man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy
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Analysis

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Last Updated on October 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is set against the backdrop of the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861. Though an aristocrat and substantial landowner, Tolstoy—Count Leo Tolstoy, no less—was strongly in favor of the new policy, which aimed to turn serfs into free, independent citizens able to work on their own plots of land that they could now purchase from landowners.

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However, Tolstoy was concerned about one of the potential unforeseen consequences of the serfs’ emancipation. There was a real danger, he felt, that freed peasants would develop an unwholesome attitude toward the land which they were now entitled to own and work. Tolstoy passionately believed that peasants had, and indeed ought to have, a quasi-mystical relationship to the ground beneath their feet. Land wasn’t simply a commodity to be bought and sold; it was a place to call home—an almost sacred piece of soil that linked the current generation of peasants with their ancestors and those yet to be born.

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Latest answer posted November 2, 2016, 8:21 am (UTC)

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Pahom, a greedy peasant and the protagonist of the story, represents Tolstoy’s concern: he treats land as a commodity and nothing more. He becomes obsessed with buying as much land as possible, with the belief that it will make him successful and his life fulfilling. Although his insatiable hunger for land does indeed make him a wealthy man, Pahom notably doesn’t earn the respect of his neighbors, who resent his arrogance and greed. Even worse, from Tolstoy’s standpoint, Pahom’s greed separates him from his home soil, as he wanders far and wide in search of yet more land.

In light of Tolstoy’s views on wandering from a homeland, it is appropriate that Pahom meets his untimely end well away from his home, in the land of the Bashkirs. This serves as a warning against rootlessness and its potential to dissolve long-standing social ties. Tolstoy regards such ties as an essential component of any functioning society, especially the Russian rural society he so deeply venerates.

Pahom, like all other peasants, is fully entitled to his freedom; however, he abuses this freedom and turns his back on his people to become a selfish individualist, putting the acquisition of material wealth above the spiritual values of hearth and home that Tolstoy associates with the Russian peasant.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200

Tolstoy regarded the telling force of a moral and the power to reach a wide audience as the key elements in a story. These two elements are bountifully present in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” In referring to the tale as a parable, critics draw attention to its didactic function. In a parable, the focus is entirely on one or, at most, two characters and a specific circumstance that provides the conflict or challenge that the protagonists must face.

The only fully developed character in Tolstoy’s tale is Pahom; neither his wife nor her elder sister nor any of his fellow peasants is given a distinct identity. Tolstoy intends his readers to focus entirely on the plight of Pahom as he seeks his fortune. This, like his other parables, is meant to transmit feelings of God’s love and the importance of love of one’s neighbor.

The parable form is meant to convey a deliberate sense of “artlessness”—that is, a simplicity of narrative style and content in which a story seems inevitable, or self-telling. In fact, the parable form requires careful attention to achieve this “artless” effect, and Tolstoy has no equal among such storytellers.

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