Use of Irony in Leo Tolstoy's Short Story 'How Much Land Does a Man Need?'

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Pahom was a hardworking man. But nonetheless, he was a poor peasant. He and his wife seemed content living a stress-free lifestyle, and not having much. “We may never grow rich, but we will always have enough to eat”, his wife would say. Although Pahom agreed, he thought in the back of his mind that his life would be perfect and he would have nothing to fear if he only had more land.

Pahom learned of a neighbor selling land, and managed to sell animals, scrape and borrow enough money to purchase 40 acres. For a while he was satisfied, he turned over and had success with his crops, but greed and evil eventually will get the best of him again.

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Upon hearing from a passerby that a neighboring village was selling fertile land. Desire overcame him. He did not want to suffer to the hands of thieves that stole from him, and felt that if only others would leave the village there would be more room for him and a bigger estate. This feeling of wanting more made him feel cramped and uncomfortable in his life. So, he moved to the new location, acquired plenty of land, and became successful and wealthy.

And again, history would repeat itself, as soon as he settled down and became content, Pahom was not satisfied and wanted more than what he had. One day a dealer came to get feed for his horse, and told of the land of the Bashkirs, where he could get thirteen thousand acres of land for 1,000 rubles. Greed got the best of him, and he travel 300 miles by foot bearing tea, wine and gifts for the Bashkirs. Pahom made it to the mound in time, but due to him wanting the most and the best, he died from exhaustion. “Six feet from head to foot was all he needed”.

There are many elements of irony shown throughout the story. The three types of irony, verbal, situational, and dramatic are demonstrated. Dramatic irony is when the reader knows information that a character in a play, movie, or novel does not know. Tolstoy demonstrated dramatic irony by allowing his audience to know that the devil was listening as Pahom was boasting about not being afraid of anything including the devil. This was a key piece of information because the devil was symbolizing the greed for always wanting bigger and better. “It is perfectly true”, thought he. “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 is excerpt from the story is an example when Pahom does not have any idea that the devil is listening however the audience finds out the devil is listening a few paragraphs below: “But the Devil had been sitting behind the oven, and had heard all that was said. He was pleased that the peasant's wife had led her husband into boasting, and that he had said that if he had plenty of land, he would not fear the Devil himself”. Now, we know throughout the rest of the story that the devil is listening to anything Pahom says and that he does not have any idea.

Situational irony occurred at the end of the story. The actual result was totally different than what the reader would expect it to be. At the end of the story the reader was expecting Pahom to have been successful in his quest for more land, all the walking and sweating, his body was weak, he made it to the mound and the Bashkirs Chief cheered for him that he made it, he fell to the ground and they lifted him to find blood running from his mouth. Pahom had died.

The author also showed verbal irony by using the title of the story as part of the play on words. In the title there is a question itself, ‘How much land does a man need?’. However, after reading the story one could believe Tolstoy is being sarcastic in this title. The entire story is about how Pahom kept wanting more land and he didn't actually need any of it. He ended up dying because he was never happy with what he had and always thought he needed more. So, the answer to the title is, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed”.

Lastly, the ending of the story demonstrated a parable because it illustrated a lesson to be learned. Be happy with what you have, and you will have everything.

Works Cited

  1. Kat. ‘Definitions and Examples of Irony in Literature’. The Flocabulary Blog, 18 Apr. 2016,
  2. Leo Tolstoy. ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’.
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Use of Irony in Leo Tolstoy’s Short Story ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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