What is the theme of "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" by Leo Tolstoy?

The main theme of “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Tolstoy is the danger of greed. The soul of the avaricious peasant Pahom has become so corroded by greed that it leads him to buy up more and more land until, eventually, it kills him.

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The key theme in this short story is the corrupting power of greed. However, we can also read into it various other connected themes, such as the temporary nature of physical acquisitions. The overriding idea of the story is that Pahom’s greed ultimately avails him nothing. He seeks to acquire more and more land, but in the end, he is so greedy that he does not consider whether his attempts to gain more land are even feasible for him physically. He pushes himself so hard, thinking only of what he might be able to gain, that he kills himself in the effort.

This, then, leads us on to the second key theme of the story, as underlined by the concluding statement that all the land Pahom needed in the end was the amount that would serve for his grave. The story is telling us that greed is so abhorrent and so pointless not only because it has a corrupting effect on the character, as it is shown to have on Pahom’s, but also because it does not actually amass anything that is permanent. At the end of the story, Pahom has worked so hard and caused so much damage to himself that he has caused his own premature death, but nothing of what he has gained in life will belong to him in death. His greed and hard work has ultimately benefited him nothing.

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The answer to the question posed in the title of Tolstoy's short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is “Just enough to bury your body.” You can't take it with you, as the saying goes, and so it's pointless to amass a large amount of stuff, whether it's antiques, gadgets, objects of art, or, in the case of Pahom, tracts of land.

Pahom is a Russian peasant who can't stop buying up more and more land. No matter how much land he buys, it's never enough. He remains completely unsatisfied by his purchases, to the extent that his growing land wealth never seems to bring him any happiness.

Pahom's soul has become corrupted by greed to such an extent that he no longer knows what's in his best interests. In a classic example of the tail wagging the dog, greed has got the better of Pahom; it has taken him over to such an extent that he's become its slave, somewhat ironic given that he's only recently been freed from serfdom.

The dangers of greed ultimately lead to Pahom's death. Given what he believes to be the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to own as much Bashkir land as he can traverse in a single day, Pahom ends up dropping down dead as he tries to grab as much acreage as he can get his greedy little hands on.

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“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is a tale of the theme of greed.  The main character, Pahom, is, at the beginning of the story, a peasant who places all his value on material representations of wealth, and who is therefore unhappy.  And so his family works together to earn the money to buy a plot of land, and they are successful, and this land provides happiness for Pahom for a time.  Soon, however, he begins to desire more space and more profit, and sells his land for a larger plot, upon which the same thing happens – he is happy for a time, but soon begins to crave more.  So we can say that one theme of the story is that greed for material gain does not provide eternal happiness.  If a person looks outside himself for happiness, he will never be satisfied with what he has, and will eventually reach too far and face his downfall.

This is what happens to Pahom, who is given the task by a tribal people of marking out any area of land, on foot, before the setting of the sun.  If he returns to where he started in the allotted time, he can have the ground he covered for a very cheap price.  Pahom’s reason is overthrown by his greed, and instead of assuring himself plenty of time he walks blindly around the best corners of the land, not noticing that he is running out of time until it is too late.  He makes it back to where he started, and the chief of the tribe is willing to make a concession despite the fact that he was a few minutes late – unfortunately, however, Pahom has killed himself in his efforts.  And in the end, once Pahom was buried, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

This ironic ending note is a testament to the futility of amassing any excessive amount of wealth or assets, for what good is it all if it destroys a man?  In the end a very humble plot of land is all a man has truly earned – that grave that equalizes any one life with the next.  Better to be satisfied with humble gains from the beginning, and be free to appreciate and celebrate what you have rather than suffer with the chains of greed around one’s ankles.

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