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 Need?"

The title of "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" is significant in that Pahom already has everything he needs at the beginning of the story, including land. Because of his greed, Pahom spends the rest of his life trying to acquire as much land as he wants, and at the end of the story, readers learn that all he really needs is a plot six feet long, in which he is buried.

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"How Much Land Does a Man Need" is a parable, which is a story that parallels some event(s) with a moral lesson. Pahom's wife had been correct in that, although poor, they had everything they needed. However, overhearing this, Pahom concludes that if he had more land he would not fear even the Devil himself. Therefore, Pahom has made the decision that land and/or wealth would make him so prosperous and powerful that he would be beyond the Devil's influence. However, that influence presents itself each time Pahom longs for more land.

Prior to the sisters' discussion, Pahom already had as much land as he needed to be happy. He let greed overtake that contentment and it ruined him. The other significant aspect of the title is that each man only really needs enough land to be buried in.

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 moral is that there is no specific amount of land or wealth required to make a person happy. Companionship is clearly a much better indicator of happiness but Pahom does not even consider his wife when he goes to such lengths to acquire more land. This story is an example of dramatic irony; this is when the audience is aware of some truth (that greed will be Pahom's downfall) that the character (Pahom) is unaware of. The ironic ending, or the brutal truth, is that the answer to the question, "How Much Land Does a Man Need," is "six feet from his head to his heels."

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In "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Tolstoy examines the effect on a simple peasant of what at first seems to be an improvement in his life. As he gains more land, Pahom's outlook changes from that of a peasant to that of a landed proprietor. He becomes more selfish and possessive in his outlook and forgets what is essential in life.

One of the central ironies in a heavily ironic story is that this change in Pahom's life is brought about by his response to his wife's contention that they live a peaceful life in which everything is sufficient for their needs. Pahom replies with one caveat: he wishes he had more land, in which case, he would not fear the devil himself. The devil, overhearing this, takes umbrage and resolves to teach Pahom a lesson about precisely how much land a man needs.

The title of the story takes the form of a question, to which there are several possible answers. Pahom already has as much land as he needs at the beginning of the story, but he never has quite as much as he wants. Only at the end of the story does he get exactly as much land as he needs: six feet for the burial of his body. Tolstoy suggests that this...

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is all any of us need—anything further is vain desire.

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

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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