Much like another great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostovesky, Leo Tolstoy was a concerned with the ultimate questions of human life: "How should people live?" and "What are good and evil?" Tolstoy's story,"How Much Land Does a Man Need?" is often considered a parable as it is a simple tale based upon ordinary occurrences that presents a moral lesson. In parables, the characters are often considered both for what they are as individuals, and for what they represent in a broader sense.
The character Pahom in Tolstoy's tale is one that illustrates many religious lessons. In that great work of literature, the Bible, there is a verse from the New Testament that exemplifies the theme of Tolstoy's parable:
And he said to them, "Take care, and be on guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15)
Not satisfied with working the land of others, Pahom desires to own land himself. Then, when the other peasants cross his land and their cattle eat his grain, he becomes like the steward of the owner of the land he once worked because he has fines imposed upon the other peasants. Thus, he loses his love for his fellow man.
Further, he desires to find land where others will not trespass. So, when he learns of rich land elsewhere, he purchases it. He grows wheat on it and harvests a bountiful crop; however, he wishes to raises more wheat and must find virgin soil, so he rents land. He makes profits for three years, but one year after he and a laborer plow some rented land, there is a dispute, the issue goes to court, and Pahom loses all his labor. So, again he considers how much better it would be if he could have more land that he himself owns.
Finally, he hears a rumor about the land of the Bashkirs, who sell land at a very low price. The night before he departs to negotiate with these people, Pahom has a dream is which the Bashkir Chief watches him mark off his land, and as he does so, he holds his sides that ache from laughter. When Pahom comes close to him, he sees that the chief has hoofed feet and horns: it is the Devil himself. But, when he awakens, Pahom shakes himself from his dream, laughing at his foolishness.
Having arrived in the early morning at the land of the Bashkirs, Pahom is told that he can have all the land that he is able to walk around in a day for one thousand rubles. The one condition is that if he does not return on the same day to the spot at which he began, the money will be lost. In his desire for a large tract of thirty-five miles, Pahom finds that he has probably gone out farther than he can return before the sun sets.
Though afraid of death, he could not stop. "After having run all that way they will call me a fool if I stop now," thought he. And he ran on and on, and drew near and heard the Bashkirs yelling and shouting to him, and their cries inflamed his heart still more. He gathered his last strength and ran on.
When he arrives just as the sun sets, Pahom falls in absolute physical exhaustion and dies from the stress placed upon his heart. His coveting of other people's land, his animosity toward his fellow man, and his greed for more and more land has caused Pahom to damage his heart and soul, and to push his body beyond its capabilities. By tempting him in his greed, the Devil has destroyed Pahom.