How Much Land Does a Man Need? | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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How Much Land Does a Man Need? | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Part 1

The story opens in a Russian peasant village in the late 19th century. A wealthy elder sister visits her younger sister, a peasant who lives in the village. The elder sister brags about her lavish lifestyle and mocks her sister's poverty. But the younger sister retorts her way of life is more secure since the elder sister may lose her wealth. Money, she adds, leads to dangerous temptations like gambling and drinking.

Pahom, the younger sister's husband and a peasant farmer, is listening. Privately he agrees his lifestyle keeps him busy and free from temptation. He longs for more land, however, and thinks if he had enough land, he wouldn't even fear the Devil.

But the Devil is hiding in the house and hears Pahom's thoughts. He resolves to get the best of Pahom by tempting him with land.

Part 2

The next winter a landowner near Pahom's peasant commune decides to sell her privately owned land. Pahom has often been fined by the landowner's steward for accidentally letting his animals onto her property.

At first he and the other peasants in his commune try to buy the land collectively. The Devil tempts them to argue, however, and they can't agree on a price. The peasants decide to purchase land individually instead.

Pahom and his wife save money and buy a 40-acre farm on the landowner's estate. Pahom is excited; he's never had his own land before.

Part 3

As a landowner Pahom runs into new problems. His neighbors' animals now graze on his property constantly. At first Pahom forgives his neighbors, who don't have much land themselves. Eventually, though, he has had enough. He complains to the District Court.

His neighbors are punished with fines. They openly resent Pahom as a result. An unknown culprit cuts down trees on his property, and Pahom falsely accuses a peasant named Simon. Meanwhile Pahom hopes to increase his landholdings when he hears several neighbors are moving away.

One day Pahom hosts a visiting peasant who lives beyond the Volga River. The visitor tells Pahom about the cheap and fertile farmland beyond the Volga. Each peasant is guaranteed 25 acres and the opportunity to buy freehold or privately owned land. Eager to leave his village, Pahom moves his family to the new location.

Part 4

Pahom applies and is accepted into a commune in the new village. He "[stands] treat to the Elders," a ritual in which he pays for their food, drink, and entertainment. His 125 acres make him wealthier than ever. Soon, however, he realizes he doesn't have enough good soil to sow a steady crop of wheat. He needs virgin, unfarmed soil or fallow land—soil that goes without crops for a season before it can be farmed again. And the market for land is competitive, so Pahom has to scramble every year to rent what he needs. He starts saving to purchase freehold land.

After three years he's close to buying 1,300 acres of his own. Then he hosts a land dealer who is traveling from a settlement belonging to the Bashkirs, a nomadic Turkic tribe in eastern Russia. The dealer claims the Bashkirs are selling virgin soil for less than two cents an acre. Pahom is intrigued by the good land and low price.

Part 5

As soon as the dealer leaves, Pahom and his servant head for the Bashkirs' land, traveling for seven days. A good-natured people, the Bashkirs live in tents and spend their summers eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves.

The Bashkirs are delighted to host Pahom. They find him an interpreter since the Bashkirs don't speak Russian. Following local custom, Pahom gives gifts to his hosts, and they offer to repay him with anything he wants. Pahom asks for some of their land.

Privately the Bashkirs discuss his request, laughing. They decide Pahom can choose as much land as he wants, but they debate whether to get their Chief to approve the gift.

Part 6

The Chief returns to the tent. He agrees to let Pahom take all the land he likes. Pahom asks for a signed deed to secure his ownership, and the Chief agrees to this as well. The Chief then says the price of the land is 1,000 rubles a day.

Pahom is confused; how can he measure land by the day? The Chief explains Pahom can have all the land he can cover on foot during one day from sunrise to sunset. If Pahom doesn't return on the same day to the spot where he began, though, he'll lose his money. The Chief suggests Pahom use a spade to dig holes and mark where he's been. Delighted, Pahom anticipates getting more land than ever.

Part 7

That night Pahom can hardly sleep. He plans to cover 35 miles the next day. He imagines all the farming he can accomplish once the land is his.

Before dawn he dreams the Chief is sitting outside his tent laughing. The Chief becomes the dealer who told him about the Bashkir land. The dealer turns into the peasant who urged him to go beyond the Volga. Finally the peasant becomes the Devil, who is "chuckling." In front of the Devil lies a dead man, and Pahom is shocked to realize the dead man is himself. He wakes horrified. But he quickly dismisses the dream, eager to begin measuring his land. He gathers the Bashkirs.

Part 8

Pahom and the Bashkirs arrive at a steppe, or large treeless plain, just before sunrise. After giving the Chief 1,000 rubles, Pahom prepares for the journey, bringing bread and water with him. He decides to go toward the rising sun.

As the day begins, Pahom walks at a regular pace. He soon notices the land gets better the farther he travels. The rising heat makes him tired, and he wants to stop and rest. Still, he convinces himself to keep going. By midafternoon he reluctantly turns around, worried if he keeps going, he will go too far to return.

Part 9

Now exhausted and in pain, Pahom makes his way back to the Bashkirs. He panics since the sun is already starting to set. He regrets marking off too much land. Pahom runs as quickly as possible to get back in time. Soon he can't breathe.

The Bashkirs call to him from the steppe. The Chief is laughing, and Pahom remembers his dream from the night before. Though Pahom is now convinced he will die, he keeps running. The sun appears to set just as he reaches the steppe. But Pahom thinks the Bashkirs can still see the sun from where they're standing. He runs up the steppe and collapses; he's made it back with moments to spare.

Still laughing, the Chief praises Pahom's effort. But soon the Bashkirs and Pahom's servant realize Pahom is dead. Pahom's servant buries him in a six-foot-long grave. The narrator remarks that these six feet are all the land Pahom needs.

Analysis

Humble Beginnings

The sisters' opening conversation introduces two major ideas in the story: the temporary nature of wealth and the futility of trying to control the future. The proverb the younger sister quotes means every gain comes with a loss. The more someone has, the more they stand to lose. She also believes no material possessions are secure forever. Pahom learns these lessons through experience by the end of the narrative. His wife predicts his fate, though neither of them knows it yet. Tolstoy uses the sisters' debate as foreshadowing, or advance warning, of a future plot point.

Tolstoy uses a third-person objective narrator, but he's still telling a folktale with a moral message. He sympathizes with the younger sister's argument. Born rich, Tolstoy later embraced the simplicity of the peasant lifestyle. He worked alongside peasants in the fields and found their life more spiritually pure than the indulgences of the wealthy.

Moreover, Tolstoy was a writer with a distinctly Christian religious worldview. The Devil, a common force of spiritual evil in the Christian tradition, is the story's primary antagonist. Both the younger sister and the narrator call the Devil "the Evil One," giving the story a religious undertone of good versus evil. The younger sister believes pleasures such as gambling, drinking, and adultery can lead to both financial and spiritual ruin. Not only can a gambler lose money, but they can also fall into sin.

Pahom's pride is similarly treated as a spiritual vice. His first statement indicates a lofty ambition that will lead to his downfall. He declares himself superior to the Devil—a fallen angel and therefore a powerful being—and believes wealth will make him invincible.

The character of the Devil resembles the trickster, a common trope in folklore. A trickster is a witty, villainous character who delights in upsetting the established social order. The Devil's plan is to give Pahom what he thinks he wants. This plot also follows a formula found in folktales such as "The Fisherman and His Wife," collected by German folklorists Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859) Grimm. A poor main character is granted the wealth he wishes for, his desire gradually increases, and he eventually learns wealth comes with its own problems.

One problem Pahom encounters is the risk of upward mobility, or moving into a wealthier social group. Class divisions were entrenched in 19th-century Russia. The rich remained rich, while the poor stayed poor. But after Russia abolished serfdom in 1861, peasants no longer had to labor as tenant farmers for rich landowners. For the first time, they could own land and keep the profits. For many peasants an entirely new life seemed possible.

Pahom envies this new life when he encounters the daily challenges of poverty in Part 2. Since landowners had more authority than nonlandowners, they could employ reinforcements, like the steward who fines the peasants. The steward's status as an "old soldier" hints at the power of the state and the military in Russia.

Among the peasants, individual greed wins over communal responsibility. The commune has a chance to work together and buy the land. But with the Devil's help, they choose to look out for their own interests instead. Then Pahom faces the problem of competition. This, not greed, is his first motivation. He notices his neighbors are investing in land, and if he doesn't do the same himself, he'll be at a disadvantage. Tolstoy shows how a competitive economic system can breed rivalry and encourage unequal power dynamics.

Pahom's own change in status gives him a new sense of authority over others. He feels the land is his to control—ownership becomes part of his identity. Despite his sympathy for poorer neighbors, he eventually decides to protect his land rather than protect others from fines. This is a symptom of moral corruption. He has a chance to extend mercy and forgiveness, and he chooses not to. When he charges peasants whose animals wander onto his property, he's doing exactly what the wealthy landowner did to him.

Three Temptations

Pahom loses the respect of his community, offering the first example of a gain turning into a loss. He feels his neighbors want to destroy his newfound wealth. They feel betrayed and exploited. Once he sees his neighbors as enemies instead of friends, he can easily imagine taking over their land if they move away.

Moreover, as his possessions grow, so does his desire. Once he hears something bigger is possible, the land that once looked miraculous to him now feels small and cramped.

The peasant who lives beyond the Volga River is the first of three characters to tempt Pahom with greater wealth. The second is the land dealer, who entices Pahom to travel to the Bashkirs' territory, where Pahom meets the third temptation, the Chief. The cycle of three similar events, each progressing to greater consequences, is similar to the "three wishes" trope in other folktales.

At the new location, Pahom again runs into the problem of competition for resources. He needs arable land, or farmland capable of producing crops, to make a living. However, the same is true of everyone else. The power of class distinctions becomes increasingly evident. The poorest farmers can't accumulate wealth since they owe taxes. This difference illustrates another consequence of land ownership among peasants. Some Russian peasants, known as kulaks, became more prosperous than others, and their wealth gave them decision-making power in the community.

Pahom aspires to the role of a kulak, but he's surrounded by people with the same aspirations. He notices that once farmers make the transition to ownership, they have greater control over their lives. Providing logical reasons for Pahom's ambitions makes the character sympathetic to readers. In a fiercely competitive market, Pahom is forced to look out for himself and his family. Thus, Tolstoy draws attention to the larger issues of social systems encouraging and rewarding individual greed.

But Pahom's longing for land extends beyond the need to best his neighbors. Even when he's about to get what he wants—land ownership—he isn't content. He's lured in by an offer that seems too good to be true.

The Challenge of the Bashkirs

The change in location introduces elements of fantasy, mystery, and danger. Pahom leaves his familiar setting to travel to brand-new territory, signaling a shift in the narrative. The Bashkirs, a nomadic Turkic tribe living in the eastern part of Russia, are foreign to him. He's in a new culture where he doesn't know the terms of interaction; he can't even speak the language. The Bashkirs frequently laugh when they talk to Pahom, increasing his sense of being an outsider. The story suggests their gift of land is a joke on Pahom that he fails to comprehend.

Pahom's third and final temptation is the strongest one yet. The leisurely routine of the Bashkirs promises a new life devoted to relaxation and pleasure. They don't struggle or compete for land. Pahom, used to daily labor on the farm, is intrigued. He has a chance to get away from the crowded communes of his former villages and achieve mastery over his own land.

But the narrator seems to look down on the Bashkirs, calling them "quite ignorant" and pointing out that they don't know Russian. Moreover, the moral core of the story values Russian peasants' hard work over the Bashkirs' jolly leisure. Bashkir lifestyle has an element of sinfulness and temptation.

Pahom's role in the negotiations demonstrates he is falling into the trap of greed and pride. Instead of simply being grateful for the land, he immediately thinks about how to protect it from others. He seeks ways to make his mark permanent and keep his land for future generations. When he asks for a written deed, he shows he anticipates future conflict and wants to be in a winning position. At night he imagines himself as a leader ruling over others in his new territory.

The stakes grow higher for him. If he can't cover all the land he wants in a day, he has a significant amount to lose. The Bashkirs' bargain echoes the younger sister's warning to her elder sister in Part 1 that loss always follows gain.

However, Pahom hasn't learned the lesson yet. His dream in Part 7 is an example of dramatic irony, meaning the reader knows something a character does not. For the reader the dream predicts Pahom's death. In the dream all three men who have tempted Pahom with land mock him, revealing they were never acting in his best interests. They know he will fail. His ambition is now a subject of ridicule. Blinded by desire, Pahom does not heed the warning of his own dream because he has allowed greed to manipulate him.

The dream also puts the three men in league with the Devil, who used them to tempt Pahom without him realizing it. The Devil—a representation of evil supernatural forces—has the last laugh.

Yet, Pahom ignores the warning that could have saved him. The dream suggests he's now directly competing to outsmart the Devil even though his fate has already been determined.

A Moral Lesson Too Late

When Pahom joins the Bashkirs at the top of the steppe, or high plain, he's in a lofty place both physically and metaphorically. His spatial height represents the heights to which he's ascended in his mind, picturing himself as the rich lord of his new manor. And his decision to go toward the rising sun signals an increasing sense of his own power.

In a way he's trying to outwit the sun as well—the Bashkirs' challenge requires Pahom to work against the time limit of sunrise and sunset. His fatal flaws of greed and ambition occur when he plans to seize more land than he can cover on foot. By noon the sun is working against him, reminding him of his physical human frailty.

When he is forced to run back, he pushes beyond his physical capabilities. His desire for land leads him to a failed attempt to cheat death. The Chief's laughter finally makes Pahom realize the meaning of his dream. There is nothing he can do to outrun or escape his eventual fate. Pahom thinks God may not let him live on the land. The laughing Chief comes to resemble the Devil, a tempting divine force mocking the extravagant plans Pahom made.

The final line signals the ultimate futility of human ambition when faced with the reality of death. Tolstoy uses dark humor and verbal irony: despite Pahom's long quest for land, he really only needed enough land for his burial. In Tolstoy's view, wealth and land ownership are futile. Pahom can't keep his land or his life forever. The line recalls the beginning of the story, when the younger sister cautioned the elder sister against accumulating more than she needed. As Pahom's fate suggests, anything someone doesn't need can easily be taken away. The story joins many of Tolstoy's works in confronting death and what it means to the human condition.

How Much Land Does a Man Need? Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 The Devil decides to tempt Pahom.

Rising Action

2 Pahom buys a portion of the wealthy landowner's estate.

3 Neighbors take revenge on Pahom for fines.

4 A peasant tells Pahom about land beyond the Volga River.

5 Pahom struggles to find land in his new commune.

6 The dealer describes cheap land in Bashkir territory.

Climax

7 The Chief and Pahom make a land deal.

Falling Action

8 Pahom sees his death in a dream.

Resolution

9 After covering too much land, Pahom dies from exhaustion.

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