In the story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?,” Tolstoy describes human nature through what is essentially a parable. The main character, Pahom, is a peasant that works the land for a living. He is entangled with pride. He believes that he will fear no one and nothing if he posses more land. In his lust for more property, he eventually loses himself and his life.
The idea that Tolstoy puts forward for human nature at the beginning of the story is that when humankind has the opportunity to sin, chase the lusts of the flesh, he will pursue them to his destruction. This message is made clear by Pahom’s wife when she says,
But you, in your towns, 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. Don't such things happen often enough?
The younger sister makes this point in the face of the life of luxury that her sister has.
Pahom falls into the trap of human nature. He thinks to himself,
Busy as we are from childhood tilling Mother Earth, 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!
He misses the point of his wife—that if he had enough land he would be tempted to get more, it is the simple life itself that keeps him virtuous. Pahom is then ripe for the temptation of the devil, who makes it a point to bring him down with his desire for land.
Pahom ends up pursuing more and more land, having to leave his original community and finding people who are “simple” who will sell him a large, cheap tract. They make him a deal that he can have as much land as he wants for 1,000 roubles if he can mark it out himself and get back to the original spot. He gets too greedy and becomes lost and overcome, eventually seeing the people he is buying from before collapsing dead. The irony of the final moment is that he is buried in a six-foot grave, just enough land for him.
Tolstoy makes a point about how the primary function of humans is towards self-destruction. It is work and business that keeps us virtuous, but when given to luxury, wealth, or comfort, we will naturally seek things that destroy us. In that sense, Pahom’s wife is not only right but also wise for the things she says at the beginning of the story.