Assessing the Concept of Greed in Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In “How Much Land Does A Man Need?”, Lev Tolstoy delivers a seemingly clear, fable like message: greed is destructive. While listening in on a conversation between his wife and her wealthy sister, Pahóm, a peasant man, convinces himself that if he owned more land he would have no troubles and “shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” (Tolstoy 16). Unbeknownst to Pahóm, the Devil is eavesdropping and takes his words as a challenge, leading him down a path to destruction. As Pahóm begins to acquire more and more land to farm, his greed increases proportionally. Eventually, he makes a deal with the Bashkír people, in which he can claim as much of their land as he wants during the period of sunrise to sunset. To stake his claim, he has to walk the perimeter of the tract of the land that he wants and mark it by digging holes. If he fails to complete the task by sunfall, his money is forfeited. In his attempt to mark off as large of a tract of land as he can in one day, Pahóm dies of exhaustion. The story ends with a potent observation of what happens to a greedy peasant man: “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed” (Tolstoy 28). Tolstoy writes this story at a time when he is considered a leader by the peasants, a voice for their people. Also, by using religious imagery like the Devil, Tolstoy assumes some religious authority, in Christian Orthodox dominated Russia. This has the effect of making his message accessible to the peasant class, and evoking a sense of religious guilt in the peasants. Pahóm’s punishment, and his ultimate fate, are set in motion when the Devil hears his thoughts, sending a message that the Devil will punish you for the thought of wanting more. Tolstoy’s story, while it can be interpreted as affirming the peasant lifestyle as morally superior has the effect of using religious principles and symbols to frighten peasants into refraining from pursuing any material wealth whatsoever. and remaining in with the confines of their economic and social class.

Tolstoy’s story is not simple a cautionary tale. As a cautionary tale, the message is obvious: greed is destructive. The main character lets his greed consume him, and because of it, he is met with the cruel fate of death. This interpretation, however, seems inconsistent with the story itself. It seems strange that the only person who is punished for wanting and having excessive wealth is a peasant, who gains his wealth through his ingenuity and hard work. Pahóm is not the only character who has pursued excessive wealth. In the first paragraph of the story, Pahóm’s sister-in-law is talking to Pahóm’s wife about all the advantages and amenities of her family’s wealth. The Devil, however, doesn’t punish the sister-in-law, despite being in the room when she was boasting, which is the Devil’s stated reason for punishing Pahóm (Tolstoy 16). Other wealthy people in the story escape punishment, such as the woman who owned 300 acres of land, and, through her steward, mercilessly fined peasants for their cattle wandering onto her land. In essence, the effect of Tolstoy’s message then becomes “if a peasant becomes greedy, they will be punished”, rather than “greed is destructive”. The effect of Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” is more specifically to guilt and scare religious peasants into remaining in their peasant class.

The use by Tolstoy of powerful Christian religious principles and imagery in “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” has the effect of frightening his readers into submission. The story begins with two sisters, a rich, elder sister, and a peasant, younger sister. Unbeknownst to them, they talk to each other while the Devil is in the room. The first clear demonstration of religious imagery is the younger sister’s retort:

“Of course our work is rough and coarse. But, on the other hand, it is sure; and we need not bow to any one. But you, in your towns, are surrounded by temptations; to-day all may be right, but to-morrow the Evil One may tempt your husband with cards, wine, or women, and all will go to ruin” (Tolstoy 16).

In the context of the story, the sister is simply outlining the risks of temptation that come with great wealth. However, by using the Devil image the effect of Tolstoy’s message is to say that wealth, and therefore greed, may cause you and your loved ones to defy your religion, give into the temptations of the Devil and destroy your lives.

Devil imagery is again explicit towards the end of the story, where Pahóm attempts to buy land from the Bashkírs. The night before Pahóm is to walk the perimeter of the land he is to acquire, he has a dream in which he hears someone laughing outside his tent, and sees the person transform first from the Bashkír chief, to a tradesman, to a peasant that had stayed in his home and talked about good opportunity to acquire land and wealth, to the Devil himself, with an unidentified man sitting at his feet, with only his shirt and trousers. In Pahóm’s dream, all the people he sees can be interpreted to be different forms, or disguises, of the Devil, at different parts of his journey, fueling Pahóm’s greed. The Devil disguising himself is quite common in canonical literature, and the person at the feet of the Devil at the end of the dream can be interpreted to be Pahóm, when he dies in the near future. This dream is offered as a warning to Pahóm, and the peasant audience is supposed to see it as an enforcement of the existing message: “greed is giving into the Devil’s temptations, which will destroy your lives.” Tolstoy’s other works were most likely intended to be read by people who had a higher education. However, in 1886 when Tolstoy was writing for the peasants, the Devil shows up as an obvious image and fulfillment of the conversation that the two sisters were having in the beginning of the story. The effect is that the peasants “realize” that the Devil has imposed the fate of death on Pahóm because of his greed, and his desire for wealth and land.At the end of the story, Tolstoy answers the question “How Much Land Does A Man Need?”, “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahóm to be in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” (Tolstoy 28). Not only does the last sentence answer the question addressed in the title of the story, there is an irony and explicit message conveyed by this act. His servant, a clear symbol of his wealth, is the person that makes his death official, and returns him to the earth. Very simply, Pahóm’s wealth buries him.

Tolstoy also employs traditional religious notions that reject vices associated with greed and excessive wealth such as envy and jealousy. Tolstoy describes Pahóm as envious and furious at times in the story, probably to portray the negative effects of his greedy nature. When Pahóm is described as furious, he is contemplating persecuting a peasant named Simon, who Pahóm believes stripped his trees of their bark. Virtues within the Christian tradition such as compassion diminish for Pahóm as his wealth increases. This is demonstrated by his treatment of Simon, whose name carries notable religious significance. Simon is the birth name of Saint Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Whether intended or not, this is powerful imagery on Tolstoy’s part: Pahóm, a greedy man, is driven to persecute a disciple of Jesus, and a saint. Obviously, Simon the peasant wasn’t a disciple of Jesus, but the name would have carried a lot of religious significance with it to Russian Orthodox peasants, and is one of the many pieces of religious imagery that is used to reinforce and even threaten peasants with the notion that the pursuit of wealth ultimately leads to punishment by the Devil.

Though Tolstoy may have intended to praise the peasant class through explaining the moral shortcomings of wealth, his use of religious imagery and principles have the effect of suppressing potential desire to pursue movement of out or away from their class. Use of Devil imagery, emotions that reject virtue, and symbolic religious names, such as Simon, send the message that possibly even literal punishment from the Devil, and certainly failure and misfortune for their families, are associated with obtaining material wealth and rejection of a peasant lifestyle.


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