In Tolstoy's parable, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" the main character named Pahom is a man who is never satisfied, a characteristic suggested in the title. He also is acquisitive, and he later becomes irrational.
In the beginning of the story, Pahom listens as his wife talks with her sister, who is visiting and boasting of the good life that she lives in the town where she attends the theater, eats and drinks well, and has fine clothes for her children. But, her sister contends that the agrarian life is a safe one because there will always be enough to eat while conditions can change for those who have jobs in a town. As he listens, Pahom concurs with his wife, but he adds,
"Our only trouble is that we haven't enough land. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"
Shortly after his sister-in-law's visit, Pahom has an opportunity to purchase fifty acres of land apart from the Commune. His first harvest is good, so he is able to pay off the land. "...now Pahom had land of his own." While he plows his own fields, Pahom's heart fills with joy. Whereas before he owned it the land appeared like other plots, now it seems to Pahom to be "quite different." Indeed, Pahom would remain content, but neighbors begin to trespass on his meadows and cornfields, and their actions disturb Pahom. Then, when he finds some of his trees cut down, Pahom decides that he must go to court against the farmer he suspects. However, he does not produce evidence enough to charge the man suspected of cutting Pahom's trees. This dispute, then, harms Pahom's standing with the Commune of farmers.
Pahom feels cramped again, and he wants more land. So, he rents more and more land. But, problems occur again, and he "grew tired of having to rent other people's land every year." Pahom finds himself quarreling with others over the land, so much that he desires again to actually purchase land, not realizing that he has other problems within him.
Pahom searches for some land to purchase. He is ready to deal with a peasant who is willing to sell his land; however, right before Pahom signs the agreement, a dealer stops at Pahom's one day to water his horses. The men have tea, and the dealer tells Pahom about the Bashkirs, who have thousands of acres. Further, he says that all Pahom needs to do is be affable and make friends with the chiefs.
Pahom decides to go to the Bashkir camp. When he arrives, the men welcome him, and Pahom goes into a tent and drinks with them, offering them gifts. Finally, the interpreter tells Pahom,
"They wish to tell you...that they like you, and that is our custom to do all we can to please a guest and to repay him for his gifts....now tell us which of the things we possess please you best, that we may present them to you."
After Pahom gives the interpreter his request, the Bashkirs confer and decide that Pahom may have as much land as he wants. When the main chief arrives, he concurs that Pahom may have land. However, Pahom must mark it off by walking the land and digging small holes so that they will know where to plough. It is Pahom's provided he can walk it in a day, returning to his starting point before the sun sets.
That night Pahom dreams that he sees the dealer who has told him about the land and he is laughing over him; then he changes to the peasant from Volga, and later it is not the peasant, but the devil himself, with horns and hoofs, scoffing at a man who lies prostrate on the ground with only a ragged shirt and pants on him. Then Pahom dreams that he looks closely at this man, who is dead..."it was himself! He awoke horror-struck."
Pahom awakens, and realizes that he must go to the Bashkirs because he needs the full day to claim his land. At first, he is reasonable, watching the time by the sun so that he will have enough time to circle around so that he can claim the land from where he started. But, even as he grows tired and hot, his greed for land overcomes him, and he irrationally changes directions so that he can claim some plot that appeals to him. Then, he worries that he has made his border too wide, and he tries to correct his design. But, afterwards, he feels that the tract will be lopsided. He grows more irrational.
At last, he realizes that he has "grasped too much" and "ruined the whole affair." Frightened that he will not make it back to his starting point, Pahom becomes breathless and his heart palpitates. He tries to run although he fears death. He runs and runs, despairing. "I have lost my life! I shall never reach that spot!" he says to himself.
As Pahom reaches the end, his legs give way beneath him; his servant tries to raise him as the chief exclaims, "He has gained much land!" But, Pahom is dead.