As one of only three named characters in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, the Devil plays a crucial role in Tolstoy’s story. Early on Pakhom declares that with enough land, he would “fear no one–not even the Devil himself!” The Devil, eavesdropping nearby, receives this statement as a personal dare and sets the events of the story in motion. Even as the Devil tempts Pakhom, however, it is Pakhom himself who takes the bait each step of the way. Pakhom’s resistance to the Devil’s temptations proves insufficient, and he is easily led away from righteousness until he presumably ends up Hell. Even as Tolstoy’s story suggests that Pakhom has free will, however, in the sense that he could deny the Devil if he wished, the author also presents God as wielding ultimate power over man. Pakhom may be free to decide how he will live his life; however, it is God’s will that decides his fate.
Tolstoy’s repeated references to the Devil imply that evil is a constant presence in life. The Devil makes his first appearance when Pakhom boasts to the merchant’s wife that with enough land he would not fear the Devil. Tolstoy writes, “the Devil had been sitting behind the stove heard everything.” The Devil is not called upon or summoned in any way; on the contrary, he is quietly lying in wait for the perfect time to strike. Later, when the local peasants attempt to buy land in the name of a village commune, they are unable to arrive at a consensus. “They met once, they met twice,” Tolstoy writes, “but no progress was made: the Devil had set them at loggerheads and there was nothing they could agree upon.” The peasants behave foolishly and are unable to work together, and it is again because of the Devil.
The night before Pakhom circumnavigates the Bashkirs’ land, he has a strange dream in which he encounters each of the men involved in his prior attempts to buy land. First, Pakhom sees the Bashkir elder who has the final authority in selling the land; he then sees the traveling peasant who informed him about the commune south of the Volga; and finally, he sees the passing merchant who first told him of the Bashkirs’ land. Pakhom soon realizes that the figures he sees are not actually these men, “but the Devil himself, with hoofs and horns, sitting there laughing his head off.” The transformation of the men suggests not only the hand of the Devil pushing Pakhom forward every step of the way, but also that all men have the capacity to behave in evil ways.
In contrast to the Devil, God is mentioned very little in Tolstoy’s story. Nevertheless, he is an exceedingly powerful force. For example, when Pakhom begins to negotiate with the Bashkirs, he becomes nervous about the validity of their deal. He insists on a contract to legally secure the land, arguing that future generations of Bashkirs may want the property back. After all, Pakhom says, their “lives are in God’s hands.” Tolstoy implies that the future is out of their control, and only God has can know how their present actions will be received in years to come.
Despite his negotiations, the walk around the Bashkirs’ land proves too much for Pakhom. As his body begins to deteriorate, he fears he will not make it back to his starting point, and, as such, will have to forfeit all his land. As Pakhom reaches the end of his walk he states, “I’ve plenty of land now, but will God let me live to enjoy it?” As Pakhom begins to die, Tolstoy suggests that even though Pakhom has the power to simply sit down and stop following the Devil, it is God, and not the peasant himself, who ultimately dictates if he will live or die. Indeed, each time Tolstoy mentions God in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” he speaks of God’s will; only God has the power to decide if Pakhom survives, and only God knows if the Bashkirs’ children will someday want their land back. In both instances, Pakhom and the Bashkirs are ultimately at the mercy of God, whose will decides their fate.
Even though the Devil is a continuous presence who undeniably influences Pakhom, he only provides the opportunity for Pakhom to stray from good. Pakhom has free will to resist the Devil at any time yet proves too blinded by his greed to do so. Pakhom is not required by law to fine the local peasants for trespassing on his property, for example, nor is he forced to expend so much energy to obtain such a large piece of the Bashkirs’ land; Pakhom makes these decisions freely and follows the Devil willingly, albeit unknowingly. Though Pakhom is free to resist the Devil’s evil bait, his will is limited when compared to God’s. God, the story argues, holds absolute power over men. If Pakhom has the power to deny the Devil’s evil intentions, it is only because God has given it to him. When Pakhom neglects to use this power, he secures his place in Hell.
God, the Devil, and Free Will ThemeTracker
God, the Devil, and Free Will 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.”
Then they conferred again and started arguing about something. Pakhom asked what it was and the interpreter told him, “Some of them are saying they should first consult the elder about the land. They can't do anything without his permission, but some of the others say it's not necessary.”
“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.”
And then Pakhom saw that it wasn't the peasant, but the Devil himself, with horns and hoofs, sitting there laughing his head off, while before him lay a barefoot man wearing only shirt and trousers. When Pakhom took a closer look he saw that the man was dead and that it was himself.
On and on he went—but there was still a long way to go. He started running and threw away his coat, boots, flask, cap, keeping only the spade which he used for leaning on. “Oh dear,” he thought, “I've been too greedy. Now I've ruined it. I'll never get back by sunset.”