In many ways, Hatchet manifests as a contemporary take on the Robinson Crusoe plot. Paulsen recalls an incident during his stay in the Philippines where he saw an airplane crash, with military personnel unable to save the victims; it has been speculated that these youthful memories partially influenced the plot of Hatchet. The story’s thirteen-year-old protagonist, Brian Robeson, finds himself at the mercy of the Canadian woods after the Cessna 406 taking him up to oil fields where his father works as a mechanical engineer crash lands into a lake.
While the plot focuses on the survival narrative, a conflict of Brian versus nature, a large internal conflict echoes throughout Hatchet. The entire reason Brian flies out to see his father in Canada is the result of his parent’s divorce; in flashback, the reader learns that Brian discovers his mother during an extramarital affair. That Brian retains that information as a secret, constantly reiterated throughout the story as he ponders his predicament, compels the reader to wonder how much blame he places on his mother for his situation of being stranded. Had Brian disclosed the secret to his father, the assumption is made that his father might have gained different visitation rights rather than flying out for summer visits, which in turn has caused Brian’s predicament. This inherent causality within Hatchet becomes a point of disgust and self-loathing for Brian as he discovers that perhaps he is most at blame for not speaking up when he had the opportunity.
The hatchet, itself, given to him as a parting gift from his mother, becomes a complicated symbol within the story. As Brian’s only real tool, it comes to symbolize his survival as he uses it to fashion other tools: spears, arrows, fire, and shelter. By the same token, it also comes to symbolize death through its connection to his mother and its penultimate use in Brian’s eventual escape as he hollows through the plane’s fuselage in his attempt to get to its emergency survival pack. When he comes upon it, he discovers the pilot’s remains still sitting in the cockpit. The body has been eaten away to the bare skeleton by the same fish he has been eating to survive in the wild.
In these scenarios, Brian begins to understand himself and his place within the world anew after having faced his own imminent mortality and defeated it. As nature throws what the cloistered urban Brian would have seen as impossible scenario after impossible scenario, this new Brian finds ways to adapt and survive, growing leaner and stronger by the process. Where at one point he considers using his hatchet to commit suicide after not lighting his signal fire in time to alert a passing search plane, the isolation-hardened Brian grows from berry-forager to meat-hunter and finally to confronting nature, itself, by novel’s end as one of its own inhabitants.
The novel, itself, is somewhat episodic—time for Brian exists through a series of developmental firsts: first shelter, first fire, or first meat. In this manner, Paulsen shows Brian evolving from a boy who acclimates what he knows about survival and living in the wilderness from his own culture’s eyes (most often through television shows and films) to the gradual relearning process of seeing his new world on its own terms. It is only when Brian abandons hope of returning to his old life and accepts his new world as his home that he grows to the extent that he can survive as a member of it.