Greed and Envy
When viewed through its main theme, ‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ is not a complex or subtle story. It is about the sins of greed and envy as they manifest in one particular man, the peasant Pahom. Unlike his wife, Pahom has not learned to be satisfied with what he has. He repeatedly convinces himself that he is not comfortable and needs more land, even though his wife tells her younger sister that they have enough for their needs. When he sees a neighbor acquiring land, he immediately becomes envious. It is not the hard work of the peasant’s life Pahom objects to, but the fact—as he sees it—that he does not have enough land. It is not as if he wants great wealth in order to spend it and live a lavish lifestyle. He just thinks that having more land is the answer to any problem he might have. He always has a reason for wanting more that is good enough to convince him he is right. For example, Pahom thinks that the more land he has the less dependent he will be on others; the less they will be able to restrict or control him or dictate to him in ways he finds irksome. He does not realize that in freeing himself from others—or at least trying to—he is in fact becoming enslaved to something irrational within himself that will have far more adverse consequences. On the contrary, his desire for more land seems very reasonable to him. No doubt if he were asked, he would describe himself as a prudent, sensible man, even a shrewd one. Having land is good, he might argue, therefore having more land is even better. But the truth is that Pahom is in the grip of greed. Being greedy is to want more and more in a way that is unrelated to actual need. He sees the acquisition of more land as a way of freeing himself from anxiety, but in fact, the more land he acquires, the more anxious and troubled he becomes. He quarrels with his neighbors and takes one of them to court, and this makes him even more unpopular. His neighbors threaten to burn his building down, which never happened before when he did not have much. His final state of anxiety, when he is on the brink of acquiring more land than he has ever had, is far worse than anything he has experienced before. Indeed, he is terrified, because he thinks the effort of getting back to the hillock before sunset will kill him—which may be the only time in the story that he sees things the way they really are. Pahom’s fate can perhaps be summed up in one sentence that occurs after he first hears about the place beyond the Volga where he can acquire much more land than he currently has: ‘‘Pahom’s heart kindled with desire.’’ Once that desire has been ignited, it grows and grows and nothing will stop it. Fulfilling one desire only leads to the birth of a greater desire, and so on, until finally Pahom’s reach exceeds his grasp and kills him.
Although it appears to Pahom that he is being driven only by his perfectly natural desire for his affairs to prosper, he does in fact have an antagonist—the Devil. Pahom, however, does not know that the Devil is plotting against him, although the reader knows, since the narrator frames the story as a tale of temptation by the Devil. Pahom does not realize it, but his comment that if he had land he would not fear the Devil himself is taken by the Devil (who just happens to be within earshot, behind the stove) as a boast. The Devil then concocts a trap designed to place the peasant in his power. Pahom may think that he prospers by his own efforts and shrewdness, but in fact it is the Devil who is helping him to acquire more land, all the better to get power over him. Then in his dream near the end of the story, Pahom sees the Devil laughing as he looks at Pahom’s corpse that is stretched out in front of him.
The story is thus placed somewhat indirectly in the context of Christian theology and teaching, since in Christianity the devil, as the adversary of man, tempts man to sin. The greed and envy that seize hold of Pahom are in Christianity two of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins. The devil in popular literature is presented as he is in the story, with hoofs and horns (and usually a tail, too, although Tolstoy omits that detail). Seen in this light, the story becomes a variation on a theme alluded to by Christ in the gospels: ‘‘For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?’’ (Luke 9:25)
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.