How Much Land Does a Man Need? | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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How Much Land Does a Man Need? | Themes


The Dangers of Greed and Ambition

Pahom's fate is a warning against greed. Ambition corrupts and endangers him as his need for land gets out of control. Temptations corrupt his treatment of others, and the stakes in his personal life grow higher as he has more to lose.

When competition replaces cooperation in Pahom's first commune, his character changes. At first all his fellow peasants fall prey to individual greed. When they discuss pooling their resources to buy the landowner's land in Part 2, they can't agree. Instead they decide to purchase land individually, leading to stiff competition. Once Pahom gets his own land, he sees his personality transform despite his best intentions. He wants to forgive his neighbors for letting their animals wander onto his land since he has been in their situation. Despite his initial good intentions, he ultimately chooses to protect himself and his wealth. He takes on an air of moral superiority, determined to teach his neighbors a lesson. Later he accuses the commune judges of dishonesty and his neighbors of theft. His pompous, protective attitude toward his land increases the resentment the community already feels toward him. When he moves to a new commune, he sees his neighbors as direct threats to his own plans. Pahom's character development demonstrates how personal ambition can override compassion and fellowship.

Pahom's hunger for land also means others can easily take advantage of him. The dream in Part 7 shows everyone who promised Pahom greater wealth laughing at his expense. It implies he was foolish to trust them in the first place. Similarly, he attempts to outsmart the Bashkirs by taking as much of their land as possible.

The story frequently hints that Pahom should be content with his present lot rather than striving for more. Though his life as a poor peasant is hard, his needs are met, and he knows what to expect. Tolstoy warns against the slippery slope of desires exceeding needs. When Pahom buys his first plot of land at the end of Part 2, he sees the grass and flowers differently. This is a sign he's becoming attached to his belongings. He sees the land as an extension of himself. As his landholdings grow, he spends more money, and his anxiety increases. By Part 4 he's fighting his neighbors for farmland.

The final challenge of the Bashkirs is an all-or-nothing gamble. Either Pahom will become extremely wealthy, or he will lose everything. Tolstoy employs dramatic irony throughout the story. The reader sees Pahom's coming destruction, but Pahom doesn't recognize it himself until it's too late. By the time he learns it's impossible to have everything he wants, the effort has cost too much.

Social Class and Money

In 19th-century Russia, as in many places, social class had the power to dictate how someone saw themselves and what their future would hold. Working peasant Pahom longs for the status of a wealthy landowner. Greater assets will give him control over his future and help him transcend the limitations of his humble birth.

Pahom's temptations are a strong motivational force in the story because the reader can easily sympathize with them. Pahom has a natural desire for independence and freedom. As a peasant farmer he works constantly. The rich landowners and the Bashkirs, by contrast, don't seem to work at all. Once Pahom owns his land, he's free to decide how the land will be used. In his first two locations, he has to negotiate with a commune; in the land of the Bashkirs, he has the allure of complete independence. In Part 7 Pahom daydreams about what he'll do with the land, picturing himself as the ultimate authority over his own life. His progression shows how increased social status can give a false sense of power. No amount of money can save him from death.

What's more, his upward class mobility comes with its own problems. After Russia abolished serfdom in 1861, peasants could own their land outright for the first time. This change led to new possibilities and unanticipated conflicts. Some farmers grew richer than others, and competition grew as everyone tried to earn more. Pahom experiences a role reversal in Part 3 that demonstrates how class conflict can lead to corruption. Once he owns land, he can levy fines on his neighbors when their animals wander onto his property. As Pahom grows richer, his neighbors grow poorer. Pahom forgets that he struggled to pay similar fines when he was a poor farmer himself. Still, he chooses profit over compassion. His neighbors openly despise him as a result, revealing another consequence of his wealth.

Divine Power over Human Lives

Tolstoy converted to Christianity late in life. "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" is one of his many moral folktales informed by a religious worldview. He uses Pahom's fate to illustrate the power of spiritual forces, the inevitability of death, and the temporary nature of human achievements.

The plot is set in motion when the Devil decides to wield his power over Pahom. In the Christian tradition, the Devil tempts humans to sin and ensures their destruction as a result. In Part 1 Pahom believes if he has enough land and wealth, he will be too powerful to have to fear supernatural forces like the Devil. The Devil takes advantage of Pahom's lack of humility by steering the narrative's events. The story implies Pahom's temptations are often engineered by the Devil. For instance, when the members of Pahom's first commune try to buy land together in Part 2, the Devil makes sure they fight with one another.

Pahom confronts another topic Tolstoy often dealt with in his fiction—the nearness of death. When he negotiates with the Bashkirs for land in Part 6, he tries to secure a deed, keeping the land for his family in the future. But this gesture isn't enough for him to escape his mortality. That night he dreams he sees himself lying dead at the Devil's feet. The dream image is an omen both foreshadowing Pahom's death and warning of the death that all humans must face. As the last line of the story says, Pahom only needs enough land for his grave. No other land can ever be truly his.

The wealth Pahom gains is not his to keep either. The younger sister in Part 1 hints at this moral when she warns her wealthy elder sister that a fortune can be lost overnight. Each of Pahom's landholdings is temporary. He takes more and more risks, losing as much as he gains. Even with careful planning and forethought, Pahom doesn't always get what he wants. He moves beyond the Volga River hoping for more land than ever, only to find most of the good farmland already gone. By the end of Part 9, he realizes God may not want him to live on the Bashkirs' land and his efforts may have been in vain. Tolstoy warns readers not to put too much faith in their own accomplishments since good luck can always be reversed.

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