Please provide a brief plot summary of Leo Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"How Much Land Does a Man Need?" by Leo Tolstoy is a parable. Two sisters disagree about the best place to live; one says the city is best and the other insists the country is the best place to live. Pahom, husband to the sister who prefers country life, agrees with his wife but says the one thing country people never have enough of is land. He boldly asserts: “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” 

Of course, since this is a parable, the devil intervenes and begins to give Pahom what he wants. When someone offers Pahom's village three hundred of acres of land, the peasants are not able to find a way to buy the land together (because the devil has done his work), so they buy land individually. 

Pahom buys forty acres and is content until his neighbors' animals begin to stray onto his land. He is disgruntled enough to take his neighbors to court. He loses his suit as well as the respect of his neighbors. A little more land has not made Pahom more content.

Pahom follows his greed for more land and moves his family to get it; however, though he becomes rich, he is still not content. When a man tells Pahom about a way to get land for less than a penny an acre. In the land of the Bashkirs, if one makes friends with the chiefs he can get unlimited land very cheaply.

Of course Pahom's greed prompts him to seek more and cheaper land. He explains his desire and the Bashkir chieftains, after some deliberation, offer him the opportunity to buy as much land as he can walk around in one day for a thousand rubles. The only condition is that he must return to his original starting spot by the end of the day or Pahom will lose all his money. 

Pahom plans to walk thirty-five miles and then sell parcels of his land to others on order to make a profit. In the morning he meets the tradesman who told him about the Bashkirs but assumes it is some kind of dream; in fact, it is the devil in disguise. 

As one might expect in a parable, Pahom is too greedy and ambitious, and he realizes his only hope is to run hard to reach his starting spot. He does reach the spot and, before he dies of exhaustion, sees the chief laughing at him. As Pahom is buried, the question Tolstoy asks in the title of this story is finally answered. How much land does a man need? “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

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