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“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”- Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is inspired by the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21. Though Tolstoy’s work and the parable exemplify striking similarities, there are also many differences between the two. These differences highlight specific motifs in the Parable of the Rich Fool. “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” adds a narrative to encapsulate the themes in the parable.

Tolstoy was born in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia on August 28, 1828. He was the youngest of four boys. At the young age of seven, he experienced much loss with the death of his father in 1837. Tolstoy spent most of his adolescent life under the care of his aunt, Alexandra Osten-Saken. His aunt’s religious life was a major influence on Tolstoy at the time. After his aunt died in 1840 he went under the care of another aunt of his (World Biography 1). He learned French and German at this time with the help of his at home tutor. In 1843, he attended the University of Kazan for an oriental language studies program. At the school, Tolstoy was making low grades, forcing him to transfer to a law program. Even then, due to his excessive partying, he ended up leaving the University of Kazan without a degree. He was forced to return to his parents’ estate and become a farmer. He was determined to be the model farmer. He soon failed at this job too because of his foolish gambling with peasants (Richmond 1). During this time, Tolstoy started a journal that would later inspire many of his fiction works. Journaling was a habit he kept up till his death. In 1855 Tolstoy fought in the Crimean War, and while assigned as a junker (gentlemen volunteer) in the army, Tolstoy worked on an autobiographical story called “Childhood.” This was the start of his writing career (World Biography 1).

In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreyevna Bers in 1862. One of Tolstoy’s most popular works was Anna Karenina, this novel contributed much of his wealth. Soon after his success with Anna Karenina, Tolstoy went through a major spiritual crisis and became depressed. Searching for the meaning of life, in 1877 Tolstoy attended a Russian Orthodox Church, though unable to find the answers he desired. “He… believe[d] that Christian churches were corrupt and, in lieu of organized religion, developed his own beliefs” (Tolstoy the Peculiar Christian Anarchist 1). In 1883 Tolstoy met a rich guard officer who was heavily involved in starting a movement in Tolstoy’s name. He created a publication named The Mediator in order to spread Tolstoy’s stories. He wanted them to be available to the poor. In the span of six years, twenty millions copies were sold. Tolstoy watched by the secret police for a long time and in 1884 copies of his stories stopped being printed (Richmond 1). In 1901 The Holy Synod excommunicated Tolstoy. In his final 30 years of life, he considered himself a religious and moral leader who believed in nonviolent resistance to evil. He believed that, “violence breeds further violence, and only love can eventually bring about a society bound by charity, peace and love” and he also believed that the state was an unchristian institution due to its of violence to impose its laws (Richmond 1). People were mainly skeptical of Tolstoy’s view because of his rationalistic approach to Christianity- “one that did away with all mysteries, rituals or traditions” (World Biography 1). Among Tolstoy’s religious views, he did not believe in life after death. His reasons for this remain unclear but he did write, “When we die, one of two things could happen to us: either that which we consider ourselves transforms into another individual being, or we cease being an individual being and merge with God. One or the other will happen, and in neither case is there anything to fear” (Literary Analysis 1). Despite all this, he still struggled to resolve many of his spiritual beliefs until the day he died in 1910. Regardless, Tolstoy made huge impacts on the world of Christian anarchism.

Leo Tolstoy’s story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” was written in 1886 and the story is one that is uncommon for Tolstoy. The story “consists of nine small parts told in the skaz form, a Russian oral tradition” (Skaz 1). Skaz takes on a writing form that closes matches the personality of the character. It is quite commonly used in Russian monologue comedy as well. “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” tells the story of a man so lustful for land that he sacrifices everything. The story is also a reception of the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21:


“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”


In each of the 9 sections of Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” there are allusions along with similarities and differences to the Parable of The Rich Fool.


  1. Pahom’s humble beginnings


Tolstoy’s story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” begins with an elder sister visiting her younger sister who lives in the countryside. The elder sister is married to a tradesman, but her younger sister is married to a peasant farmer in a village. During the visit, the two sisters argue about their lifestyles. The older sister boasts about her lavish lifestyle while the younger sister reasons that though there are obvious benefits from living a wealthy lifestyle, she and her husband are free from anxiety; they may never grow rich, but they always have enough to eat. They don’t live in an environment where they are constantly tempted by the devil. It is clear that the sisters live dissimilar lifestyles and have contrasting views on what living a happy life entails. One equates a good life with financial comfort, extravagant clothes, and entertainment, while the other equates good living with little worry, enough food to satisfy, and a life without temptation. Though both sisters have different definitions of what it means to live a good life, both are content with their respective lifestyles. In Luke 12, the scene’s context lies in an argument between Jesus and a man. The man, being a younger brother, is envious of his older brother’s inheritance. He asks Jesus to convince his older brother to divide the inheritance between the two of them. This dynamic is similar to the one in “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” the older sister is wealthier than the younger sister, just as in the parable. The difference stems from how the older sister amassed her wealth- her wealth is not attained through her inheritance but is instead attained through her marriage. As the story continues, though the younger sister is happy with her peasant lifestyle, her husband, Pahom feels differently. He enters the conversation saying, “Busy as we are from childhood tilling mother earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” The devil, sitting behind Pahom’s stove, hears this and decides to grant Pahom his desire for more land in the hopes that by means of land he will have power over Pahom. The irony in the story is evident. Pahom makes the argument that simple living keeps nonsense out of the brain, but all he desires more in life is land. Ironically, it is the land that he receives that ends up adding more nonsense and instability to his life. Through Pahom’s worldly desire, the devil gains control of his soul. Receptions of the parable of the Rich Fool, whether they be paintings or stories, quite often include the presence of the devil. From orthodox Christian paintings to Russian and modern American paintings of the rich fool, the devil is always shown. This is symbolic of the rich fool’s impending death and a manifestation of the greed that consumes him. In Tolstoy’s story “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” the devil appears more than once, whereas in the Parable of the Rich Fool, the devil is never present. God tells the Rich Fool, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you!” not the devil. The parable offers a symbolic representation of the devil, unlike the Tolstoy’s literal representation. I believe that Tolstoy is making the larger statement through the presence of the devil. He is showing that when greed enters someone’s heart, they are giving into the work of the devil. This further relates to Tolstoy being born into a wealthy family of Russian nobility. Tolstoy must have experienced first hand the effects greed had on a family dynamic. In his story he may have relied upon his experience to characterize the devil in a way that emphasizes the power of greed how greed can make someone fall into the devil’s evil works.


  1. New Land


Close to the village where Pahom and his wife lived, there was a nice small lady who had an estate of three hundred acres. She fostered good relationships with all the peasants until she hired an old soldier to manage her property. Once the soldier came in charge, he fined the peasants on petty matters, such as livestock mistakenly straying onto her land. Pahom was among the peasants paying fines, making him and the community very angry. When winter rolled around, there was word that the small lady was selling her estate, and an innkeeper in the town was bargaining for the land. This alarmed the peasants. They believed that if the innkeeper bought the land, he would fine them more than the old soldier did. So, the peasants talked to the lady and pleaded for her not to sell her property to the innkeeper. They made an offer that they would all pitch in to purchase the land, so they could all be partial owners. The devil, hearing this, sowed discord among the people to prevent them from communally buying the land. Because no one could come to a decision, they all decided to buy the land individually. When Pahom came to hear about this, he was envious. He wanted to buy land too, so he sold some of his belongings to buy forty acres. His land provided him good harvest, allowing him to pay off all his debts, and in turn he became a successful landowner. The story’s focus progressively starts to center on the success of Pahom. Driven by envy, he buys land from a humble woman. The devil once again is very active throughout this story, paving the way for Pahom’s success. It is evident that Pahom is just a pawn in the devil’s scheme. Pahom believes he is attaining financial freedom through the land he is receiving, when in fact the abundance of land is pulling him tighter and tighter under the Devil’s control. I believe through this Tolstoy is emphasizing the fact that greed has no boundaries. A greedy person will never be content. In contrast to the parable of the Rich Fool, Tolstoy’s reception incorporates a “rags to riches” storyline. In the parable, the reader is to assume that the Rich Fool has always owned the land on which he lives. Both stories incorporate a desire for land and both men do not thank God for their successful harvest. In addition, “How Much Land Does a Man Need” references envy much more than Luke does in the parable of the Rich Fool.



III. Volga


Soon after Pahom’s purchase of the land, Pahom’s neighbors started to trespass on his fields and meadows. He tried to resolve the issue by appealing to them civilly, but they continued to trespass. His neighbor’s cows and livestock would constantly stray on his land and damage his crops. One day Pahom lost his patience and took the issue to court, knowing that his neighbors meant no harm or ill will. Pahom started fining his neighbors to “teach them a lesson.” His neighbors soon became angry at the fines Pahom was charging them, and out of aggravation would purposefully damage his land. This made Pahom furious. He took his anger out on all the community members and even had a man wrongfully convicted. Though Pahom had more land, his relationship with his neighbors was much worse than before. People started to move away from the village and Pahom decided that he would too, deeming he was too cramped to be comfortable. A visiting peasant told him of a place called Volga where each member of the commune is granted 125 acres. Struck with desire, Pahom sold all his belongings for a profit and moved to Volga with his family. Pahom’s character begins significantly change from his character in the beginning of the story. He becomes hypocritical and unsympathetic. When Pahom’s neighbor’s animals stray into his land by mistake and he starts fining them, he forgets that he was once the person being fined when his animals strayed into the old lady’s land. Instead of having patience, he decides to treat them just as harshly as the old property manager. He fines them to such an extent that they decided to leave the commune and move elsewhere. During this time Pahom also has the thought that he is too “cramped to be comfortable.” Ironically, though Pahom already has significantly more that he did in the past, he still feels “cramped.” Pahom’s standard for comfort deviates drastically from his original view. With Pahom’s growing land, his material wants grow correspondingly. He becomes less forgiving and more legalistic and greedy. Pahom actions towards his neighbors parallel with the Rich Fool. It is implicitly stated that the rich fool is condemned because he does not share the wealth that he has been blessed with, therefore not recognizing God’s presence in his life. He instead builds a larger barn to house his overflow of crops. Pahom similarly does not extend grace to his neighbors with the new land he has purchased. He loses patience and treat his neighbors harshly, and uses them for profit with the fines he charges. Dissimilarly, Pahom decides to move to bigger land more than once, whereas it seems that there is only one occurrence where the rich fool decides to build more barns. The rich fool furthermore builds a new barn to house his crops where as Pahom searches for more land not only for his crops but also for living purposes.


  1. Pahom hears about the Bashkirs


In Volga, Pahom obtained three times more land than he had before and with the quality of the land included, he was ten-times better off than before. But after three years, Pahom desired more land for himself. He was also tired of renting additional land from others due to his surplus in production of wheat and grain. After meeting with a dealer, Pahom hears about the land of the Bashkirs. A tradesman tells him that he can get a lot of land cheaply, by simply making friends with the chief and people of the town. Pahom’s greed and desire for more land leads him to the land of the Bashkirs, leaving his wife and family behind. It is evident that Pahom’s greed for land deepens the more he moves. He is already ten-times better off than he was before, but still wants more. In the beginning of the story Pahom’s wife mentions how though they are poor they always had enough to eat and were satisfied. Though now since Pahom is much richer, and has enough to eat physically, his hunger for land grows and he is never satisfied. Pahom conveniently comes upon a dealer who tells him about the Bashkirs. The transition of events highlights the devil’s workings in Pahom’s life. The devil uses the same tactics again and again to trick Pahom into moving and wanting more. This time, his family doesn’t join him on his journey. Possibly the most striking difference in section IV between “How Much Land Does a Man Need” and the Parable of the Rich Fool is the presence of a family. The Rich Fool has no family mentioned, whereas Pahom has a wife. His wife’s action of staying back and not joining him to the new land may symbolize Pahom’s growing similarity to the Rich Fool. Another difference I see in the two is the means of which wealth is attained. The Rich Fool seems to be in total control of his wealth, what he has belongs to him. In “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” Pahom’s wealth is always attained through manipulation of financial deals, so it seems.



  1. & VI. The Land of the Bashkirs


Pahom traveled for seven days when he reached the land of the Bashkirs. Upon arrival, he noticed that the way they lived was very different from what he had experienced before. The people did not till their land or eat bread. “As far as the men were concerned, drinking kumiss and tea, eating mutton, and playing on their pipes, was all they cared about.” When the Bashkirs saw Pahom approaching, they emerged from their tents to greet him. They treated him with upmost care and when he gave them the presents he had purchased, they were more than pleased. The Bashkirs asked Pahom what they could offer him, and Pahom explained his desire for land. After some hesitation, the Bashkirs gave Pahom the amount of land he desired for a very cheap price. Pahom was skeptical about the deal, thinking that there must be a catch to the transaction, so he asked for boundaries, deeds, and an “official sanction” to make his purchase secure. The chief of the Bashkir’s told Pahom that he could have all the land he could walk around in one day for a thousand rubles. The one condition is that if he did not return to the exact same place by sunset, his money would be lost. So, the night before Pahom marked his land, he spent some time planning a strategy. Once again, Pahom experiences a way of life very different than his current way of life. Within the Bashkir community, everything is shared, and they enjoy spending time together. This is very different from how land property was regulated in his past. After Pahom asked for land, the Bashkirs all too quickly agree, making the story even more peculiar. Why were they so willing to give so much? The audience senses this same hesitation from Pahom. Pahom asks for official sanctions and deeds, thinking that will solve the problem. The Bashkir’s way of life is directly paralleled to Luke 12:19 when the Rich Fool desires to “eat, drink, and be merry.” The Bashkir people similarly eat mutton, drink kumiss, and play on their pipes. At the end of the section, Pahom has a deal where he either gains more land than he has ever had or loses everything.


VII. Pahom’s Dream

Pahom could not sleep because he was excited for the next day. He lay awake all night and only dozed off a little before dawn. He dreamt that someone was laughing outside of his tent. Inquisitive, he went out to see who it was and saw the Bashkir Chief laughing, but as Pahom got closer the Chief morphed into the dealer who told him about the Bashkirs. Then the dealer turned into the peasant who told him about Volga, and he noticed it wasn’t the peasant but the devil himself. The devil laid there laughing and before him was a man with only trousers and a shirt on. As he looked closer he saw that the man was himself, lying dead on the ground. Pahom woke up horror-struck. There is a lot of symbolism in Pahom’s dream. All fours characters: the chief, the dealer, the peasant, and the devil are one, and Pahom himself lies dead reflecting his state at the end of the story and foreshadows his death. As for the Parable of the Rich Fool, this section is most similar to the night when God declares that the rich fool will die. This dream that Pahom has is a warning, warning him that his greed will drive him to his death. The Rich Fool in the Parable has no such warning of death, he is just told that he will die “tonight”, unlike in Tolstoy’s reception.

VIII. The Journey for Land


That morning, Pahom meets with the Bashkirs at the top of a hillock and the chief said to him, “See, all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours. You may have any part of it you like.” Pahom’s eyes glistened at the sight of the virgin soil. The chief then marked the starting point with his fox-fur cap and Pahom placed his money in the cap and started on his journey, marking the lands he wanted with a spade. As the sun rose, Pahom got hotter and hotter and started to shed his clothes while quickening his pace. Encouraging himself, he kept saying, “An hour to suffer, a life-time to live.” When half the day passed, he realized that he took on too much land and wouldn’t be able to complete his round in time. He started to become more and more afraid of death but continued to circle around and quicken his pace. Matthew 4 is referenced in this section of Tolstoy. Pahom meets with the chief on top of the hillcock and the chief says, “all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours. You may have any part of it you like” alluding to Matthew 4: 8-9, “Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” In Matthew, Jesus replies to the devil by saying, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.” Conversely Pahom’s eyes “glisten at the sight of the virgin soil.” This allusion to Matthew four sets the chief equal to the devil- this may also be reflection of Pahom’s dream. Though the devil is never mentioned in the parable of the Rich Fool, the theme of sin is predominant. The Rich Fool money demonstrated the devil. Interestingly, Pahom is asked to put all his money into the chief’s hat before going on his journey so that only when he has completed will he able to retrieve his money. Pahom either gains everything he desires or lose everything he has worked for.


  1. The Death of Pahom


As Pahom reached the hillock, he started to walk with difficulty. His legs were cut and bruised and they began to fail. As he pressed on with urgency he began running, and threw off his coat, boot, flask, and cap only keeping his spade with him for support. As Pahom struggled to reach the end and he saw the chief laughing and remembered the dream he had about the devil. He then thought to himself, “There is plenty of land but will God let me live on it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach that spot!” He realized that all his labor had been in vain. It was in that moment he took his last breath before reaching the end and died. One of his servants dug Pahom’s grave with the spade he used to mark his land saying, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” The parallel of Pahom’s dream and the chief laughing builds the story to a striking climax. In this moment Pahom is stripped of his clothes, running to the end, to then realize the truth of his dream when it is too late. A servant buries him and the story comes to a stark conclusion. Pahom lived in pursuit for more and more land and ended up needing only the amount that his dead body took up. Both the parable of the Rich Fool and the story of Pahom come to a morbid close. Their work goes to vain and their hunger for “more” is what ends up leaving them with nothing. Both also question the relationship between land and money presumably bringing joy whether this joy may come in the form of “eating, drinking, and being merry” or living a life of more than a peasant. I believe that Tolstoy conveys a message about human folly. He emphasizes the fact that all is lost after death, worldly treasures stored up do not transfer on to life after death. As humans, putting our value in materials good can kill the soul. It is a message of meaningless goods versus a worthy life, coming full circle to Pahom’s wife’s statement in the beginning of the story, “Loss and gain are brother’s twain.”

In Tolstoy’s reception of the Parable of the Rich Fool through his short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” he emphasizes certain aspects of the parable by the differences he creates between the two. These differences include the presence of the devil, the dynamic of the sisters, the characterization of Pahom, ironic elements, and parts of the narrative leading to Pahom’s death. Tolstoy’s upbringing in a privileged lifestyle of nobility influenced his writing by allowing him a medium through which he could write about the effects money and wealth have on individuals. His struggle for religious reasoning in his life also makes his writings interesting and very analytical in thought. He provides a logical presentation of the Parable of The Rich Fool through the character of Pahom. His additional narrative, allows the reader to understand themes of the parable such as greed and envy at a deeper level through the story of Pahom. Tolstoy’s use of the Parable of the Rich Fool was skillfully and creatively portrayed through his short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” and his past history enabled him to have a personal interest in the matter of the detrimental effects of greed.


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