man lying inside a coffin buried underneath the earth

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy

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According to Leo Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need?", how much land does a man actually need?

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"How Much Land Does a Man Need?" by Leo Tolstoy is a parable, designed to teach the reader a lesson. In this case, Tolstoy uses the main character (protagonist), Pahom, to demonstrate that money and land do not equal happiness and contentment.

Pahom is a peasant farmer...

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who likes living in the country; he believes the only thing that would make him happier is if he had more land. In fact, he boasts that “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” Unfortunately for Pahom, the devil overhears him and decides to put Pahom to the test.

First Pahom's village gets the opportunity to purchase three hundred acres of land and they try to buy it as a community; however, the devil makes sure the villagers are not able to come to a collective agreement. Pahom buys forty acres of land and, according to his vow, he should have been content. And he was, until his neighbors' animals began encroaching on his land; Pahom takes his neighbors to court and loses both his suit and the respect of his neighbors.

Soon Pahom owns much more land, but he is still not content. The devil, in the disguise of a tradesman, tells Pahom about an opportunity to purchase a lot of land for very little money. and Pahom's greed determines his course.

The Bashkir tribal chiefs meet with Pahom, and they obviously sense his greed and see an opportunity for their own amusement, if nothing else. They agree to let Pahom have all the land he can walk in one day for a thousand rubles; the only stipulation is that he must return to his starting spot by the end of the day.

Pahom, as has been well established, is greedy and he over-calculates how much land he can reasonably walk in a day. (He had been hoping to get enough land that he could sell some parcels of it to others and make even more money.) As the end of the day draws near, Pahom realizes he can only get back to his starting point by running with great effort. 

He does arrive at his beginning spot, but he is nearly spent. He realizes the tradesman was actually the devil, and he sees the tribal chief laughing heartily at Pahom's expense. Pahom dies. As some men begin digging him a grave, the question asked in the title of the story is finally answered: “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” Just enough land in which to be buried. 

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What is the answer to the question posed by the title of Leo Tolstoy's work "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

What an excellent answer by rahrak. The answer to the question Leo Tolstoy poses in "How Much Land Does a Man Need" is simple, but learning that answer comes at a significant cost for Pahom, the peasant protagonist of the story. It all begins with an argument over whether life is better in the country or in the city. Pahom is a peasant and believes peasant life in the country is the best in every way but one: "Our only trouble is that we haven't land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"

Though he only expressed this as a thought, he was overheard by a serious foe, and it will soon be used against him without his knowing. 

[T]he Devil had been sitting behind the oven, and had heard all that was said. He was pleased that [Pahom] had said that if he had plenty of land he would not fear the Devil himself. "All right," thought the Devil. "We will have a tussle. I'll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power."

Through a series of events, Pahom becomes a wealthy landowner. Though his intentions were generous and beneficent when he first began to acquire land, soon Pahom is constantly dissatisfied with what he has and falls for every trick of the devil which comes before him. Every time he is offered more land, he wants it, and he never stops to recognize the devil's hand manipulating him because of those rash words spoken in his kitchen not so long ago.

The final test offered up to Pahom by the devil is almost too good to be true, which of course should have caused Pahom to think twice before accepting the offer. For a thousand rubles, Pahom can have all the land he can walk in one day; he simply has to return to his starting spot by the end of the day. Pahom spends the night beofre planning his strategy: he will walk thirty-five miles, earning himself enough land to meet his own needs as well as to earn a considerable profit by selling parcels of the land to his neighbors.

As one might imagine, Pahom is unable to complete his greedy and overambitious plan except by exerting himself literally to death. He should have recognized the devil's hand in this (literally recognized him, as he was the one who gave Pahom the tip on this land), but he was too consumed by greed to be cautious or even sensible. It is a lesson he should have learned, but he did not.

We all understand the principle that greed can kill a person, but in this story that is a literal truth. In the end, the only land Pahom needs  is the six feet of land it takes to bury him. The larger point for all of us, of course, is that what we want is not the same as what we need (note that the question asks about needing rather than wanting) and we must keep our greedy impulses in check or they may kill us, either literally or figuratively. If Pahom had learned this lesson, he would not have wasted his life in the pursuit of something so ultimately meaningless. 

If you would like more help with this story, please refer to the excellent eNotes sites linked below. 

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How much land does a man actually need? Explain the message conveyed by Tolstoy through this story.

The ultimate answer, at least implied by Tolstoy, is that a man does not need any land at all.

In the latter part of his life, Tolstoy became devoted to spiritual values and the ideal of an ascetic lifestyle in which he viewed physical pleasures as evil. Material possessions, he came to believe, are meaningless in comparison with the spiritual connection to God that one must seek. Though a wealthy landowner himself, he wore a peasant's blouse and went to work in the fields alongside the farm laborers he employed, just as his protagonist Levin in Anna Karenina attempts to do. He also relinquished the copyrights to his books. Altogether, these acts were an attempt to deny the material world, in preparation for the next life.

His protagonist in "How much Land does a Man Need?" ends up killing himself because he wants more and more land, and in trying to claim it, dies through exhaustion. Even a more moderate theme than a complete denial of material ownership is that one should be happy with the limitations God imposes upon man. If one seeks more than one needs, the result is failure and death.

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How much land does a man actually need? Explain the message conveyed by Tolstoy through this story.

The simple answer to the first question is as follows: just enough to be buried in. You can't take it with you, as they say, and that applies as much to vast landholdings as it does to material possessions. But Pahom doesn't seem to understand this. He's so obsessed by the acquisition of land, so blinded by greed, that he eventually comes to grief over it.

In telling his story, Tolstoy is railing against what he sees as the grasping materialism of contemporary society, especially among the peasants. With the abolition of serfdom in Russia, many peasants sought to use their newly-won freedom to become landowners. In acquiring land, however, they often became disconnected from the soil, the land on which they had been born and where they had worked all their lives. Tolstoy supported the abolition of serfdom, but he was worried that peasants would now make the same mistake as their former masters and treat land as just another commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Tolstoy strongly believed that the almost mystical connection that had previously bound peasants to the soil was in danger of being lost forever, and he uses the tragic case of Pahom as a salutary warning.

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How much land does a man actually need? Explain the message conveyed by Tolstoy through this story.

Tolstoy was very strongly influenced by the ideas of the American reformer Henry George, who was initially influenced by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer. Henry George in his chief work Progress and Poverty  held that no one was entitled to own any part of the earth, that it should be common property like the sea and the sky. The government should rent out the land and derive its entire income from that single source. People, according to George and Tolstoy, will tend to acquire more land than they can possibly use and then force others to pay them for the use of it. That is what happens notoriously with sharecropping and explains why sharecroppers are usually so poor. Tolstoy believed that if men only took as much land as they could use, there would be enough for everybody, and poverty would be reduced or eliminated. In Pahom, the protagonist of "How Much Land Does a Man Need?", Tolstoy is mainly exhibiting the greed and selfishness inherent in human nature.

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