Definitions

does a pratfall

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

How Much Land Does a Man Need? (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, including his own life. Late in life, James Joyce wrote to his daughter that it is "the greatest story that the literature of the world knows"; Ludwig Wittgenstein was another well-known admirer.

Synopsis

The protagonist of the story is a peasant named Pahom, who at the beginning can be heard complaining that he does not own enough land to satisfy him. 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 gets him into discord with his neighbours. This is a first sign that greed is disrupting his moral values. 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, he is introduced to the Bashkirs, and is told they are simple-minded people who own a huge amount of land. Thus, he 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. He is delighted as he believes that he can cover a great distance and has chanced upon the bargain of a lifetime.

His journey across the land illustrates his greediness. He tries to cover as much land as possible, not content with what he already has. As the sun nearly sets, he realizes his error 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, he drops dead. They bury him in an ordinary grave only six feet long, thus ironically answering the question posed in the title of the story.

References

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