Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Review: How Much Land Does a Man Need, by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

This was a parable.  Based on the title, I assumed it would be a social commentary, perhaps an essay on socialism or communism, the sharing of wealth and land.  I assumed it would be a way to demonstrate that people only need enough land to feed their families, and the rest of the land should be shared out to others.

But it turned out to be nothing like that at all.  It was a parable about a man who wanted more and more land, who was tricked by Satan at every turn because Satan kept telling him (in the form of other people) about cheaper land someplace else.  He moved from place to place, buying land, selling it, then buying more.  He ended up in a bad way, and died trying to gain more land.

I thought the parable was silly because Tolstoy went to such great lengths to describe an incredibly unlikely scenario where the gaining of a large amount of land would kill our main character.  That was the only purpose, to have the person die while gaining the land.  The only purpose in having the man die while gaining land was so Tolstoy could throw in that one-liner at the end, a man only needs 6 feet of land to be buried in.

Sheesh, that's it!  That's what all this whole thing was about.  That's absurd.  Absurd.  The central question of the story was not how much land does a dead man need.  It was assuming a living man, a man that has to work the land to provide food for himself and others.  The ending only works if every man is dead, then we all only need 6 feet each.  Also, if he's just trying to take it to the lowest need, then why not cremate the body?  Then the man doesn't need any land!  Take that, Tolstoy!

If it's a parable about greed, about someone wanting too much land, then I would have expected this to go in a different direction, to have a different ending that could be applied universally to others trying to gain too much land.  Or it should have shown the consequences on others of one man owning more land that needed.  But to say a man only needs enough land to be buried in implies a far different truth - that a living man requires no land at all.  But this story's moral, if it has one, would not be to avoid gaining too much land, but to be smarter about how you do it.  The owning of land had nothing to do with his demise, it was the stupidity in how he tried to gain it.  Neither did Tolstoy show our main character's owning land causing any harm to others.

Also, this did not turn out to be some philosophical discourse on the idea that all men will die and therefore life is pointless.  Since it's a Russian story, you might expect it to have a nihilist philosophy behind it.  But Tolstoy never tried to draw that connection.

So in the end, it's a parable that didn't go in the direction you would expect, and didn't leave much of a moral peg to hang your hat on.

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