We live in a world filled with consumerism and a desire for material goods. Although we tend to think of this as solely a modern problem, men have always sought more resources than what they have, let alone need.
Tolstoy seeks to explore this concept in ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’
The story begins with two sisters arguing. One lives in town, the other in the countryside. The sister from the town begins to make a hubbub of her life in town: The clothes, their home, food and drink.
The other sister responds:
We may live roughly, but at least we are free from anxiety. You live in better style than we do, but though you often earn more than you need, you are very likely to lose all you have. You know the proverb, ‘Loss and gain are brothers twain.’ It often happens that people who are wealthy one day are begging their bread the next. Our way is safer. Though a peasant’s life is not a fat one, it is a long one. We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat.”
Although Tolstoy was born and raised an aristocrat, later in life he developed a fondness for the peasantry. In fact, he believed that salvation and happiness came through their way of life: Hard work, a close bond with nature, family, and lack of material goods and wealth.
Then Pahom, the main character, chimes in:
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!”
This desire for more land sets the stage for the story. Pahom hears from another peasant that there is a faraway land where land is fruitful, flat and especially cheap. He makes the trek hundreds of miles to this land, occupied by Bashkirs, said to be a simple folk. They treat him well, and he has brought gifts to placate them.
Then they get down to business. They tell Pahom it is one-time, 1000 ruble fee for their land. He responds, asking how much land that entails. The chief of the tribe tells him that for his one-time fee, he can have as much land as he can cover in one day, sunrise to sunset.
Pahom is ecstatic. He spends the night dreaming about how much land he will have for such a low price—a total steal!
The next morning comes around and he sets off early in the morning. He plans to cover 35 miles total—a massive amount of land. He gets off to a good start and rounds the first corner after a number of miles. Yet as time goes on he grows weary. He got little sleep the night before and the sun is beating down on him. Nonetheless, he is motivated by the prospect of having all this land, so he trudges on.
[Spoiler Alert! Read any further and you’ll see the whole ending. Though there are important thoughts below, if you so choose, just scroll to the bottom to find a free online version.]
As he rounds the final corner, he begins to get caught up in the details: A nice patch here, making it even over there. Yet he has spent so much time doing this that the sun is beginning to set. Panic sets in. He doesn’t think he can make it, all will have been for naught.
He huffs and puffs his way to the starting point. In the distance he sees the crowd cheering him on. His heart is throbbing and lungs churning—there’s no way he’ll make it.
As he is running up the hill to the finish line, he stops. Then there’s silence. Pahom’s servant makes his way over and finds him lying with blood pooling from his mouth.
Then, in what is perhaps one of the most spectacular final lines of a story I’ve ever read, Tolstoy writes:
Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”
It really goes to show that we really don’t need much in this world. Think of the cycle of life and death–we start out as a tiny cell in the womb and end as a corpse in the ground, yet we go through life seeking material goods and excess, almost as if we’re just filling in the time in between the two.
This is what I love about Tolstoy. He focuses on the deeper, meaningful things in the world such as family, love and wisdom. Though they are finite for the individual, any person can create lasting change in others.
It is these concepts that you must focus on throughout your life. While acquiring more land or any other material goods may bring pleasure in your lifetime, it’s not what we were put on this Earth for. If you believe in the divine, why would God create man just so he can gather more land and wealth, only to have to abandon it once he’s deceased?
Start to look at your motives from this point of view. What was Pahom’s motivation for more land? Was it to give his children and family a better life? Perhaps, but we already saw that in the earlier discussion between the sisters more material wealth doesn’t necessarily equal more happiness.
I’ve given away the ending and virtually the whole plot. That said, it’s still worth a read. Again, it’s just a short story that shouldn’t take very long to read, and available for free online.