“Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” What does this last line mean in "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" by Leo Tolstoy, and why is it so ironic?

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

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Pahom is the unfortunate protagonist of Leo Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" He lives in a small village and is content, for the most part, to live there. People who live in the country are not distracted by anything and are content to live a simpler life with plenty to eat; however, Pahom has one thing he wishes country people had. He frames his wish in the form of a challenge:

if he had plenty of land he would not fear the Devil himself.

Of course the devil overhears Pahom say this and decides to give Pahom just what he wants in the form of temptation. 

In a series of unremarkable (which therefore cannot be attributed to the workings of the devil) occurrences, Pahom begins to amass land. Soon he has so much that he grows too possessive and takes his neighbors to court because their cattle have stepped over onto his land. He begins to lose his friends because of such petty and grasping things, and he no longer feels content and secure with his holdings. Nevertheless he is driven by greed to acquire more land. 

The devil places one final opportunity in front of Pahom as a challenge. A tribe called the Bashkirs will sell land for a penny an acre if he will ingratiate himself with the Bashkir chiefs. His greed propels him to take this deal (as the devil of course knew it would), and soon he has struck an agreement with the Bashkir leaders. Pahom can have all the land he wants for a thousand rubles; that amount will be determined by how far he can walk in a day. He must leave from a spot in the morning and return to that spot by sunset; everything he walks around in between those two times will be his for this fantastically low price.

Pahom spends the night greedily anticipating his profit from this business deal, and he starts the next morning as planned. Pahom actually has an encounter with the devil and realizes it was he who has been goading Pahom into his greed for land; however, he assumes it is all just some kind of a dream and goes forward with his ambitious (greedy) plan. 

By midday, Pahom realizes he has been avaricious and has walked too far; he knows he will not get back to his starting spot by sunset unless he runs with reckless abandon. He does just that and does, in fact, arrive back just in time. Unfortunately, the exertion is more than his body and heart can stand, and he dies without ever benefiting from his greedy land-grab. The Bashkir chiefs all pity Pahom for his greed. Finally, Pahom's

servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.

The irony, of course, is that Pahom believed he needed more land, but every time he got it he felt he needed more. We understand that no amount of land would have satisfied his greedy need for acquiring more of it; however, at the end of his life, Pahom discovers that all the land a man truly needs to own is enough land on which to be buried. 

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