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Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Hatchet | Themes



Hatchet is a story of survival. Its main character survives multiple changes, including his parents' divorce, a plane crash, isolation, hunger, lack of shelter, and multiple injuries, all with a minimum of tools or knowledge.

For Brian Robeson, learning to survive means learning how nature works and how to recognize his part in it. He learns how his own body works and that he is capable of ingenuity and persistence. He essentially recreates the civilization of early humans. He reinvents the spear and the bow and arrow and laboriously learns to make fire.

Brian also transforms intellectually and emotionally. He must change in these ways to face the sense of despair, hopelessness, and terror produced by being stranded alone in the wilderness. Learning to survive changes Brian's priorities, his sense of self, and how he approaches every moment of the day, a lesson he carries with him into adulthood long after he is rescued. By surviving his 54-day ordeal in the wilderness, Brian reinvents himself as someone who recognizes that while the world is hard and demanding, one must believe in the future and in one's self.


Hatchet is as much about change as it is about survival. When the novel opens, Brian is flying in a small airplane to join his father in Canada. This is the first attempt at shared custody since his parents have divorced. This situation is immediately disrupted by another, more dramatic change. The pilot dies of a heart attack, taking the plane off course and leaving Brian alone in the Canadian wilderness. A 13-year-old city boy, he has no wilderness training, supplies, or way to contact the outside world. All he has is a hatchet.

After the plane crashes, Brian must take responsibility for himself and his survival. This leads to a series of transformations. Brian gradually progresses from being a fairly passive young teenager to a self-reliant, resilient problem-solver capable of surviving and even thriving in the wilderness. By the end of the novel, Brian is in tune with his senses and trusts his own instincts and intuition. He has developed a strong understanding of the lives of others, from the animals in the woods to his own parents. Brian also gains valuable self-awareness, recognizing how much he has changed: he refers to himself as a new person leading a new life.

Nature as Teacher

From the time Brian's plane crashes into the lake until the bush pilot lands to rescue him in Chapter 19, the novel focuses on nature. Brian's time in the wilderness teaches him the difference between the perception of nature and the reality. Nature is not a pretty postcard picture but a complex environment where life-and-death situations are common.

Nature inspires Brian to develop new priorities, such as focusing on how to obtain food and shelter, which cause him to think about life differently. Brian learns to meet the natural world viscerally by paying attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and, above all, the plants and animals around him. He must reinvent classic tools and weapons, learn to make fire, come up with new ways to obtain and store food, and fortify his shelter. Nature keeps him perpetually alert and ready for action.

His time in the wilderness also strips Brian down to his essence. Brian learns new values from nature, becoming more in tune with his animal, biological self. His new awareness leads to a greater understanding of the lives of the creatures around him, from bears and skunks to fish and mosquitos. He thinks about life from their perspective, considering how a bear wants to find food just as he does. He recognizes the authority that animals possess and comes to respect it. As he studies animal behavior, he reaches the conclusion that animals don't waste time and he shouldn't either. Inspired by them, he gets on with the business of survival.

Isolation Leads to Autonomy

Brian is completely isolated from other people for most of the novel. When the pilot of the plane suffers a heart attack, Brian's attempts to call for help on the radio work briefly and then he's left alone. At first his isolation leads to despair. When a possible rescue falls through, Brian feels as if he has "nothing" and "no one." He contemplates having to live the rest of his life in isolation and considers suicide.

His isolation, however, is key to Brian's physical and mental survival and to his development as an autonomous person. Cut off from the world of adult helpers, he is forced to learn survival skills for himself. He's also cut off from other kids like his friend, Terry. He has no choice but to build on what he has learned and to adapt to his surroundings. He learns to trust his senses, keep his priorities straight, assess his resources, and plan ahead. He also develops greater self-awareness and learns to care for himself both emotionally and physically. It is isolation that forces Brian to gain independence and stand on his own.

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