Man Need

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Tolstoy’s short story – “How much land does a man need?” — is a religious-morality tale which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but which seems primarily concerned with the destructive consequences of human ambition. The story is about a man named Pahom – a peasant farmer — who desires to acquire more land, acquires some land, but is not satisfied and needs to acquire more. Eventually he over-reaches, forfeits all his accumulated wealth and causes his own death. (*See below for a Summary of story). The message to take from the story may be as simple as a warning against biting off more than you can chew, or we could say simply that the story shows how human nature pushes us to want more and more. We are never content with our lives, no matter how well off we may be; and , while trying to improve our standard of living, we put ourselves in danger of ending up with nothing.

But the story can be understood as presenting a message of greater complexity.

What Tolstoy gives us is a didactic tale, a story meant to teach a moral or religious lesson. His purpose likely was to show how greed and an excessive desire for earthly wealth can destroy a person. Along with this, Tolstoy offers a lesson about the consequences of ignoring spiritual needs and the state of one’s soul, in favor of acquiring more and more material wealth. In general, it is a story of what can happen when humans become too ambitious and greedy. There are similar stories in myth, religious scripture, and secular literature. For example, the story of King Midas and his “golden” touch. In Genesis, the Tower of Babel is a brief account of how the excessive ambition of humans is struck down by God.

An important element in Tolstoy’s story is a boast by the farmer, Pahom, that if he had enough land he would not fear anyone, not even the Devil. This is heard by the Devil who says to himself:

“All right! We shall see about that. I’ll give you land enough; and by means of that...
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