Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is a classic Leo Tolstoy tale of a man’s grasp exceeding his reach. Seeking security in the acquisition of wealth or land instead of seeking it in the humble family life of the peasant, Pahom mocks God and falls into the clutches of the devil. Tolstoy’s story greatly resembles the parable of the rich fool told by Jesus in Luke 12:16-20, in which a wealthy farmer tears down his barns and builds bigger ones to store his wheat, thinking to himself that he has achieved security for the rest of his life. Instead, at the very moment when he surveys his domain with complacent satisfaction, God rebukes him: “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.”

Tolstoy’s Pahom is thus a man discontented with his lot in life who fails to seek his contentment from the proper source. His boast that with enough land he would not fear the devil himself is actually a rejection of God as his protector and benefactor. However, unlike Faust, who openly bargains with an agent of the devil, Pahom is a victim of his own greed, which obscures his judgment; so obsessed is he with more land, he is unable to recognize the hand of the devil behind his opportunities. This, clearly, is the moral fault that Tolstoy seeks to underscore in the tale: The sacrificing of a basic trust in God and the surrender of basic human kindness and responsibility for the acquisition of possessions brings a man earthly ruin and eternal damnation.