man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy

Start Free Trial

How Much Land Does a Man Need? Summary

Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" tells the story of a peasant named Pahom.

  • Pahom states that if he had enough land, he wouldn't fear the Devil. The Devil overhears this and decides to test him.
  • An opportunity for Pahom to acquire land arrives, and he takes it.
  • In his quest to attain more and more land, Pahom visits the Bakshirs, whose chief agrees to sell him as much land as he can walk around in one day. The caveat: he must return to the exact point he started, or the sale is off. Pahom dies in the attempt.

Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy is a short story about the corrupting power of greed. The story opens as a woman comes from town to visit her younger sister in the country. They debate whether country life or city life is better; the younger sister says country life is superior because there is little chance that the Devil will tempt her husband. Pahom, her husband and a peasant farmer, agrees. He reflects that peasants are too busy in their work to fall prey to temptation and that their only problem is that they do not have enough land. He thinks that if he only had enough land, he would not fear the Devil; unfortunately for Pahom, the Devil overhears the peasant’s boastful claim and decides to test him. 

Soon, a local landowner decides to sell her land, and Pahom and the other peasants of the Commune attempt to buy it together as communal land. When the Devil “sow[s] discord among them,” they instead divide the allotment into individual plots. At first, Pahom is delighted with his land; however, as he gains more success, he becomes increasingly disgruntled when other peasants trespass on his land or his neighbors’ livestock damages his pastures. Eventually, he begins to fine trespassers and sues Simon, a neighboring peasant, who Pahom believes has cut down some of his trees. Simon is acquitted, as there is no evidence against him. The people of the commune greatly resent Pahom for his fines. 

Partially due to the trespassing of peasants and their livestock, Pahom feels that he is still “too cramped.” When a traveling peasant from beyond the Volga River informs Pahom that the land beyond the river is better and more plentiful, Pahom investigates and eventually moves there with his family. With three times the land he had before, Pahom is initially content. But he does not have the correct amount or type of land to grow wheat as he had before. Thus, he must compete with other farmers and peasants to rent land and cart his crops long distances. He begins to desire “freehold land” so that his land will all be together—and all his own. 

When Pahom hears that another landowner is experiencing financial difficulty, he arranges to buy his land for a measly sum. However, before he finalizes the deal, a stranger comes to him and tells him that the Bashkirs, a group of people in a neighboring country, are selling their excellent land cheaply, provided that the prospective purchasers bring gifts. Moved by his greed, Pahom again goes to investigate.

The Bashkir leaders are charmed by Pahom’s gifts and tell him they will sell him however much land he wants for a thousand rubles. Pahom is skeptical of this unconventional offer, but the Bashkirs assure him that the deal is sound—however much land he can walk around in one day will be his. However, if he does not return to the starting point by sundown, both the land and money will be forfeit. 

Pahom believes that he can walk thirty-five miles in a day. He decides he will make a circuit of this area and then can sell or rent some of the lands to others and make a profit. While he sleeps, he dreams that the Chief of the Bashkirs is laughing outside his tent. He moves closer and sees that the laughing man is not the Chief but the peasant who first came and told him of the Bashkirs, and then he sees that it is not the peasant but the Devil himself. Pahom dismisses the dream...

(This entire section contains 775 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

upon waking up, laughing at its absurdity.  

Early that next morning, Pahom begins his circuit, and the Bashkirs watch. At first, it seems he will successfully complete his journey, but as the day wears on, he becomes less and less sure. At one point, he sees a plot of land he feels he must have and extends his circuit to include it. Finally, the day draws to a close; Pahom knows that, at his current pace, he will return in time. Though exhausted, he begins to run, fearing the loss of his money, land, and dignity. There is plenty of land, but Pahom realizes God may not let him have it. 

At the end of his run, as the sun sets behind him, he sees the Chief of the Bashkirs laughing ahead. Pahom reaches his starting point but collapses to the ground, dead of exhaustion. His servant buries him, noting that in the end, the only land Pahom needed was six feet, measured from head to foot, for his grave.

Next

Themes