How Much Land Does a Man Need?

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"How Much Land Does a Man Need?"
Leo Tolstoy by Nesterov.jpg

Leo Tolstoy by Mikhail Nesterov, 1906
Author Leo Tolstoy
Original title "Много ли человеку земли нужно?"
Country Russia
Language Russian
Genre(s) Short Story
Publication date 1886

"How Much Land Does a Man Require?" (Russian: Много ли человеку земли нужно?, Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno) is an 1886 short story by Leo Tolstoy about a man who, in his lust for land, forfeits everything.

Synopsis[edit]

The protagonist of the story is a peasant named Pahom, who overhears his wife and sister-in-law argue over the merits of town and peasant farm life. He thinks to himself "if I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!". Unbeknownst to him, Satan is present sitting behind the stove and listening. Satan abruptly accepts his challenge and also tells that he would give Pahom more land and then snatch everything from him. A short amount of time later, a landlady in the village decides to sell her estate, and the peasants of the village buy as much of that land as they can. Pahom himself purchases some land, and by working off the extra land is able to repay his debts and live a more comfortable life.

However, Pahom then becomes very possessive of his land, and this causes arguments with his neighbors. "Threats to burn his building began to be uttered." Later, he moves to a larger area of land at another Commune. Here, he can grow even more crops and amass a small fortune, but he has to grow the crops on rented land, which irritates him. Finally, after buying and selling a lot of fertile and good land, he is introduced to the Bashkirs, and is told that they are simple-minded people who own a huge amount of land. Pahom goes to them to take as much of their land for as low a price as he can negotiate. Their offer is very unusual: for a sum of one thousand rubles, Pahom can walk around as large an area as he wants, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade along the way. If he reaches his starting point by sunset that day, the entire area of land his route encloses will be his, but if he does not reach his starting point he will lose his money and receive no land. He is delighted as he believes that he can cover a great distance and has chanced upon the bargain of a lifetime. That night, Pahom experiences a surreal dream in which he sees himself lying dead by the feet of the Devil, who is laughing.

He stays out as late as possible, marking out land until just before the sun sets. Toward the end, he realizes he is far from the starting point and runs back as fast as he can to the waiting Bashkirs. He finally arrives at the starting point just as the sun sets. The Bashkirs cheer his good fortune, but exhausted from the run, Pahom drops dead. His servant buries him in an ordinary grave only six feet long, thus ironically answering the question posed in the title of the story.

Cultural influence[edit]

Late in life, James Joyce wrote to his daughter that it is "the greatest story that the literature of the world knows";[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein was another well-known admirer.[2] Motifs from the short story are used in the 1969 West German film Scarabea: How Much Land Does a Man Need? directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.[3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Donna Tussing Orwin. The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-52000-2. Page 209.
  2. ^ Stuart G Shanker, David Kilfoyle. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-14918-5. Page 339.
  3. ^ "Scarabea - Wieviel Erde braucht der Mensch?". Filmportal.de (in German). German Film Institute. Retrieved 2013-03-31. 

External links[edit]