Greed has been responsible for poisoning the morals and mindsets of mankind since the beginning of time. The want for more often spreads like an infectious disease amongst those who contract it. In both “How Much Land Does a Man Need” by Leo Tolstoy and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, corruption caused by greed is explored and leads to the main characters’ ultimate demise. Greediness was both prevalent and cautioned during the respective time periods in which these pieces were written with “How Much Land Does a Man Need” being set in the early stages of socialism in the Soviet Union, and Death of a Salesman being set in post WWII industrial America. The only difference in how the wanting of more is portrayed within these pieces is the greed of an individual shown in “How Much Land Does a Man Need” versus the greed of society shown in Death of a Salesman.
Greed Within the Works and its Cultural Context
Greed is shown to corrupt all it touches; it seems to have a reverse Midas effect. This corruption is explored in both “How Much Land Does a Man Need” by Leo Tolstoy and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Within “How Much Land Does a Man Need” the wanting that controls the main character, Pahom, comes from within. Pahom is hungry for more land: “‘Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!’” (Tolstoy, 2005) This hunger grows as Pahom learns of better opportunities that his neighbors are exposed to: “Presently Pahom heard that a neighbor of his was buying fifty acres, and that the lady had consented to accept one half in cash and to wait a year for the other half. Pahom felt envious.” (Tolstoy, 2005) This envious mindset continues to grow with each new opportunity for more land: “Pahom’s heart kindled with desire. He thought: ‘Why should I suffer in this narrow hole, if one can live so well elsewhere?’” (Tolstoy, 2005) Even when Pahom has gathered enough land and wealth to be happy and self sufficient, his desire burns for more: “At first, in the bustle of building and settling down, Pahom was pleased with it all, but when he got used to it he began to think that even here he had not enough land.” (Tolstoy, 2005) Finally, it seems, Pahom is met with a deal that will satisfy his never-ending thirst: “‘They wish me to tell you that in return for your presents they will gladly give you as much land as you want. You have only to point it out with your hand and it is yours.’” (Tolstoy, 2005) Pahoms response to this amazing deal is filled to the brim with greed: “‘How can I take as much as I like?’ thought Pahom.” (Tolstoy, 2005) In his quest blinded by greed, Pahom dies an untimely death: “‘There is plenty of land,’ thought he, ‘but will God let me live on it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach that spot!’” (Tolstoy, 2005), “Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!” (Tolstoy, 2005) The direct correlation between Pahom’s immense greed and his unfortunate death is made to warn audiences of the dangerous effects greed can have. Selfishness and greed will lead to destruction and death.
During the time period in which “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” was published, Leo Tolstoy was struggling politically with his home country, Russia: “His pamphleteering on social, political, and economic subjects resulted in the censorship of his work by the government.” (Hall, 1981) Socialism was sweeping the country and Tolstoy’s work often reflected the political atmosphere, in hopes of remaining in good graces with his government: “Critics often discuss the manner in which this ideological development is demonstrated in his works-from the early, apolitical writings to his later novels that exemplify the principles of Socialist Realism in their depiction of the Soviet ‘new man’ and in their government-prescribed interpretations of history.” (Poupard & Person, 1985) Within “How Much Land Does a Man Need”, the capitalist mentality of wanting more is preached against due to Russia’s anti-capitalist values, and Tolstoy was faced with criticism for this choice: “Tolstoy was a prolific author whose numerous patriots essays and works of fiction extolling Soviet life earned him a favored position with the government, and for that reason he was widely accused by other writers of political opportunism.” (Poupard & Person, 1985)
Within Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, greed is shown to poison individuals through the American Dream, a capitalistic idea that entails capturing the most successful life: success being in terms of capitalistic prosperity.
“Traces of the American Dream are rooted in 19th-century America. However, it was the historian James Truslow Adams who coined the term in his The Epic of America (1931, p.16). He defined the American Dream as the pursuit ‘of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world’ (20).” (Mgamis, 2017)
Within the time period in which Death of a Salesman was published, post WWII industrialism was in full affect, and America was experiencing a change in societal values: “However, by the time the play was published, and in the wake of the industrial progress that was witnessed, America was witnessing a radical shift in social and economic values. There was a considerable level of shift from individualism to social conformity.” (Mgamis, 2017) The American Dream can be destructive to those who try to pursue it, often times leading to hardship for individuals: “Although they were positive in nature, these interests were not without negative impact on the lives of the people. It led to extreme focus on materialism, perfection and fantasy on the expense of humanitarian and realistic values.” (Mgamis, 2017) Within Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller discusses the greed caused by the American Dream:
“Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman provides a vivid commentary on the American Dream. In the play, Miller criticizes the American materialism, and the self delusion that people are afflicted with. His critique is not directed at the American Dream as such, rather it targets the greed that some people show in demonstrating their dreams for wealth and health.” (Mgamis, 2017)
In Death of a Salesman, the character Howard Wagner perfectly symbolizes this greed by discarding Willy like a piece of trash despite the decades of work he had put into Howard’s company: “‘I appreciate that, Willy, but there just is no spot here for you. If I had a spot I’d slam you right in, but I just don’t have a single solitary spot.’” (Miller, 1998) Willy tries to connect with Howard Wagner on a human level, “‘You mustn’t tell me you’ve got people to see-I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit!’” (Miller, 1998), but Howard’s greed blinds him from Willy’s plea: “‘No, but it’s business, kid, and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight.’” (Miller, 1998) Due to the relentlessness of capitalism and the American Dream, Willy begins to value it his life quite literally- only focusing on what he has to offer monetarily. This leads to his unfrontunate suicide in order for his family to claim his life insurance: “‘Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?’” (Miller, 1998) The greed of the world and of outside influences corrupt Willy into only seeing himself in monetary terms, causing him to end his own life. This is the perfect example of tragedy caused by greed.
Greed is a dangerous attribute, one that can negatively impact those it infects. Within Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy, the negative effects of greed are portrayed in the ultimate light: as leading to death. The greed of society causes Willy Loman to commit suicide, and the greed from within Pahom causes his untimely death. Due to the economic atmosphere of the respective time periods in which these works were written, both Arthur Miller and Leo Tolstoy warn audiences about the dangers of succumbing to greed.
- Tolstoy, L. (2005). How Much Land Does a Man Need?. In McCambridge, P., Marshall, K.E., & Mongello, L. (Eds.), Holt Elements of Literature: Sixth Course (pp. 120-142). Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- Poupard, D., & Person, J.E. (Eds.). (1985). Alexy Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1883-1945). Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company.
- Hall, S.K. (Ed.). (1981). (Count) Leo (Lev Nikolaevich) Tolstoy (1828-1910). Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company.
- Miller, A. (1998). Death of a Salesman (20th ed.). New York: Penguin Group.
- Mgamis, M.S. (2017). Death of a Salesman: Critique of the American Dream. International Journal of LAnguage and Literature, 5, 69-71. Doi: 10.15640/ijll.v5n1a9