‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ is Tolstoy’s retelling of a folktale. A folktale is a prose story usually of unknown authorship that is handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth or in writing. Folktales are found in all human cultures. Many folktales contain the devil as a character who tempts or tricks the human characters; sometimes the devil succeeds (as in this story and in another of Tolstoy’s retold folktales, ‘‘The Imp and the Crust’’), but sometimes he is thwarted, as in Tolstoy’s ‘‘The Story of Ivan the Fool.’’ Folktales are sometimes developed by authors for retelling to a more sophisticated or cultivated audience. In the case of ‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ the folktale elements can be seen in the fact that only one of the characters, Pahom, is individualized and given a name. The others are generic types: the peasant, the dealer, the elder and younger sister, the chief. There are no descriptions of what people look like. The basic folktale motif can also be seen in the repetitive simplicity of the plot. The same thing happens three times. At the beginning, Pahom is dissatisfied and wants more land (part 1). Pahom acquires more land, but gets dissatisfied (parts 2–3); he get more land and again gets dissatisfied (part 4); he gets even more land, which leads to the final catastrophe (parts 5–9). But Tolstoy also brings literary art to the basic folktale in his detailed understanding of Pahom’s thought processes, which lead inexorably to the peasant’s doom. Tolstoy also injects humor and subtlety into the portrayal of the Bashkirs, who are not quite as simple as they appear and seem to know that Pahom is making a fool of himself in his quest for land.
Foreshadowing in a literary work is the presentation of hints or clues that suggest to the alert reader how later events may turn out. Foreshadowing can be as simple as an image or simile. At the end of the story, for example, as Pahom desperately runs to get back to the place he started, he looks up and sees the sun ‘‘red as blood.’’ This simile foreshadows the blood that will soon flow from his mouth as he dies. Foreshadowing also occurs when Pahom stops every so often to dig a hole so he can mark his land. This ironically foreshadows the digging of his grave that will shortly occur.
Irony has a number of different meanings when applied to a work of literature. It can refer to a situation in which there is an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs. An example from the story is at the beginning, when Pahom’s wife is talking to her sister. Responding to her sister’s criticism of peasant life, the woman says that men in cities ‘‘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.’’ The irony of the situation is that it is Pahom the peasant, not his brother-in-law in the city, who is brought down as a result of the actions of the Devil.
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.