is the perfect way to foreshadow the coming events.