Why was the chief laughing as he watched Pahom in "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

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The short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" by Leo Tolstoy tells of a peasant named Pahom who becomes excessively greedy for land. Overhearing a conversation between his wife and her sister about the merits of city and country life, he reflects that if he had enough land, he would not fear the Devil himself. Unknown to him, the Devil overhears his thoughts and decides to call the peasant's bluff.

Pahom gradually attempts to accumulate land, first from a village landlady and then from a commune. He then hears of the Bashkirs, who sell large quantities of land at low prices. The Bashkirs live in tents and do not work their land. Pahom goes to them with presents, and they agree to give him some land. Their chief explains that they give it out for 1,000 roubles a day. Pahom can pace out a tract as large as he wants, and as long as he manages to return to the point of origin by the end of the day, he can keep all the land within.

The chief first laughs as he explains all this to Pahom. A clue to why the chief laughs at their initial meeting and again when Pahom hurries to meet him after his day-long walk is found in the dream that Pahom has the night before he sets out. He dreams that the chief of the Bashkirs is laughing uproariously, but as he watches, the chief turns into various other people and finally into the Devil, complete with horns and hoofs. Pahom then sees in the dream that he is lying dead on the ground.

The dream is a premonition of what ultimately happens. Pahom takes his walk, and in his greed he goes too far and has to hurry back to return to the waiting Bashkirs before the sun sets. In the end, the chief is laughing for several reasons. First of all, he is ridiculing Pahom's greed. The Bashkirs are not so covetous of their land, and so Pahom's attitude toward the land to them is absurd. Secondly, he probably has a premonition that even though Pahom may make it back in time, the exertion brought on by his greed will kill him. There is irony in the fact that his greatest desire has brought about his death. Finally, the Devil himself laughs through the chief in his triumph. He has bested Pahom and fulfilled his word that he would give the peasant land, but the land would be his downfall.

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