Critical Analysis to "How Much Land Does a Man Need"

Published: 2024-01-30
Critical Analysis to "How Much Land Does a Man Need"
Type of paper:  Literature review
Categories:  Literature
Pages: 8
Wordcount: 1937 words
17 min read


In Leo Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need," Pahom, the protagonist, is seen as an ongoing struggle within himself to get more land than he thinks can meet his needs. While once content with his status as a poor farmer, land ownership deflates his satisfaction and makes him eager to earn more land, even though his needs are not be met by any amount of land, leading to his death. Greed vastly overwhelms Pahom and leaves him oblivious to his surroundings for positive things. This paper assesses what the protagonist wants, what he needs, the story's parable nature, and its irony.

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Pahom's Needs And Wants

The complot starts with Pahom, the main character, as a poor countryman living in Russia. He is a man with a home, wife and children, a roof, and able to put food on the table. Pahom's primary source of supply for the family is farming, which he pursues to get more land throughout the story. After a visit from his wife, he boasts in a mocking manner saying, "We farmers have no time to let any fool sit in our heads, as long as we are from childhood till Mother Earth. Our only problem is that we don't have enough land sufficiently. I shouldn't fear the Devil himself if I have plenty of lands!" The Devil, the novel's antagonist, hears the remark of Pahom and takes it as a challenge to offer Pahom enough land and get him to his power. The Devil is pleased that Pahom's wife successfully influences the husband to boast that he does not need to fear the Devil if he has enough land (Tolstoy 1). This causes tension as Pahom's covetousness overcomes him through the temptations of the Devil.

In this tale, the Devil takes several ways to lure Pahom by appeasing him with more land as he had decided. First, Pahom gets into constant trouble with a female landowner after his horse or cow strays into her land. The soldier employed to guard the land imposes strict fines on Pahom and other community members, which he pays with too much grumbling. The soldier's work stops anyone or anything that trespasses through the land and takes necessary action against trespassers. The fine harsh consequences of Pahom's livestock's trespass drive him to hold his desire to use the land during winter and want a land of his own. When the female boss agrees to sell her property, Pahom takes this chance and uses his savings and money to pay half the land prize. The agreement is to deliver the other half by the end of two years. With the piece of land, Pahom does well, having good crops, which allows him to clear his outstanding debts one year after buying it. The primary motivation for Pahom's purchase of the land is necessarily the need or urgency to use it, rather a way to escape harsh fines from any other person who would have purchased it. He says, "Others are buying the land. We must also acquire about twenty acres for life is becoming hard with the steward crushing us with high and frequent fines" (Tolstoy 2). However, even after acquiring the twenty acres, Pahom appears uncontented, especially once other cattle begin trespassing through his newly acquired land.

Though he does well, Pahom grows tired and impatient with the land and is overwhelmed by animals and people trespassing carelessly through his land. A different kind of temptation comes to Pahom in the form of a peasant who happens to spend a night with him. The peasant tells him about a place called the Volga where every man that settled there was granted 25 acres of land. He says the farm is as good because the "rye sown there flourishes and grows as big as a horse" (Tolstoy 3). Pahom and his family are fascinated by this, and their hearts are kindled with a new desire for land. After the conversation, he sells all his possessions, including his not-so-long-bought land and livestock, in the following spring. Together with his family, they set out to the new community and acquire 125 acres of land spread over the neighborhood. Pahom has a decent and flourishing wheat crop in the new land, but his greed still takes over, and he begins to feel like he needs more virgin soil to plant more wheat. However, the newly acquired land is ten times way better than his previous land. The successes he has on the new land presumably should make him content.

On the contrary, he begins to see how small his land is. Pahom rents various land plots for a while, sowing plenty of wheat but at some point, loses interest in hired land. He says, "If I could acquire some portion of freehold land, and build a home there, it would be something different" (Tolstoy 4). Although he has enough, or just what he needs for the moment, his wants draw him away from the sense of investing in his first land before selling up everything.

A third time, the Devil is seen tempting Pahom, this time as a dealer who stops at his home to acquire animal feeds. The dealer speaks of the new 13,000-acre property he bought from the Bashkir for 1,000 roubles. All he had to do was make friends with the Bashkirs, give them gifts, and get their land for as little as two cents per acre. To acquire the described more significant land portion, Pahom goes out with one of his men searching for the Bashkir chiefs, buying gifts along the way. In another form of temptation, the Bashkir's leader makes a bargain with Pahom to possess as much as he can cover in a single day for just 1000 roubles. All the Bashkirs require of him is to mark as much land as he can before sunset. He is supposed to begin drawing the next day at a point designated by the chiefs, where he draws the land with a hole. All the land Pahom he would cover would now belong to him.

Pahom's tale's dramatic climax comes when he has a dream where he sees all the men who had purchased different property. In his dream, he sees the laughing Bashkir's ruler, a farmer, a soldier, and a dealer all converged before he eventually sees the Devil himself sited there chuckling with hooves and horns and with him lying barefoot and prostrate with only pants and a shirt." He wakes up, brushing his dream saying, "What do you dream about?" (Tolstoy 7). Pahom choses to ignore this warning and allows his greed to control his actions.

The next day, Pahom goes out to mark the land he so badly wants. He takes his spade and goes as far as he can to mark the land. It becomes hotter, and he starts pulling off his clothes, took his boots away, leaving him as the guy he had seen in his dream with just a pair of pants and a shirt. His appetite for more land overwhelms Pahom so much that he goes too far than he can travel back. He falls, throwing away his lifeline water but still holds on to the spade. Though he appears dehydrated and physically tired, he persists. Although he sees the Bashkir joyfully at the finishing, he doubts his likelihood to finish successfully. He recalls the dream once more where he saw the chief of the Bashkirs laughing. "It's plenty land," said he, "but is God going to allow me to live? My life is lost; my life is lost! I'm never going to get there!" (Tolstoy 9). Pahom allows the Devil's greed to overwhelm him and fails to use his common sense to know that his decision to keep on was useless. After getting to the finish point, he dies, and his slave digs a hole with a spade for him. In the end, the story concludes that the hole "was all he required, six feet from his head to his feet" (Tolstoy 9). The spade, the emblem of his greed, digs Pahom's grave to him, which is the only land left to him; a grave.

How much land does a man require? Pahom, from the beginning, has everything he needs. However, Pahom is illusionary in wanting to have more land because the more he purchases, the more he desires to buy more. Therefore, the Devil succeeds in enticing and obsessing him with the desire for more, which puts his family under his mediocre life to follow a dream that can never fulfill him. Whatever Pahom's success is, he is never satisfied and happy with his life.

Characteristics Of A Parable

Tolstoy writes a parable from a man who has a temptation to own land but can never be fulfilled. It doesn't suffice him, no matter how much land he possesses. On the other hand, the grass always looks greener, and a desire to want more is always spurred. Tolstoy teaches a lesson that in life, there are still things we want. True happiness does not come from those things we desire or the physical assets we possess but appreciating what we have. Things such as family, friends, food, and shelters should not be overlooked or taken for granted. From the story, whenever Pahom's desire for more land is aroused, he loses track of his moral compass. He fails to understand the primary lesson in this story, and he takes everything he had or needed for granted, though it was all before his eyes.

Elements Of Irony

The irony about this story is that Pahom, as a farmer, tells his baby sister that a farmer's life is better than that of a wealthy urban resident. There's no one to answer to for the kind of carefree life lived by peasants. However, it's quite ironic that he is always unsatisfied with the life he argues is better than urban life. The urban life is something he once despised. Further, when living next to the female landowner, he hates being fined for situations beyond his control, such as cattle wandering off into the land to destroy crops. However, the same events re-occur on the property when he becomes the landowner. The cows and other farmers trespass through the land and destroy part of his crops in many instances. The horses even eat his maize without any control. By driving them away, he attempts to settle this by himself. However, it persists, prompting him to seek help with the District Court. Pahom says, "I can't keep overlooking it, or they're going to ruin everything I've got. They need to be given a lesson" (Tolstoy 3). Pahom imposes high fines on the other peasants. His greed and selfishness cause him to forget his previous position with the female landowner. He puts the peasants in a tight spot as it was with him only that he received some grace from his employer.


This tale tells the story of a man tempted to pursue something that would not fulfill him, abandoning a life that was satisfying for him. Too much pride and greed open the door to temptation and lead people down the wrong path as it does for Pahom. Just as the story's parable teaches, if people open their eyes to consider and not take for granted the things around them, there will ultimately be no disappointments. Pahom was happy once with his place in life, but he loses the path and follows certain death when he chooses green pastures waved over his head.

Works Cited

Tolstoy, Leo. How Much Land Does a Man Need?. Penguin UK, 2015.

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