How much land does a man actually need according to Leo Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"How Much Land Does a Man Need?" by Leo Tolstoy is a parable, designed to teach the reader a lesson. In this case, Tolstoy uses the main character (protagonist), Pahom, to demonstrate that money and land do not equal happiness and contentment.

Pahom is a peasant farmer who likes living in the country; he believes the only thing that would make him happier is if he had more land. In fact, he boasts that “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” Unfortunately for Pahom, the devil overhears him and decides to put Pahom to the test.

First Pahom's village gets the opportunity to purchase three hundred acres of land and they try to buy it as a community; however, the devil makes sure the villagers are not able to come to a collective agreement. Pahom buys forty acres of land and, according to his vow, he should have been content. And he was, until his neighbors' animals began encroaching on his land; Pahom takes his neighbors to court and loses both his suit and the respect of his neighbors.

Soon Pahom owns much more land, but he is still not content. The devil, in the disguise of a tradesman, tells Pahom about an opportunity to purchase a lot of land for very little money. and Pahom's greed determines his course.

The Bashkir tribal chiefs meet with Pahom, and they obviously sense his greed and see an opportunity for their own amusement, if nothing else. They agree to let Pahom have all the land he can walk in one day for a thousand rubles; the only stipulation is that he must return to his starting spot by the end of the day.

Pahom, as has been well established, is greedy and he over-calculates how much land he can reasonably walk in a day. (He had been hoping to get enough land that he could sell some parcels of it to others and make even more money.) As the end of the day draws near, Pahom realizes he can only get back to his starting point by running with great effort. 

He does arrive at his beginning spot, but he is nearly spent. He realizes the tradesman was actually the devil, and he sees the tribal chief laughing heartily at Pahom's expense. Pahom dies. As some men begin digging him a grave, the question asked in the title of the story is finally answered: “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” Just enough land in which to be buried. 

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How Much Land Does a Man Need?

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