How Much Land Does a Man Need?


Leo Tolstoy

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How Much Land Does a Man Need? Summary

Pakhom, a poor peasant, and his wife after visited by latter’s elder sister. The wife of a merchant, the elder sister brags about her glamourous life in the city and insults her sister’s modest country existence. The younger sister defends her lifestyle, claiming self-sufficiency and simplicity is the road to the moral high ground. Pakhom joins in, saying that with enough land he would have nothing to fear—including “the Devil himself.” The Devil overhears Pakhom’s claim and vows to tempt him with land.

When a local lady landowner suddenly decides to part with her property, Pakhom convinces her to sell him thirty acres. At first, Pakhom seems happy with his purchase. It would be perfect, he thinks, if not for the constant trespassing of local peasants. Pakhom repeatedly fines these peasants and takes them to court, causing tensions to escalate to the point that his neighbors threaten to burn down his house.

Pakhom has grown resentful of his “cramped life” when a traveling peasant tells him of a village south of the Volga river, where families are allotted twenty-five acres of farmland per person upon settling. Pakhom and his family travel to the commune, where they are welcomed and allotted land totaling three times the amount they left behind. Nevertheless, Pakhom wants more, convinced that freehold land—in contrast to leased—is the way to truly become wealthy.

Just as Pakhom is about to purchase some freehold land from a bankrupt peasant, a passing merchant distracts him with stories of plentiful land in the far-away region of the Bashkirs. Over tea, the merchant says that after gifting the Bashkirs a few presents, he was able to secure thirteen thousand acres for a mere twenty copecks apiece.

Pakhom leaves his family behind and travels to the land of the Bashkirs. Upon his arrival, they prove to be friendly yet strange people and offer Pakhom kumiss to drink. Pakhom gives the Bashkirs several gifts, as instructed by the passing merchant, and they eagerly look to repay his kindness. Pakhom requests the opportunity to purchase some of their land. The Bashkir elder soon arrives and agrees to sell Pakhom as much land as he can circumnavigate in one day for the price of a thousand roubles, provided Pakhom returns to his starting point by sunset. Pakhom readily agrees.

That night Pakhom experiences a strange dream, in which the Bashkir elder, the passing merchant, and the traveling peasant each transform into the Devil, who then laughs at a dead and nearly-naked figure at his feet. Pakhom realizes that the dead figure is in fact himself. Upon waking, however, he brushes off the dream. He sets his eyes on the land waiting to be claimed, grabs his spade, and begins his walk.

Despite the growing heat of the sun, Pakhom easily covers approximately six miles of land, marking his way with the spade and shedding his clothing to keep cool. By midday, Pakhom has grown uncomfortable under the relentless sun, but he pushes on. After having walked ten miles, he realizes must hasten his pace to ensure that he returns by sundown. Pakhom rushes back and arrives at his starting point just as the setting sun crosses the horizon. He then promptly drops dead from exhaustion. His workman uses the spade to dig Pakhom’s grave, answering the story’s title question. In the end, a man needs only enough land to bury him.