man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy

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How Much Land Does a Man Need? Characters

The main characters of “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” are the two sisters, Pahom, and the Devil.

  • The two sisters, one of whom is Pahom’s wife, have a conversation at the story’s beginning about whether country people are inelegant or simply less likely to submit to the Devil’s temptations.
  • Pahom, the story’s protagonist, is married to the younger of the two sisters. He is not content with the land he has, and in his quest to gain more, he succumbs to greed and ultimately dies as a result.
  • The Devil decides to test Pahom’s greed—and wins.


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Last Updated on October 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

The Two Sisters

“How Much Land Does A Man Need?” begins with a conversation between two sisters, the contents of which unexpectedly leads a man to uncontrolled greed, disaster, and, ultimately, death. The elder sister, who is married to a successful tradesman and lives in town, has journeyed to the rural countryside to visit her younger sister, the wife of a peasant farmer named Pahom. Uncomfortable in the unfamiliar countryside environment, the elder sister sneers at her sister’s lifestyle, calling it inelegant and coarse. In response, the younger sister remarks that, in town, the call of temptation perpetually surrounds her husband, meaning he is far more likely to be drawn in by the “Evil One,” the Devil. Her off-hand remark sparks an unlikely chain of events that culminates in the death of her husband who, after overhearing their conversation, arrogantly agrees that he is above temptation. Though the two sisters catalyze the story’s events, they are tertiary to the plot; the elder sister soon returns home to her life in town, and Pahom leaves his wife to care for their homestead while he pursues more land in distant places. 


Pahom is the main character of Tolstoy’s didactic short story about the dangers of unchecked arrogance and greed. Married to the younger sister who appears in the first scene, Pahom is a peasant farmer driven by a desire for more land and money and is a firm believer that the hard work demanded by the country lifestyle makes people immune to devilish temptation. However, Pahom’s discontent makes him vulnerable, and he soon falls prey to the machinations of the Devil, who he so arrogantly feels he “shouldn’t fear.”

Despite his shortcomings, Pahom is an ambitious man. He has lofty goals for himself and works hard to reach them. Unchecked ambition, however, is not desirable, and Pahom quickly indicates why; he remains unsatisfied and begins to exploit others in his search for material wealth and satisfaction. No land is enough for him, and his drive for more eventually leads to his death. Death humbles Pahom, proving that his life’s striving—for more land and greater profit margins—has been for naught: the only land he needed was six feet in length, just enough to lay his exhausted body to rest. 

The Devil 

The Devil is the quiet antagonist of the story and fuels Pahom’s self-destructive urge to seek out more and better land. Tolstoy’s depiction of the Devil is conventional, describing him as a trickster-inspired figure who toys with men for entertainment. His actions lead Pahom to his ruination, simply because he was affronted by a claim the peasant made in the quiet of his mind. While Pahom is responsible for his decisions, the Devil contrives the scenarios that lead the peasant to his end. He causes the peasants to disagree so that their land deal falls through, tempts Pahom with multiple opportunities to buy more land at increasingly cheap prices, and constructs situations that fuel Pahom’s consuming need for more. In the end, the Devil wins, proving that temptation can seize anyone, not only city folk. The victory is humbling and teaches readers a lesson about the dangers of greed and ambition; however, the Devil himself is conspicuously absent in his moment of triumph, showing that his manipulation of the susceptible Pahom was nothing more than a sudden strike of caprice. 

The Bashkirs 

The Bashkirs are a group of people hailing from far out in the countryside who sell their land cheaply but with strange stipulations. The Bashkirs are easily pleased with gifts like clothing and tea and have an unusual rate for selling land: they sell it by the day. When Pahom expresses his confusion at this unconventional rate, they explain that they will sell a man however much land he can walk and mark in a day. Pahom’s greed when faced with this temptation eventually leads to his death.

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