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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 on October 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

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. 

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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. 

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

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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 is able to corrupt him through greed and kill him. Pahom’s story demonstrates, therefore, that anything can lead to temptation if one is not careful, and that anyone is susceptible to temptation.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 263

“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.

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