52 pages 1 hour read

Leo Tolstoy

How Much Land Does a Man Need

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1886

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”

“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is a short story by Leo Tolstoy, the great 19th-century Russian novelist and short story and essay writer. Published in 1886, the story was translated into English in 1906 by Louise and Aylmer Maude in a collection of Tolstoy’s short fiction titled Twenty-Three Tales (1906). This translation has been reprinted many times and is the one this guide uses (published by Oxford University Press in 1967).

“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” retells a Russian folktale about a peasant’s greed for land and its consequences. Tolstoy wrote the story in his late fifties during a period when he believed that all literature should contain a moral lesson. It has had a powerful impact on readers for well over 100 years.

The story consists of nine parts. In Part 1, a woman visits her younger sister, who lives in the country. The elder sister, who is married to a tradesman in a town, talks about all the advantages of town life: fine clothes, good food, trips to the theater, and other things. This annoys the younger sister, who is married to a village peasant. She says she would not trade her peasant life; she and her husband may never grow rich, but they will always have enough, whereas rich people often lose all they have. The city, she says, surrounds people with temptations from the Devil. Lying on the stove nearby, the younger sister’s husband, Pahóm, overhears what they are saying. He agrees with his wife, but he also thinks they do not have enough land. If he had more land, even the Devil would not be able to tempt him. The Devil, who is sitting unseen in the room, hears this boast and decides to give Pahóm more land to ensnare him.

In Part 2, a lady who owns a large estate close to Pahóm hires a steward, who fines the peasants when their cattle stray onto the estate. Pahóm is annoyed whenever he must pay a fine. When the lady decides to sell the land, the peasants try to arrange for their commune to buy it, but the Devil causes them to disagree amongst themselves about how to do this. In the end, the land is sold individually to those peasants who can afford it. Pahóm raises enough money to buy 40 acres. He is now a landowner and enjoys good harvests. He is content.

In Part 3, Pahóm’s happiness is spoiled when cattle belonging to some of the neighboring peasants stray onto his land. For a while Pahóm tolerates these intrusions, but later he decides that he must teach the peasants a lesson, and he forces them to pay fines. The peasants resent this and bear a grudge against him. After five of Pahóm’s lime trees are destroyed, Pahóm accuses a man named Simon of the deed. He goes to Simon’s homestead but finds nothing incriminating. There is a trial and then a retrial, but Simon is acquitted for lack of evidence. Pahóm accuses the judges of taking bribes and quarrels further with his neighbors.

During this period, Pahóm learns that many peasants in the village are moving away, and he hopes this will enable him to buy more land. A peasant passing through the village tells him that many people have been moving to an area hundreds of miles away on the other side of the River Volga. Each peasant has received 25 acres of high-quality land. Pahóm’s interest is aroused. He visits the new settlement in the summer and is pleased with what he sees. In the fall, he returns home and sells all his belongings. In the spring, he and his family make their way to the new community.

When he arrives (Part 4), the commune of a large village gives Pahóm and his sons 125 acres for their own use. Pahóm has much arable land, and there is plenty of room for him to pasture his cattle, but he soon desires to grow more wheat than his land can accommodate. To solve the problem, he rents land from a dealer, but this requires transporting the wheat he grows there more than 10 miles to the village. Nevertheless, his crops are good, and he continues the arrangement for three years. By then, he has grown tired of renting and wants to own land instead. He negotiates with a peasant and is about to buy 1,300 acres from him, but then a passing dealer returning from the distant Bashkir land tells Pahóm that he bought 1,300 acres there for very little money. The dealer gave the Bashkir chiefs some gifts, and they were happy to sell their land. Pahóm realizes that if he were to do the same, he would get 10 times as much land for less money than he was poised to pay the peasant.

In Part 5, leaving his wife behind, Pahóm and a servant travel more than 300 miles to the Bashkirs. The journey takes them almost a week. They find that the Bashkirs live in felt-covered tents by a river. They do not cultivate the land, but they do own cattle and horses. The women milk the cows, and from the milk they make a drink called kumiss. The men like to eat mutton, play their pipes, and drink kumiss. They greet Pahóm warmly, giving him food and drink, and Pahóm offers them gifts, including tea and wine. They then ask Pahóm what he likes best among all the things they possess, so they can give him what he wants. Pahóm says that he is very impressed with their land, which is much better than the land where he comes from. The Bashkirs talk amongst themselves for a while and then offer him as much land as he desires. They do, however, need to confirm this with their chief.

In Part 6, the Bashkir chief arrives and Pahóm gives him tea and a fine dressing-gown. When his men tell him about the proposed land deal, the Chief readily agrees to it. At Pahóm’s request, he also says he will issue a deed to the land so there will be no disputes about it. The Chief then tells Pahóm that the price of the land will be 1,000 rubles a day. Pahóm is puzzled by what that means, and the Chief explains that he can have as much land as he can walk around in a day. If he fails to return to his starting point within that time, he will forfeit his 1,000 rubles. When Pahóm asks how he is to identify the land he covers, the Chief tells him to make a mark with a spade from time to time; when he makes a turn, he is to dig a hole and pile up the turf around it.

In Part 7, Pahóm plans to walk a circuit of 35 miles the following day. He lies awake thinking of what he will do with the land. Just before dawn he goes to sleep and has a dream in which he hears someone outside the tent laughing. In the dream, he goes outside and discovers that the man laughing heartily is the Chief. When Pahóm asks him why he is laughing, he sees that the man is now the dealer who told him about the Bashkirs. Pahóm is about to ask the man a question when he sees that he is not the dealer but the peasant from long ago who told him about the land on the other side of the Volga. Pahóm then sees that the figure is the Devil and that in front of him lies a dead man: Pahóm himself. Frightened, he wakes up. He realizes that dawn is approaching and he gets up and goes to the Bashkirs, telling them it is time to start measuring the land.

Part 8 begins with Pahóm and the Bashkirs assembling on a hillock. Pahóm sets off toward the rising sun, digging holes and piling up pieces of turf from time to time. He walks roughly three miles as the day heats up. He takes off his undercoat and continues. Then he takes his boots off, which makes it easier to walk. He walks for what he thinks is another three miles, digs a hole, and turns to the left. At noon, he sits and rests for a while, after which he continues walking for a long time. When he makes another turn, he notices that the Bashkirs who are waiting for him on the hillock look like they are a long way away. He decides to make the third side of his land shorter, but he gets worried when he realizes he has walked less than two miles on that side. He still has 10 miles to go, yet the sun is already sinking in the sky. He decides to hurry back in a straight line, even though that will make his land lopsided.

In Part 9, Pahóm is tired and finds it hard to walk, but nonetheless he walks faster and faster and then breaks into a run, discarding his coat, boots, and flask. He hears the Bashkirs yelling, urging him on, and also notices that the sun is close to the horizon. Pahóm remembers his dream and thinks he may die. When the sun sinks below the horizon, his despair increases, but then a last hope comes: The Bashkirs are on higher ground and can still see the sun. He runs to the top of the hillock before collapsing. As he falls forward, he manages to touch the Chief’s cap, in which his money lies, and the Chief declares that Pahóm has acquired a lot of land. However, when Pahóm’s servant runs to him, he finds that Pahóm is dead. The servant digs a grave and buries him. After striving for so long to acquire land, all the land Pahóm needs now is six feet.