man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy

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How Much Land Does a Man Need? Themes

The main themes of “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” are the corrupting power of greed and susceptibility to temptation.

  • The corrupting power of greed: Pahom, the story’s protagonist, finds that his desire to own land grows as he acquires more land. In the end, his greed to own more land than he really needs is the cause of his death.
  • Susceptibility to temptation: Despite believing that country people are less likely than people in town to succumb to temptation, Pahom ultimately proves that people everywhere are equally likely to surrender to it.

Themes

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Corrupting Power of Greed 

The key theme of this short story is greed and its power to corrupt. At the beginning of the story, Pahom, the protagonist, believes that he would “not fear the Devil himself” if he only had enough land. The Devil begins to tempt him, and Pahom has opportunity after opportunity to acquire more land. 

Though his land grows, Pahom is never satisfied, and he is increasingly willing to step over other people to get more and better land for himself; he fines those who were once his fellow peasants, tries to punish a peasant for a crime he didn’t commit, and takes advantage of a landowner in financial difficulty. Pahom thus begins to resemble his neighbor’s harsh steward, whom he initially loathed for fining the people of the commune. 

The Bashkirs inform Pahom that they will sell him however much land he can walk around in a day, and he mentally plots out a tract of land that will take him the rest of the day to mark out and sets to work. Though selling land by the day is unconventional, the Bashkirs’ rate is reasonable: surely a plot of land that takes an entire day to walk around is plenty. However, not even this is enough to satisfy Pahom, and he alters his path to include more land as he goes along. He ultimately overestimates how far of a circuit he can walk, and his greed kills him. 

Susceptibility to Temptation

Part of the irony in Tolstoy’s short story lies in the fact that Pahom and his wife believe that people in the country are less susceptible to the Devil’s temptation. Pahom’s wife believes that the men of the town are constantly in danger of temptation through “cards, wine, or women” and that they are corrupted by these things “often enough.” Like the old proverb that the Devil makes work for idle hands, Pahom claims that the hard work of country life makes country people too busy to be tempted. 

Though he is not tempted by “cards, wine, or women,” Pahom is already at fault at the beginning of the story because he is discontent with what he has. Simply by giving Pahom what he desires—more and more land—the Devil corrupts him with greed and, ultimately, kills him. Pahom’s story demonstrates, therefore, that anything can lead to temptation if one is not careful, and that anyone is susceptible to temptation.

Rural Russian Values

Tolstoy, like many Russian writers across history, often writes in praise of the Russian peasantry, whose simple lifestyle evokes a sense of bucolic elegance and national pride. Toiling in the fields, owning only such luxuries as can be handspun, and the humble pride of self-sufficient labor are all tokens of the lifestyle Tolstoy and many others write of and honor. However, this short story takes up the potential for the Russian peasantry to be led astray, motivated by desires not befitting their station, such as greed and temptation. Pahom’s descent into ceaseless ambition leads him to reject all that he once held true in favor of the alluring prospect of material wealth and social standing. His pride in the labors of the peasantry and his pleasure at a well-earned harvest evaporate, lost in the whirlpool of devilish greed.

As much as the short story is a warning against greed and temptation, it is also a praise-laden elegy for the humble peasant, a class and a lifestyle he feared might soon be lost to time. Pahom’s failures act as a frantic look forward, predicting what might become of Russia’s most virtuous and admirable institution and fervently hoping no such change might come to pass.  

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