What an excellent answer by rahrak. The answer to the question Leo Tolstoy poses in "How Much Land Does a Man Need" is simple, but learning that answer comes at a significant cost for Pahom, the peasant protagonist of the story. It all begins with an argument over whether life is better in the country or in the city. Pahom is a peasant and believes peasant life in the country is the best in every way but one: "Our only trouble is that we haven't land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"
Though he only expressed this as a thought, he was overheard by a serious foe, and it will soon be used against him without his knowing.
[T]he Devil had been sitting behind the oven, and had heard all that was said. He was pleased that [Pahom] had said that if he had plenty of land he would not fear the Devil himself. "All right," thought the Devil. "We will have a tussle. I'll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power."
Through a series of events, Pahom becomes a wealthy landowner. Though his intentions were generous and beneficent when he first began to acquire land, soon Pahom is constantly dissatisfied with what he has and falls for every trick of the devil which comes before him. Every time he is offered more land, he wants it, and he never stops to recognize the devil's hand manipulating him because of those rash words spoken in his kitchen not so long ago.
The final test offered up to Pahom by the devil is almost too good to be true, which of course should have caused Pahom to think twice before accepting the offer. For a thousand rubles, Pahom can have all the land he can walk in one day; he simply has to return to his starting spot by the end of the day. Pahom spends the night beofre planning his strategy: he will walk thirty-five miles, earning himself enough land to meet his own needs as well as to earn a considerable profit by selling parcels of the land to his neighbors.
As one might imagine, Pahom is unable to complete his greedy and overambitious plan except by exerting himself literally to death. He should have recognized the devil's hand in this (literally recognized him, as he was the one who gave Pahom the tip on this land), but he was too consumed by greed to be cautious or even sensible. It is a lesson he should have learned, but he did not.
We all understand the principle that greed can kill a person, but in this story that is a literal truth. In the end, the only land Pahom needs is the six feet of land it takes to bury him. The larger point for all of us, of course, is that what we want is not the same as what we need (note that the question asks about needing rather than wanting) and we must keep our greedy impulses in check or they may kill us, either literally or figuratively. If Pahom had learned this lesson, he would not have wasted his life in the pursuit of something so ultimately meaningless.
If you would like more help with this story, please refer to the excellent eNotes sites linked below.
Tolstoy’s short story – “How much land does a man need?”— is a religious-morality tale which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but which seems primarily concerned with the destructive consequences of human ambition. The story is about a man named Pahom – a peasant farmer — who desires to acquire more land, acquires some land, but is not satisfied and needs to acquire more. Eventually he over-reaches, forfeits all his accumulated wealth and causes his own death. (*See below for a Summary of story). The message to take from the story may be as simple as a warning against biting off more than you can chew, or we could say simply that the story shows how human nature pushes us to want more and more. We are never content with our lives, no matter how well off we may be; and , while trying to improve our standard of living, we put ourselves in danger of ending up with nothing.
But the story can be understood as presenting a message of greater complexity.
What Tolstoy gives us is a didactic tale, a story meant to teach a moral or religious lesson. His purpose likely was to show how greed and an excessive desire for earthly wealth can destroy a person. Along with this, Tolstoy offers a lesson about the consequences of ignoring spiritual needs and the state of one’s soul, in favor of acquiring more and more material wealth. In general, it is a story of what can happen when humans become too ambitious and greedy. There are similar stories in myth, religious scripture, and secular literature. For example, the story of King Midas and his “golden” touch. In Genesis, the Tower of Babel is a brief account of how the excessive ambition of humans is struck down by God.
An important element in Tolstoy’s story is a boast by the farmer, Pahom, that if he had enough land he would not fear anyone, not even the Devil. This is heard by the Devil who says to himself:
“All right! We shall see about that. I’ll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you!”
The Devil then sets in motion the series of events that eventually end as Pahom forfeits everything including his life.
So we have a story in which Tolstoy teaches a lesson about humility and the need to fear and respect the Devil, or at least recognize the power he can exert over us. For those who don’t believe in the Devil, the mythical character can be seen as personifying those aspects of our nature which are destructive and can eventually lead to our complete demise. This is probably how Tolstoy would have us read the story.
But there are different ways that we can interpret and react to the story. For example, w can take it in terms of its religious message, or in terms of a philosophical/ethical teaching, or maybe in terms of a teaching about social good. Today, we can even see it as making a point about our ecological awareness; and we can read it in the context of our consumer-driven economic system.