The origins of ‘‘How Much Land Does aMan Need?’’ lie in several developments in Tolstoy’s life that began in earnest about ten years before the publication of the story. In the late 1870s, when Tolstoy was about fifty years old, he entered a period of existential crisis and despair. He was the celebrated, world-renowned author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well as being a wealthy landowner with a large family. It might have appeared that he had everything a man might want and everything to live for. But Tolstoy was depressed. He no longer had a clear purpose, and life seemed pointless to him.What did all his achievements count for? Happiness was an illusion; there was nothing real in life other than suffering and the eventual fact of death and annihilation. For a while Tolstoy wanted to die, and he even entertained thoughts of suicide. He relentlessly asked himself what the purpose of human life might be, and how a man ought to live. He eventually recovered from this profound crisis by rediscovering his faith in God. He especially admired the simple faith of the peasants. They might be ignorant but they accepted their lot. Whatever hardships they endured—poverty, suffering, exploitation, death—they accepted them with a quiet resignation, sustained by their religious faith. For a few years, Tolstoy tried to embrace the Russian Orthodox faith wholeheartedly, but he could not sustain it for long because he saw too much discrepancy between the dogmas taught by the church and what he thought was the message of Christ contained in the four gospels in the New Testament. He rejected the divinity of Christ, and developed his own Christian creed, based on the Sermon on the Mount and incorporating six moral requirements, some of them his own invention, including the commandment not to be angry. Tolstoy documented his spiritual crisis and the beliefs that arose from it in his autobiographical work A Confession (1882) and in What I Believe (1883), works that perhaps not surprisingly aroused the hostility of the Russian church and state.
At the same time as he was experiencing this existential crisis, Tolstoy was also radically reevaluating the nature and purpose of art, music, and literature. He spent many years working on the tract that was eventually published as What Is Art? in 1897. In this polemical essay, Tolstoy rejects as bad art many of the great works of the Western cultural tradition, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He rejects the latter because it fails to convey ‘‘the highest religious feeling’’ and does not unite ‘‘all men in one common feeling,’’ which were Tolstoy’s criteria for accepting something as ‘‘Christian universal art.’’ For Tolstoy, art had to be useful to ordinary people. It ought to educate. It ought to be intelligible to the masses, not written only for the pleasure of the wealthy, educated classes. That kind of art was not really needed by anyone; it was a worthless, immoral, even harmful distraction, and Tolstoy would have nothing to do with it.
Given this development of his aesthetic beliefs, Tolstoy was no longer interested in producing novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The latter, in which the focus is on the life of an adulterous woman, was particularly troubling to Tolstoy, given the stern moralism that he was embracing at this point in his life. Determined to live up to his own principles, he decided that he wanted to write morally uplifting literature for the people—the peasants and uneducated folk. In this desire he was not alone. As Gary R. Jahn points out in his essay ‘‘Tolstoy as a Writer of Popular Literature,’’ there were a number of publishing enterprises in Russia during the 1870s that aimed to produce high-quality literature for the masses. Most failed because they did not have effective distribution networks. But Tolstoy was not put off by the difficulties. In 1884, one of his friends and disciples, an aristocrat and former army officer named Vladimir Chertkov, suggested that he and Tolstoy found their own publishing company that would produce small books of stories that could be sold very inexpensively to a mass reading public. The company was called the Intermediary, and Tolstoy supplied many of the stories for the books, including ‘‘God Sees the Truth, but Waits,’’ ‘‘What Men Live By,’’ ‘‘Two Old Men,’’ and ‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ The Intermediary was a very successful enterprise. Over the next six years, twenty million copies of its booklets were printed. Tolstoy received no money for his efforts, nor did he want any. He was happy to supply the common people with reading matter that fulfilled his criteria of what art was and should do. Tolstoy wrote about twenty stories for the common folk, as well as two plays. Jahn sees in these stories, many of which consisted of a retelling of folktales, ‘‘a combination … of the use and adaptation of familiar popular forms as a stylistic foundation, the overtly didactic presentation of ethically significant thematic material, and the artistic skill and power of a great literary master.’’ Jahn makes the further point that in retelling these traditional stories, Tolstoy was recreating the medieval literary form of the exemplum, ‘‘a story told, usually as part of a homily or sermon, to illustrate a particular point of doctrine.’’ ‘
‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ illustrates the moral point that a man must know when enough is enough. He must not continually seek more and more material possessions, unrelated to his personal need. This is greed, pure and simple, and the story shows how the desire for more and more is a monster that will turn around and devour the desirer until he ends up with nothing at all—not even his life.
Although the story is cast in the form of a simple moral tale, Tolstoy remains the writer who uses his life experience, including his travels, in his work as a means of communicating the truths he wants to convey. For example, Tolstoy knew the Bashkir people and their lands well, and there is some historical basis for at least some of the details of how they are presented in the story. In 1862, when Tolstoy was in his mid-thirties, he became ill and was sent by his doctor to live among the Bashkir nomads in their felt tents and drink kumys. As Tolstoy’s biographer Henri Troyat explains in Tolstoy, ‘‘Kumys—fermented and mildly carbonated mare’s milk—was highly esteemed in Russia as a tonic.’’ Consumed in large quantities, the drink ‘‘produced a mild and pleasant state of inebriation’’—which might explain why the Bashkirs in the story are so ‘‘merry.’’ Tolstoy told his friends that he planned to lie around in the sun, drink kumys and eat as much mutton as he wished—exactly as the Bashkirs do in the story he was later to write. After traveling hundreds of miles southeast from Moscow he stayed with the Bashkirs, living as they did, for several months. He seems to have found them (as in the story) a carefree and very hospitable people who did not need to grind themselves down through hard work. He enjoyed long talks with the Bashkir elders and participated in friendly athletic competition with the young men. The time passed quickly.
Tolstoy returned to the Bashkirs nine years later, in 1871, for another kumys treatment. He liked the region so much he even bought property in the nearby district of Samara, and, like Pahom thinks he is going to do in the story, got it ‘‘dirt-cheap,’’ buying 6,700 acres of land for only twenty thousand rubles. Tolstoy described this to his wife (in the words of Troyat) as a ‘‘very good deal.’’ Two years later Tolstoy took his family out to enjoy the primitive living in this location on the steppes (plains), even bringing in a local Bashkir and his wives to give them all a kumys treatment. He returned again in 1875 and then every summer until 1883. In that year he had a long kumys treatment and believed that his health improved as a result.
All these historically accurate elements of a way of life and a particular region found their way into Tolstoy’s simple tale of greed and its consequences. Of course, as an artist, he shaped the material in ways that suited his purpose. The dealer who informs Pahom about the availability of cheap Bashkir land says he bought thirteen thousand acres for a mere one thousand rubles— which makes Tolstoy’s ‘‘very good deal’’ look expensive by comparison. But the exaggeration helps to make the story work. Tolstoy also— surely—exaggerates the amiable, jovial nature of the Bashkirs and their apparent willingness to part with their land. To them, one piece of land is very much the same as another, and it does not matter who claims ownership of it. They do not even have the means of measuring it out, which is why they sell it ‘‘by the day’’ (as much as a man can walk around in a day). Tolstoy exaggerates because he wants to present the Bashkirs as a convincing foil (a foil in literature is a character who sets off another by contrast) for Pahom’s restless acquisitiveness. Whereas Pahom perpetually desires what he does not have, the Bashkirs are content; while he schemes and works, they relax and play.
Glimpses also abound in ‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ of Tolstoy’s sheer power as a writer—in the subtleties of his observations and his presentation of the real state of a man’s heart and soul. Here for example is the joy Pahom feels at the end of part 2, after he acquires land for the first time:
“The grass that grew and the flowers that bloomed there seemed to him unlike any that grew elsewhere. Formerly, when he had passed by that land, it had appeared the same as any other land, but now it seemed quite different.”
Tolstoy here captures that strange metamorphosis that comes over people when they acquire personal possessions. Some might regard Pahom’s feelings simply as harmless, indeed desirable, pride of ownership, but Tolstoy sees in them something more—the seeds of acquisitiveness and the beginning of Pahom’s downfall.
Another notable aspect of the story is Tolstoy’s description of Pahom’s last desperate moments. As Pahom measures out the land that he hopes to acquire, he gets hotter and hotter under the relentless sun; it is as if the fires of hell are prematurely burning in him. The bright sun acts as a metaphor not for enlightenment but for damnation, not as the bringer of life but as the harbinger of doom. There is a cruel irony in his attempt to force himself to go on: ‘‘An hour to suffer, a life-time to live,’’ he tells himself. In fact, it is the other way around: Pahom has an hour or so to live, and an eternity to suffer, for his soul is now in the clutches of the Devil. Tolstoy here presents a picture of a man who is already in hell. He is tortured mentally by self-reproach, fear of failure and the resultant ridicule, and by fear of death. He is also tortured physically:
“Pahom went on running, his soaking shirt and trousers stuck to him and his mouth was parched. His breast was working like a blacksmith’s bellows, his heart was beating like a hammer, and his legs were giving way as if they did not belong to him.”
No wonder the Devil is laughing. This image of Pahom in distress under the beating of the sun’s rays vividly underscores the moral of Tolstoy’s grim tale: desire—greed—is a fire that will burn a man up; better accept what the Lord gives and not ask for more.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Leo Tolstoy – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.