What is the effect of "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" on the reader?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Key to answering this question is the realisation that Tolstoy in this great story has created an allegory in which the characters, events and actions of this tale have both a literal meaning but also a symbolic interpretation. Thus it is that Tolstoy is able to comment on the changes that private land owenership brought to Russia. The effect of this story on the reader is thus linked to the purpose of the tale. Tolstoy wrote this tale to point out the dangers of materialism and also to suggest that the onset of industrialisation and modernisation was not necessarily a positive thing. Clearly his concern is on the spiritual changes that such historical movements brought to humanity, and how the grasping desire for ever more belongings and possessions could take over and control somebody, and ultimately lead them to their doom.

You might like to think about how Tolstoy establishes this through the central character of Pahom and in particular how gaining ever more land is shown to never bring him peace and happiness, as he is always left feeling unsatisfied and wanting more. This change in his character is first signalled when, having finally purchased his own land, he demonstrates the same behaviour that he used to moan about from his landlord:

Pahom turned them out again and again, and forgave their owners, and for a long time he forbore to prosecute anyone. But at last he lost patience and complained to the District Court. He knew it was the peasants' want of land, and no evil on their part, that caused the trouble, but he thought: "I cannot go on overlooking it or they will destroy all I have. They must be taught a lesson."

Pahom comes to exhibit the same qualities of greed and selfishness that he once deplored in those above him, and it is clear that as the story develops, this only intensifies. Thus it is that this story clearly demonstrates the dangers of rampant capitalism and materialism. The death of Pahom at the end ironically comments on the natural outcome of devoting your life to nothing more than material gain.

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