Hatchet Analysis

  • Gary Paulson's Hatchet is considered a classic of young adult literature. The harrowing story of a thirteen-year-old boy forced to survive alone in the wilderness, Hatchet has captured the imaginations of millions of readers since its publication in 1987.
  • Brian's hatchet is a symbol of both life and death. On one hand, the hatchet is Brian's primary means of survival, the tool he uses to hunt, make fire, and build shelter. On the other hand, the hatchet is a weapon, and when he uses it to break into the submerged plane he finds the skeleton of the pilot. This image forces Brian to accept the brutality of nature.
  • Many readers identify with Brian Robeson, a teenage boy whose parents have recently divorced. Like many children of divorce, Brian is angry and frustrated and isn't sure how he feels about his parents. He also feels guilty about this uncertainty, which deepens his character and makes him even more relatable.


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Hatchet delivers a wonderful vicarious adventure. The thoughtful, vivid descriptions and the clear development of character and plot allow readers of all ages to appreciate the wonders of life and the glory of nature. Addressing the fears of all adolescents, author Gary Paulsen uses the wilderness to parallel the emotional and physical pains of coming-of-age. His description of both the grandeur and the danger of the wilderness evokes awe and trepidation.

At the start of the novel, Brian is struggling with the changes in his life caused by his parents’ divorce. Finding himself truly on his own leaves Brian with a primitive urge to survive at all costs. While learning step-by-step how to find food, water, and shelter, he grows physically and emotionally stronger. These changes in Brian’s character develop rapidly as he carves out an existence using only his hatchet. In the beginning of the story, the hatchet symbolized the young Brian. His mother gives it to him with the words “Just like a scout. My little scout,” which convey Brian’s immaturity and frailness in his mother’s eyes. He is embarrassed, worried that the pilot will sees the “hokey” hatchet on his belt when he arrives at the airport. When Brian is alone in the wilderness, however, the hatchet becomes his source of life, much like his mother had been, protecting Brian from nature’s elements. Without it, he could never have survived.

Brian faces many setbacks because of unclear thinking and poor decision making. Charles Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest” applies to Brian’s constant battle with nature. Brian adapts and learns to cope with all adversities—from insects to wild animals to storms. His emotional growth comes from the recognition of the magnificence of life. He learns that life’s problems can be overcome and that struggles can be won with clear thinking and common sense.

Lessons about living from his mother, father, and teachers also guide Brian through his adventure. The awareness that he is strong enough to survive alone comes when he first calls his camp “home”—one of his own creation. He has truly grown into an independent individual who does not rely on anyone else to survive. When rescue workers finally arrive, Brian is not in a hurry to leave; he has almost enjoyed the independence that he has achieved.

Many adolescents can identify fully with the anger and confusion deep within Brian. His adventure symbolizes the emotional highs and lows of young people. After each success, Brian faces a new problem. Life becomes unbearable, but then, all at once, life becomes wonderful. The changes that Brian undergoes involve maturity, self-sufficiency, and the belief that anything is survivable. This message is one of great importance to relay to young adults who are facing the trials associated with coming-of-age.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Hatchet is a story that describes a young boy’s adventure in the wilderness, where he learns to be self-sufficient and emotionally secure and to cherish life and all that comes with it, both good and bad. When Brian Robeson finds himself alone in the wilderness, his physical challenges parallel the emotional challenges with which he has been dealing since his parents’ divorce. A steel hatchet with a rubber handgrip worn on his belt becomes his only tool for survival; it symbolizes the strength and maturity that will grow within Brian.

The realistic, omniscient narration begins with Brian’s mother giving him the hatchet and a leather sheath for his belt on the way to the airport. At first, he thinks of the hatchet as “hokey,” but he places it on his belt in order to please his mother. Brian then boards a Cessna 406 bushplane to visit his father for the summer. His father has been working in the Canadian oil fields, and Brian is excited by the thought of being with him again. Once the plane is aloft, however, the pilot has a heart attack. Brian attempts to fly the plane but crashes it into a remote Canadian lake. Dragging himself from the cockpit and swimming to shore, Brian begins to comprehend his situation: He is alone, cold, and wet, without any supplies, without any adults to help him, and without the faintest idea of where he is or what he is supposed to do. All that he has is the hatchet. After the first miserable night near the lake, Brian realizes that he must do something if he wants to survive, and he tries to recall everything that he knows about survival. Through many trials and errors, he learns that his hatchet can be used to make shelter, design tools, hunt food, and protect him.

Through all these physical challenges, Brian dwells on “the secret” that he alone knows about his parents’ divorce: He had seen his mother meeting with another man before his parents were divorced. His struggle to keep this secret gnaws at his emotional well-being until it becomes all-consuming. While facing nature’s challenges, however, Brian becomes aware that life is indeed not fair, that one must make the best of any situation. He comes to realize that his father and mother are separate entities from himself and that they had their own challenges to face and resolve, issues that had nothing to do with Brian.

In the end, after facing his own mortality several times, Brian also learns that he can rely upon himself for his physical and emotional needs. He has become a mature, less emotionally dependent individual who can survive in the face of diversity and challenge.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Two settings predominate: the sky and the wilderness. The first three chapters occur as the plane is airborne; the remaining seventeen take...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Paulsen employs the archetypal situation of romantic fiction: place an individual alone in a vast natural landscape in order to study his...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Brian's physical ordeal is realistically described. He experiences injury, fright, and danger. He witnesses the death of the pilot. He is...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Is the simple title effective at stimulating interest and identifying the central theme?

2. Brian's invents names for things...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Compare Robinson and Brian in one or more of the following ways:

a. their...

(The entire section is 274 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

American School Publishers produced a videocassette version of Hatchet in 1990. Producer/director Cynthia Cowens's version uses a...

(The entire section is 309 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Brown, Muriel W. and Rita Schoch Foudray. "Gary Paulsen." In Newbery and Caldecott Medalists and Honor Book Winners. New York:...

(The entire section is 509 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Jones, J. Sydney. “Paulsen, Gary.” In Something About the Author, edited by Alan Hedblad. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2000.

Moore, John Noell. “Archetypes: The Monomyth in Dogsong.” In Interpreting Young Adult Literature. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1997.

Paulsen, Gary. Father Water, Mother Woods: Essays on Fishing and Hunting in the North Woods. New York: Delacorte Press, 1994.

Paulsen, Gary. Guts: The True Stories Behind “Hatchet” and the Brian Books. New York: Delacorte Press, 2001.

Salvner, Gary. Presenting Gary Paulsen. Boston: Twayne, 1996.

Wood, Susan. “Bringing Us the Way to Know: The Novels of Gary Paulsen.” English Journal 90, no. 3 (January, 2001): 67-72.