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Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Hatchet | Symbols



Brian's hatchet is an extremely important symbol. It is so central that it gives the novel its title. His mother gives the hatchet to him as a gift before a trip to Canada to see his father. At first he feels self-conscious about it, especially when he boards the small plane with the hatchet hanging from his belt because he considers it "hokey." When he becomes lost in the wilderness, the hatchet takes on a different meaning. The hatchet represents civilization and the role of tools in surviving.

For Brian the hatchet also comes to symbolize ingenuity, autonomy, and personal survival. He uses sparks generated from the hatchet to make fire. The hatchet allows him to make other tools and weapons, like his bow and his spear, which are essential to finding food and constructing a shelter. Finally, the hatchet saves Brian's life when he uses it to bash his way into the plane's wreckage and retrieve a survival kit. Inside the kit, he finds a transmitter that signals for help and results in his rescue.


The lake is a complex symbol in this book, representing both life and death. As a source of drinking water, the lake is essential for Brian's ongoing survival, but it is also dangerous. He almost dies in the lake more than once. He manages to land the plane successfully because the lake cushions the impact, saving his life. But it also swallows the plane, trapping Brian and nearly causing him to drown. Brian gets much of the food he needs because he is near the lake: the turtle whose eggs he eats comes from it, as do the fish he catches. But the lake is also where the moose nearly kills him.

The lake also acts as an initiation into adulthood for Brian: here he must prove himself as part of his hero journey. When the plane crashes and Brian swims to the surface, he's reborn into the wilderness. But the lake cuts Brian off from a much-needed survival kit, which he cannot reach in the submerged wreckage of the plane. When he dives into the lake to retrieve the survival kit late in the novel, he is reborn again. The tools he recovers from the kit change his relationship to the wilderness. A massive store of food guarantees he can live there for a long time, and the emergency signal allows the bush plane to find and rescue him.


Fire symbolizes Brian's ability to both differentiate himself from the animals around him and sustain himself in a hostile environment. Learning to build a fire is such an important part of the new life Brian builds that Paulsen devotes an entire chapter to it.

Brian's creation of fire can be compared to the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods in order to share it with humans. Like Prometheus, Brian sees fire as an essential tool for civilization. His ability to build a fire is a turning point that helps ensure his survival.


Paulsen establishes the link between sight and knowledge early in the book. Sight is essential for survival. Brian's quick lesson from the pilot about how to guide the plane probably saves his life when he has to land the plane in a lake, even though he can't recognize the plane's controls. Brian's ability to observe and learn from his environment helps him to find food and shelter, to understand nature, and to create his own tools. Brian is able to build a fire when he notices sparks shower from his hatchet's blade when it hits a stone wall, and he is frequently inspired by his careful observation of animal behavior and other natural phenomena. By watching birds hunt for fish, for example, he realizes that he can do the same.

In the novel sight also stands for insight, a way of seeing something with greater understanding. During his time in the woods, Brian develops deeper insight into himself and his surroundings. After he has been in the woods for days, he looks at his reflection in the lake and notices he has lost some weight. But he also understands how his time in the woods is changing the way he perceives himself and the world around him. He says, "I am not the same. I see ... differently."

Questions for Symbols

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Oates has specifically mentioned the "Death and the Maiden" folktales as one inspiration for this story (see "Death and the Maiden" under " Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory "). Some literary critics have
Read the following passage and identify at least 3 elements of figurative language; explain how each element brings out the theme of the passage. "The Wrong Place" by Susan Michalski Lana woke up, cur
Write a one-page essay on how culture influences peoples’ attitudes toward fire and fire prevention. For instance, in some cultures having a fire in your home is looked at as a shameful event. In othe
Write a creative story about Halloween. You, or a character you create, is getting ready for a Halloween party. Unfortunately, strange things start to happen. (Is it vampires, zombies, aliens, or some
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