man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637

“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” was published in 1886 and features many elements of Leo Tolstoy’s essential philosophical ideology. Although the author was an aristocrat and substantial landowner, he experienced an awakening in the 1870s, which led him to embrace Christian values and Georgist economic policies, holding that men should live virtuously and share the wealth of their labor. His 1886 short story depicts the dangers of living in opposition to these values, detailing the consequences of greed, selfish economic policies, and unchecked ambition. Backgrounded by the 1861 emancipation of the Russian serf—a policy Tolstoy notably favored—the story depicts the lives of serfs now permitted to act as independent citizens able to work and purchase land from their previous lords.

While Tolstoy openly advocated for serfs’ rights to self-determinism and economic inclusion, he also worried that emancipation might lead to potentially devastating unforeseen consequences. 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 was more than a commodity to be bought and sold. Indeed, Tolstoy felt it was a place to call home—a sacred piece of soil that linked the current generation of peasants with their ancestors and descendants alike.

Pahom, the greedy peasant protagonist, represents Tolstoy’s concern: he treats land as a commodity and nothing more. He becomes obsessed with buying as much land as possible, believing it would make him successful and his life fulfilling. Although his insatiable hunger for land makes 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 when he wanders far and wide in search of yet more land. Moreover, his ambitions lead him to harm others, more than willing to report them for borrowing resources when he once did the same or exploit their circumstances to win a better price. Greed makes him self-serving and blinds him to the misfortune of others; indeed, his actions are immoral and function opposite to Tolstoy’s delineated values. 

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. It is 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 rural Russian lifestyle he 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 who puts the acquisition of material wealth above the spiritual values of hearth, home, and unity that Tolstoy associates with the Russian peasant.

The story is told in a third-person omniscient point of view and details Pahom’s journey and thought process as he strives to acquire the land he so desires. Much of the story unfolds inside his head, following the considerations and desires that lead him to act as he does. The focus on Pahom’s thought process is interesting, as it implies that his actions are entirely his own, despite Tolstoy’s subtle indication that the Devil has contrived circumstances to push him toward such choices. Indeed, as his dream implies, his choices are not entirely his own, and his fate is preordained. Readers are privy to Pahom’s thoughts and understand that while his fate is the result of a sequence of immoral and selfish decisions, it was equally contingent on the subtle machinations of the Devil’s guiding hand.

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