How Much Land Does a Man Need?


In this parable by Leo Tolstoy, Pahom, a Russian peasant, overhears his wife and her sister arguing the merits of farm life versus city life. He boasts to himself that if he just had enough land, he would not even fear the Devil.

The Devil hears the boast and plans to exploit Pahom’s greed. Pahom soon succeed in buying land, yet he quickly grows dissatisfied. He treats the local peasants as badly as he was once treated, and he continues to acquire more land.

When a traveling dealer tells Pahom about the region of the Bashkirs, where fertile land is available at low prices, Pahom travels there with his savings–100 thousand Rubles.

The Bashkirs welcome him and agree to sell, for a thousand Rubles, as much land as he can walk off in a day, as long as he returns before sunset to his starting point. We join the story from there:

“Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” Pahom thought to himself.

“Why, we shall go to any spot you like, and stay there. You must start from that spot and make your round, taking a spade with you. Wherever you think necessary, make a mark. At every turning, dig a hole and pile up the turf; then afterwards we will go round with a plough from hole to hole. You may make as large a circuit as you please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you started from. All the land you cover will be yours.”

Pahom started walking neither slowly nor quickly. After having gone a thousand yards he stopped, dug a hole, and placed pieces of turf one on another to make it more visible. Then he went on; and now that he had walked off his stiffness he quickened his pace. After a while he dug another hole.
Pahom looked at the sun, which had reached the earth: one side of it had already disappeared. With all his remaining strength he rushed on, bending his body forward so that his legs could hardly follow fast enough to keep him from falling.

Just as he reached the hillock it suddenly grew dark. He looked up–the sun had already set. He gave a cry: “All my labor has been in vain,” thought he, and was about to stop, but he heard the Bashkirs still shouting, and remembered that though to him, from below, the sun seemed to have set, they on the hillock could still see it. He took a long breath and ran up the hillock. It was still light there. He reached the top and saw the cap. Before it sat the Chief laughing and holding his sides.

Again Pahom remembered his dream, and he uttered a cry: his legs gave way beneath him, he fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.

His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.


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