How Much Land Does a Man Need?

How Much Land Does a Man Need? Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Leo Tolstoy's How Much Land Does a Man Need?. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy was born the fourth of five children to wealthy Russian aristocrats. Both of Tolstoy’s parents died early in his childhood, and he and his siblings were subsequently raised by relatives on Yasnaya Polyana, the family’s estate. As a young man, Tolstoy studied law at Kazan University; however, he was a poor student and quickly dropped out. As a young aristocrat, Tolstoy worked for the betterment of serfs and was an outspoken proponent for their freedom. Tolstoy soon joined the army and began to write, publishing his first novel, Childhood, in 1852. He later served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War, where he gained a reputation for bravery and courage, rising to the rank of second lieutenant. After the war, Tolstoy traveled Europe extensively before returning to Yasnaya Polyana to marry Sophia Andreevna Behrs in 1862. Tolstoy and Behrs had thirteen children between 1863 and 1888, and Tolstoy wrote most of his major works, including War and Peace, during this time. In the 1870s, Tolstoy endured a moral crisis and subsequent spiritual awakening, after which he declared himself a Christian anarchist and pacifist, rejected all material wealth, and dedicated his life to the nonviolent resistance of the State and Russian autocracy. Tolstoy’s radical and outspoken views, along with his desire to give away all his money and inheritance, had a negative effect on his marriage. Behrs objected to many of Tolstoy’s religious and political views, and she grew tired of the many spiritual followers Tolstoy had taken in on their estate. Estranged from his wife, he embarked on a journey with his daughter, Aleksandra, in 1910. Elderly and already ill, the journey proved too much for Tolstoy and he died of pneumonia in Astapovo, Russia at the age of 82.      
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Historical Context of How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Tolstoy wrote and published “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” 25 years after Alexander II abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire in 1861, effectively freeing more than 23 million slaves. The effects of Alexander’s reform reverberated for generations, impacting the rich and poor alike, and Tolstoy’s story is an example of the hardships resulting from this seemingly good deed. While the serfs gained their freedom, they received little else, and survival was a constant struggle. Good, available land was in short supply and freed serfs had to pay high redemption taxes that often took their entire income. Alexander’s reform forced wealthy landowners to sell land to the newly-freed serfs, leaving even the rich with nearly nothing. Landowners were paid by the government in the form of bonds, which after a large tax deduction, quickly fell in value and became worthless. In the years following the emancipation, Russia’s economic and social structures were on the constant verge of collapse, leading to peasant uprisings and significant civil unrest and social inequality.

Other Books Related to How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Tolstoy was part of the artistic movement known as realism, which originated in 19th-century French and Russian literature. Other realist works such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons sought to represent life as it happened, paying close attention to familiar settings and mundane occurrences. Tolstoy’s work similarly depicts these common observations and engages in subjects that are easily relatable. Tolstoy was consumed with thoughts about the meaning of life and death for most of his career, if not his life, and this is a frequent theme in his writing. Tolstoy’s greatest works, such as War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilych all revolve around the meaning of life and death, and “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is no different. Tolstoy’s works often serve as moral guidebooks, promoting social justice, tolerance, and equality, and his principles of nonviolent resistance have influenced other writers, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Tolstoy himself was greatly influenced by Henry George, an American economist and journalist, who argued that land and all other natural resources should be collectively owned by society; this influence is clearly reflected in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”. Other works that explore the private ownership of land include Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1754 Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, in which Rousseau questions the origins of social inequality among men and considers whether that inequality is a natural occurrence. Ultimately Rousseau argues, much like Tolstoy, that social inequality is the product of civilized society, due specifically to the private ownership of land.
Key Facts about How Much Land Does a Man Need?
  • Full Title: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”
  • When Written: 1886
  • Where Written: Yasnaya Polyana, Tula province, Russia
  • When Published: 1886
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: An unnamed village in 19th-century rural Russia
  • Climax: Upon reaching the bottom of a hill while circumambulating the Bashkirs’ land, Pakhom realizes that that the sun only appears to have set from his position. At the top of the hill, where the Bashkirs stand waiting, the sun has not yet set. Seeing that he still has more time to return to his starting point and claim his land, Pakhom pushes himself to his death. 
  • Antagonist: The Devil
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Tolstoy’s wife transcribed many of his works. Despite their rocky relationship, Tolstoy’s wife was a vital part of his early writing career. He began writing War and Peace soon after his marriage to Behrs, completing the first draft in 1865. Several revisions followed, and Tolstoy’s wife was responsible for deciphering his many annotations and notes, transcribing the entire novel—over 1,200 pages—nearly ten times over a period of seven years.

Tolstoy corresponded with Gandhi. Tolstoy did more than simply influence Mahatma Gandhi, he served as Gandhi’s personal mentor. Tolstoy’s work and message of nonviolent resistance had inspired Gandhi as a young man, and in 1909 he wrote Tolstoy a letter detailing the struggles of Indian people, sparking a correspondence and friendship that lasted until Tolstoy’s death.