Leo Tolstoy

How Much Land Does A Man Need?

This is a short story by Tolstoy and is considered by James Joyce to be ‘the greatest story that the literature of the world knows’. It contains two stories one called ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ and the second, ‘What Men Live By’. They both tie into each other with a minor character in the first story becoming the protagonist in the second. 

The first story is about a man called Pakhom who is a peasant farmer who believes that more land would solve all his problems. He states ‘if I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself’. However, Satan is listening to Pakhom and thus he unknowingly enters into a Devil’s contract. Opportunities then start to arise for him to acquire more land in a variety of ways. His satisfaction with each piece of land does not persist and he continues to seek more land, continuing to cite this as the resolve to his issues. He is then eventually introduced to the Bashkirs who offer him as much land as he can walk around before sunset. He has a dream the night before where he sees himself dead next to the Devil. As you can probably guess, when he carries out the task of walking round the land he ends up dying of exhaustion next to the Devil. The story concludes with Pakhom buried ‘six feet from head to heel’, thus answering the question proposed in the title.

The story is quite simple but somewhat profound and affecting. It has a satisfying conclusion and can obviously be interpreted as an allegory for endless ambition and greed. It’s one of my favourite short stories because it’s concise, enjoyable and captures a key aspect of human nature.

The second story ‘What Men Live By’ follows the story of one of the peasants mentioned in the first story called Semyon. He’s a shoemaker who is out trying to purchase some winter coats for his family when he comes across a man lying on the floor naked outside of a chapel. The man looks quite ill and so Semyon gives him his coat and takes him back to his home. The man doesn’t speak much or give any details about his background. The man is called Mikhail and Semyon makes him work in order to carry on living in their home. Mikhail ends up being a natural at shoemaking and this starts to benefit Semyon’s reputation. As a result, a nobleman comes to the shop asking for a bespoke pair of boots with specific conditions. Mikhail instead makes a pair of slippers which Semyon gets angry about because the nobleman threatened him if he didn’t get the order right. The servant of the nobleman however comes back to request slippers as his boss was dead. 

A few years later another relatively wealthy customer comes with two girls, one of which is disabled. The woman then tells Semyon and Mikhail that she adopted the girls after their mother passed. After they’ve left Mikhail then tells Semyon who he is. He’s an angel who had the task of taking a woman’s life so she could pass on to the next life. He allowed the woman to live and God punished him by sending him to Earth to find answers to three questions in order to become an angel again. These were, ‘What dwells in man?’, ‘What is not given to man?’ and finally ‘What do men live by?’

The first question was answered when Semyon first rescued him as he realised that love is what dwells in man. The answer to the second question was answered on the death of the nobleman as what is not given to man is ‘to know his own deeds’. The final question was answered by the visit from the woman and two girls as these girls were the reason he was sent to Earth initially as their mother was life Mikhail was to take. The answer was ‘All men live not by care for themselves but by love’.

I’d highly recommend this book, both stories are really well written and easy to read and comprehend. They’re also quite short and are classics of short stories. The messages are somewhat profound and well-articulated so they’re very hard to not enjoy.