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Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Hatchet | Chapter 8 | Summary



Awakened by the wind, Brian smells something rotten and hears an animal slithering. He kicks out at something that moves near his foot and then throws the hatchet, which hits the stone wall of his shelter with a shower of sparks. Suddenly he feels stabbing pains in his leg. After the intruder leaves he realizes he has crossed paths with a porcupine and his leg is filled with quills. Brian pulls them out one at a time. While he feels sorry for himself, he also discovers "the most important rule of survival ... feeling sorry for yourself didn't work."

In tears Brian falls back to sleep and dreams about his father. First, his father is trying to tell him something, but the words don't make sense. Then Brian dreams that he sees Terry in the park, where he is building a fire in a barbecue pit. Terry notices Brian and points at the fire. On awakening, Brian recalls how the thrown hatchet had generated sparks. His dreams have given him a valuable insight: he can use sparks from the hatchet to start a fire.


Paulsen teaches crucial, if painful, lessons in this chapter. By establishing his shelter, Brian creates protection from the environment, but he also makes himself a target for the creatures that live near the lake. With his every choice and action comes a tradeoff. Like the bear eating the berries, the porcupine shows that Brian is just one of many creatures competing for the resources here. The most vivid lessons, though, come when Brian tries to defend himself against the porcupine. Lashing out at the animal is a mistake, but throwing the hatchet at it is a happy accident. Autonomy, for Brian, is based on learning to make the most constructive choices in a given situation. He recognizes that throwing the hatchet was not helpful in dealing with the porcupine but it did give him a way to make fire.

Brian's dreams illustrate another of Paulsen's principles of survival: pay attention to your instincts, experience, and internal messages. Brian also learns an important lesson about his emotions in this chapter. He must rely on himself, as Perpich once advised, and he can't do that if he's overwhelmed with grief and self-pity. Brian must learn to balance the internal world of his thoughts and emotions with his situation in the external world in order to survive.

Sight is symbolic throughout Hatchet in three ways. What Brian literally sees often contains important information for his survival, such as noticing the hatchet's sparks in the dark. His mental images may also prove helpful, as with his dream of his father and Terry. Finally, Brian's capacity for looking within, his ability to think about things in order to reach greater understanding, is a tool he can use in any number of ways, from learning to build a fire to comprehending the limits of self-pity.

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