How Much Land Does a Man Need? (Penguin Little Black Classics) by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy is quite on-trend in the UK at the moment. With the BBC adaptation of War and Peace currently airing, I seem to be coming across many people who are reading his novels or, at the very least, wanting to discuss them. I’ll be honest: I’ve never read War and Peace (I know, I know). It’s downloaded on my tablet, and has been sitting there, judging me, for over a year. Similarly, Anna Karenina looks out at me from my bookcase, wondering if it will ever get read. However, I actually do have a contribution to the ongoing conversation about Tolstoy in the form of a post about two of his short stories: ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ (considered by James Joyce to be the “greatest story that the literature of the world knows”) and ‘What Men Live By’.
I had heard of ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ before, mentioned in classes and even used as a sermon illustration. However, each time I had only heard it summarised and retold; I had never sat down and read it for myself. I was excited to see how Tolstoy handled the narrative, and how effective it was. The story follows Pakhom, a peasant who claims that if he had enough land, he would not fear the Devil; this prompts the Devil to give him exactly what he asks for until Pakhom’s quests for more and more land ends in tragedy. I can definitely see why this story has a reputation for being such a well-crafted story: in terms of narrative structure, it is pretty exemplary for a piece of short fiction. Tolstoy builds the tension by delaying what the reader knows is an inevitable tragedy, bringing to mind the similar suspense of Marlowe’s Faustus. The majority of the story is dedicated to Pakhom’s search for bigger plots of land, with a resulting final scene which is remarkably tense. The ending is abrupt, but not unnecessarily so: Tolstoy portrays to the reader everything they need to know to create the impact he wanted, nothing more and nothing less.
‘What Men Live By’ is not as well-known a story as ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’, and I have to say that I enjoyed it somewhat less. However, in my opinion it was still well-crafted and engaging. The protagonist, Semyon, is a poor shoemaker who helps out a naked man despite not having anything to give; his generosity is repaid with friendship, as the strangely supernatural Mikhail lives and works with Semyon, boosting his business immensely. Similarly to ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’, this is a story with a heavy moral, arguably allegorical in its nature. However, whilst the moral of ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ is implied throughout the story and only explicitly referenced in the title, the moral of ‘What Men Live By’ is explicitly stated by Mikhail in the final part of the story. I think it was this instance of ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’ which led me to prefer ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ over this story, since the moral purpose was a little heavy-handed.
It is clear that subsequent short fiction writers have been strongly influenced by the way in which Tolstoy wrote and structured his stories. From the characterisation, to the small details which easily create a whole world from the narrative, these stories are inherently engaging and readable. Tolstoy never portrays to the reader more than is needed to create a rounded story, yet it never feels as though details are missing or characters are underworked. In a similar way to Wailing Ghosts, these stories, although short, are complete works in themselves. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more of Tolstoy’s short fiction.