man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy
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What is the significance of the title "How Much Land Does A Man Require?"

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Tolstoy in his later years became an admirer of the American philosopher/economist Henry George and an advocate of George's program for social reform explained in his bookProgress and Poverty. Briefly, George believed that no one should be entitled to own any part of the earth, since no one created it...

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Tolstoy in his later years became an admirer of the American philosopher/economist Henry George and an advocate of George's program for social reform explained in his bookProgress and Poverty. Briefly, George believed that no one should be entitled to own any part of the earth, since no one created it and since those who come first can monopolize all the land and force people born later to pay them to use the land. Eventually the entire earth could be monopolized by men who did not use it. George believed that the government should own all the land and rent it out at the fair market rental value. The government should derive all its revenue from this rent and not charge any taxes of any kind.

Tolstoy's story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" illustrates how some men will try to acquire much more land than they can use, because they can either charge others to use that land or force others to work the land for them as sharecroppers or serfs. The story shows the influence of thinkers like Henry George, Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, among others.

The Devil is included in the story because Tolstoy considered the existing system of land ownership wicked and devilish, the cause of much of the human suffering that existed in his native land and elsewhere in the world, including the American Deep South where slavery still flourished.

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The title "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" is appropriate. It is a question that offers reflection. Pahom is greedy. He desires more and more land. He covets his neighbor's land. Then he purchases more land. Finally, he ends up at the Bashkirs' land. He can have all that he can walk around in one day. Due to his greed, Pahom tries to cover too much land. While trying to race back to the starting point, he collapses and dies.

Then the question is important. How much land does Pahom really need. Ironically, Pahom has more than enough at his burial. Since six feet of land is all that Pahom needs at his death, all of his other land will go to waste. He will not be able to enjoy it.

So the question is a good question. If Pahom had really thought about it, he had more than enough land. When all is said and done, a man only needs six feet of land in which to be buried. Pahom's greed killed him. He died because of his lust for more and more land. In the end, his burial ground covered six feet. The title is apporpriate because it makes the reader think. It causes the reader to reflect upon the nature of the question. How much Land does a man need is a title with a twist of irony. If Pahom had reflected on the question and thought about its seriousness, he might still be alive.   

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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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