In “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Tolstoy places a critical lens on the social hierarchy of Russian society, in which the poor are routinely deprived to ensure that the rich remain wealthy. Peasants in the story are depicted as second-class citizens, and Pakhom’s desire for more land stems in large part from a desire for upward mobility. Although Pakhom is overcome by his greed, Russian society is structed in such a way that it is difficult to find comfort and security as a peasant, and, as such, provides the kindling for Pakhom’s initial wish to experience the life of the higher class. Ironically, Tolstoy’s story suggests that landownership is responsible for the social inequality within Russian society—and, it follows, perpetuates the very injustice that Pakhom attempts to escape.
From the outset of the story, society is portrayed as consisting of two very separate entities: the urban and the rural, or the haves and the have nots. These class differences are exemplified by Pakhom’s sister-in-law, the merchant’s wife, comes from a nameless town to visit her younger sister in the country. The sister-in-law clearly believes her comparatively cosmopolitan lifestyle to be better than her younger sister’s rural existence. Tolstoy writes, “The two sisters sat down for a talk over a cup of tea and the elder started boasting about the superiority of town life, with all its comforts, the fine clothes her children wore, the exquisite food and drink, the skating, parties and visits to the theatre.”
The merchant’s wife not only prefers her urban life, but also believes that people living in town are inherently better than those in the country. “What do you know about nice clothes and good manners!” she says. “However hard your good husband slaves away you’ll spend your lives in the muck and that’s where you’ll die. And the same goes for your children.” In the opinion of the merchant’s wife, her sister’s poverty is a personal failing that will inevitably be passed down from one generation to the next, underscoring the difficulty of raising one’s social status in this world.
While the merchant’s wife finds value in material objects and a full social calendar, Pakhom’s wife is content with simpler things. According to her, “One day you are rich and the next you might find yourself out in the streets. Here in the country we don’t have those ups and downs.” The peasant’s wife believes that material wealth only leads to complications. The more one person has, the more they stand to lose, and city living is full of temptations. As such, Pakhom’s wife considers her rural life a much safer alternative to city living. Each sister is ultimately judgmental of the other, and while the merchant’s wife accuses her sister of living in “muck,” Pakhom’s wife questions her sister’s morals due her indulgent lifestyle. Through these two very different sisters, Tolstoy clearly sets up the dichotomy and resentment between the rich and the poor that will serve as the backdrop to Pakhom’s landowning ambitions.
Despite his wife’s contentment with a simple life, the boastfulness of the merchant’s wife causes Pakhom to reflect on his status as a peasant. He claims that he doesn’t resent the hard work his life entails, yet his sister-in-law’s argument for the value of material objects leads Pakhom to regret that he doesn’t have enough land to live as comfortably as she does. He believes that, in addition to his upward mobility, landownership will make his life easier.
Of course, this is not the case, and owning land only brings Pakhom frustration and grief. Just as Pakhom’s wife predicts, material wealth is not a genuine indicator of a successful and fulfilled life. In fact, landownership turns Pakhom into an ugly person who beats his wife, mistreats the local peasants, and accuses his neighbors of theft with little proof. Tolstoy thus implies a moral decay associated with placing too much value on material objects and excessive wealth.
What’s more, each time the Devil makes an appearance in Tolstoy’s story, it is in related in some way to landownership. It is the Devil who influences Pakhom’s greed and desire for more land, and when the local peasants quarrel about land, the Devil turns them into “loggerheads” who are unable to get along. The Devil is also at the center of Pakhom’s ominous dream the night before he walks the Bashkirs’ land, in which he envisions his own dead body at the Devil’s feet. Through these references Tolstoy draws a direct parallel between the Devil and landownership, implying an inherent evil in the buying and selling of natural resources.
“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” ultimately serves as a harsh critique of 19th-century Russian society, in which possessions and material wealth define social class and personal worth. Throughout the story, the private ownership of land is continually associated with the Devil and is often the cause of social inequality and unrest. The negative representation of Pakhom’s experiences with landownership even suggests that the buying and selling of land is ultimately not in the best interest of a just society; Pakhom’s land enables him to exploit more money from the local peasants in the form of fines, effectively keeping them poor and maintaining an unequal social order. Without denying the corrosive nature of greed, then, Tolstoy also critiques the highly-stratified nature of Russian society that contributes to the desire for more wealth in the first place.
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Class and Society Quotes in How Much Land Does a Man Need?
“l wouldn't care to change my life for yours,” she said. “I admit mine is dull, but at least we have no worries. You live in grander style, but you must do a great deal of business or you’ll be ruined. You know the proverb, ‘Loss is Gain's elder brother.’ One day you are rich and the next you might find yourself out in the street.”
“It's true what you say,” he said. “Take me. Ever since I was a youngster I've been too busy tilling the soil to let that kind of nonsense enter my head. My only grievance is that I don't have enough land. Give me enough of that and I'd fear no one—not even the Devil himself!”
They met once, they met twice, but no progress was made: the Devil had set them at loggerheads and there was nothing they could agree upon. In the end they decided to buy the land in separate lots, each according to what he could afford.
“The land is so fertile,” he said, “that rye grows as high as a horse and it's so thick you can make a whole sheaf from only five handfuls! One peasant arrived with a copeck and only his bare hands to work with and now he has six horses and two cows.”
“Thank you for your kind words. Yes, you do have a great deal of land, but I need only a little. However, I would like to be sure which will be mine, so couldn't it be measured and made over to me by some sort of contract? Our lives are in God's hands and although you good people are willing to give me the land now, it's possible your children might want it back again.”
Although he feared death, he could not stop. “If I stopped now, after coming all this way—well, they'd call me an idiot!” So on he ran until he was close enough to hear the Bashkirs yelling and cheering him on.