Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” centers on Pakhom, a peasant farmer whose insatiable desire for land brings about his downfall. The story begins when Pakhom unwittingly extends a dare to the Devil, claiming that with enough land he would have nothing to fear. Pakhom’s subsequent, insatiable pursuit of land leads him down a path of increasing selfishness and avarice, until he ultimately drops dead in his frantic search for more. A cautionary tale and lesson in morality, Tolstoy’s story highlights the corruptive nature of greed and the dangers of assigning too much value to material possessions.
Pakhom views land as a source of comfort and security, and he will stop at nothing to obtain as much of it as he can. Rather than satisfaction, however, all this excess land really brings him is the desire for more. In order to buy his first piece of land, Pakhom must sell everything he owns, secure a loan from his merchant brother-in-law, and hire out the labor of his children. Even then, it still takes Pakhom over two years to finish paying for the property. Pakhom’s desire to own land is so strong that he is willing to go into debt and exploit his children and family to satisfy his greed.
Pakhom tells his wife, “We must get ahold of twenty acres, or thereabouts. If we don’t, we won’t be able to live.” Despite estimating his needs at roughly twenty acres, Pakhom goes on to buy “about thirty acres of partly wooded land.” Pakhom himself has admitted that he does not require that amount of land to survive, and thus selects a parcel that exceeds his need. Pakhom later sells this newly-obtained land for a profit, which he then uses to secure even more property.
Although he now possesses more than three times the amount of land he needs “to live,” Pakhom’s greed only continues to grow. When the Bashkirs, distant landowners, say he can have as much land as he can circumnavigate on foot in one day, Pakhom pushes himself to the point that he dies of exhaustion. So blinded is Pakhom by his greed that he literally walks to his own death and damnation.
Of course, greed within Tolstoy’s story is not limited to Pakhom, but also manifests in the fines larger landowners impose on local peasants. Pakhom’s desire to own land is intensified when a neighboring landowner hires an old soldier to manage her estate. A tenant farmer, Pakhom’s own small patch of rented land sits near that of the unnamed woman, whom he describes as kind and on good terms with her peasant neighbors. Her newly-hired manager, however, quickly begins to leverage impossible fines on Pakhom and the other peasants for minor infractions, such as wandering horses and stray cows, stressing Pakhom’s pocketbook to its breaking point.
When Pakhom becomes a more powerful landowner himself, he similarly imposes fines on the peasants for trespassing. He teaches “them a lesson in court, then another, making several of them pay fines,” despite his knowledge that “the peasants weren’t doing it deliberately but because they were short of land.” Indeed, land shortage was a major problem in 19th-century Russia after serfdom was outlawed in 1861. Although the emancipated serfs could legally own land, there was not enough of it to go around, and that which was available was over-farmed and of poor quality. This shortage of farmland leads to the peasants trespassing on Pakhom’s property, and even though he has experienced their plight first-hand, Pakhom still demands payment. In fact, Pakhom seeks fines so frequently and aggressively that he falls “out with the magistrates as well as his neighbors, who threaten to burn his cottage down.” Pakhom’s attempts to exploit money from peasants prove too much for even the Russian courts to tolerate, and the peaceful farmers, once only mildly irritated, now threaten arson in revenge. Pakhom’s blind pursuit for more land thus upends his moral compass and strips him of empathy for his fellow man, resulting in animosity and social unrest.
“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” ultimately argues that greed begets only more greed. Pakhom is continually in search of more land and power throughout the story, often at the expense of others, and he pays the ultimate price for his avarice. As Pakhom gains land and security, he loses basic human decency, and is still never able to satisfy his ever-expanding desire. What’s more, Pakhom’s behavior not only isolates him within his community, but also within his own family; Pakhom relies upon his family to secure his first piece of land, but increasingly neglects them with each new piece of property until they are completely left behind when Pakhom travels far away to buy the Bashkirs’ land. By focusing on the effects that Pakhom’s excessive greed has on his family and neighbors, Tolstoy further suggests that the real tragedy is not Pakhom’s own untimely death, but the negative impact of his greed on the world around him.
The Corrupting Nature of Greed ThemeTracker
The Corrupting Nature of Greed Quotes in How Much Land Does a Man Need?
“It's true what you say,” he said. “Take me. Ever since I was a youngster I've been too busy tilling the soil to let that kind of nonsense enter my head. My only grievance is that I don't have enough land. Give me enough of that and I'd fear no one—not even the Devil himself!”
They met once, they met twice, but no progress was made: the Devil had set them at loggerheads and there was nothing they could agree upon. In the end they decided to buy the land in separate lots, each according to what he could afford.
“The land is so fertile,” he said, “that rye grows as high as a horse and it's so thick you can make a whole sheaf from only five handfuls! One peasant arrived with a copeck and only his bare hands to work with and now he has six horses and two cows.”
Then they conferred again and started arguing about something. Pakhom asked what it was and the interpreter told him, “Some of them are saying they should first consult the elder about the land. They can't do anything without his permission, but some of the others say it's not necessary.”
“Thank you for your kind words. Yes, you do have a great deal of land, but I need only a little. However, I would like to be sure which will be mine, so couldn't it be measured and made over to me by some sort of contract? Our lives are in God's hands and although you good people are willing to give me the land now, it's possible your children might want it back again.”
And then Pakhom saw that it wasn't the peasant, but the Devil himself, with horns and hoofs, sitting there laughing his head off, while before him lay a barefoot man wearing only shirt and trousers. When Pakhom took a closer look he saw that the man was dead and that it was himself.
On and on he went—but there was still a long way to go. He started running and threw away his coat, boots, flask, cap, keeping only the spade which he used for leaning on. “Oh dear,” he thought, “I've been too greedy. Now I've ruined it. I'll never get back by sunset.”
Although he feared death, he could not stop. “If I stopped now, after coming all this way—well, they'd call me an idiot!” So on he ran until he was close enough to hear the Bashkirs yelling and cheering him on.
Pakhom's workman picked up the spade, dug a grave for his master—six feet from head to heel, which was exactly the right length—and buried him.