Hatchet Analysis

  • Brian's hatchet is a symbol of both life and death. On one hand, the hatchet is Brian's primary means of survival. 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.
  • Like many children of divorce, Brian is angry and frustrated. He isn't sure how he feels about his parents. He also feels guilty about this uncertainty, and his time in the wilderness helps him come to grips with these complex emotions.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230

Two settings predominate: the sky and the wilderness. The first three chapters occur as the plane is airborne; the remaining seventeen take place in the wilderness around the L-shaped lake where the plane crashes. Both landscapes are vast stages that overwhelm the presence of one small human being. Both landscapes are beautiful to the observer yet dangerous to someone unprepared or untrained.

The wilderness is neither a garden nor a wasteland. Nature will not provide Brian with sustenance free of labor, but neither will it make impossible his search for food and shelter. The natural landscape is a storehouse of food and tools waiting to be discovered and unlocked. The lake is lovely to look at and abounds with aquatic life. It is surrounded by dense green forest that covers hilly terrain; it teems with a variety of birds and animals. Paulsen's wilderness is a realistic one filled with both the beauty of a sunset tinting lake waters golden and the agony of relentless swarms of hungry mosquitos.

One rocky ledge at lake side makes a natural lookout tower and provides shelter. This ledge becomes Brian's home, where a simple lean-to can protect him against most of the elements. Here he discovers and nurtures fire. Here he stows his slowly accumulating inventory of food, tools, and supplies. Here he sleeps and wrestles with dreams of danger, survival, and the Secret.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 264

Paulsen employs the archetypal situation of romantic fiction: place an individual alone in a vast natural landscape in order to study his character. Because the settings of sky (experienced from a small plane) and wilderness (experienced without camping gear or a Winnebago) are not familiar to most contemporary readers, Paulsen is careful to record the physical sensations of the natural world—its sounds, sights, smell, tastes, and feel.

Three stylistic devices make the narrative move quickly. Paulsen frequently uses elliptical sentences and sentence fragments to record Brian's impressions and thoughts. Numerous single sentence paragraphs—even single word paragraphs—set a fast pace for readers and emphasize dramatic moments in the plot or important insights by Brian. Finally, Paulsen often uses repetition of a key word or phrase to linger momentarily and intensify an impression. Shortened and repetitive expressions often express Brian's "short thoughts," the unpleasant memories or images (like that of the pilot's body in the lake) which he must repress in order to cope.

Thus, Paulsen concentrates on Brian as the central intelligence through whose ideas, reactions, fears, hopes, and musings the reader can sense as well as understand the experience. In times of inactivity Brian is a character intensely wrapped up in himself. In moments of crisis he becomes dislocated. Sometimes he grows detached and seems to observe himself from a distance. At other times stress makes him teeter between hallucination and reality. Such moments usually result in epiphanies (how to use the hatchet to start fire, why the rescue plane did not see him) that are turning points in the story.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 219

Brian's physical ordeal is realistically described. He experiences injury, fright, and danger. He witnesses the death of the pilot. He is almost killed several times. He learns to eat foods that normally would disgust him. Paulsen does not write in a gratuitously gruesome detail about these matters, but he does not shy away from mentioning the hard, unpleasant truths of surviving without the amenities and protections of civilized life.

Brian's emotional ordeal is also realistically described. The thought of his parents' recent divorce haunts him and evokes conflicting feelings in him. He is alternately angry and confused; he sometimes judges them harshly and blames them for beginning the chain of events that led him to being lost. Brian's awareness of the Secret, his mother's relationship with the "blond hair man," causes him special grief. The fact that he witnessed his mother and lover in an embrace initiates him into a knowledge of adult sexuality that he ideally ought not have to bear at his age.

Paulsen's depiction of Brian's emotional struggle is sympathetic rather than sensational. The reader feels the poignancy of Brian's too rapid transition from boyhood to manhood. The physical ordeal and emotional ordeal are parallel struggles for Brian. Without both, the novel would be less compelling and less insightful about a youth's coming-of-age in contemporary society.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96

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.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

Brown, Muriel W. and Rita Schoch Foudray. "Gary Paulsen." In Newbery and Caldecott Medalists and Honor Book Winners. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1992: 324-326. This entry lists awards, includes a bibliography, and mentions background reading material concerning Paulsen through 1991.

Campbell, Patty. "The Young Adult Perplex." Wilson Library Bulletin (January 1988): 75-76. Hatchet is one of three novels in this article, which discusses the problem of being an outsider in an age that emphasizes being a member of the "in-crowd."

Coil, Marianne. Interview. Standing Room Only. National Public Radio. WFYI, Indianapolis. April 7, 1994. Coil's interview focuses on Paulsen's recent novel, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod and his interest in the race, but it does include some recent personal information about the author.

Commire, Anne, ed. "Gary Paulsen." In Something About the Author. Vol. 54. Detroit: Gale ,1989: 76-82. The majority of personal information about Paulsen found in this entry comes from an interview Marguerite Feitlowitz did for another Gale reference series, Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Details of Paulsen's career and a listing of his writings through 1987 are also included.

Devereaux, Elizabeth. "Gary Paulsen." Publisher's Weekly (March 28, 1994): 70. Devereaux's interview with Paulsen yields information explaining his career's reversal of fortune in 1983, productivity since 1985, and newest efforts. The article also includes other commonly found background information about Paulsen.

Engelhardt, Tom. "Reading May Be Harmful to Your Kids." Harper's (June 1991): 55-62. The author surveys the fiction of Lois Duncan, Gary Paulsen, and Christopher Pike in order to judge the quality of contemporary young adult fiction.

"Gary Paulsen." In Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 2. Agnes Garrett and Helga P. McCure, eds. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989: 165-173. This reference article lists the author's work through 1988 and draws biographical information from three sources: Marguerite Feitlowitz's interview for this Gale series, Maryann N. Weidt's August 1986 article in Voice of Youth Advocates, "Gary Paulsen: A Sentry for Peace," and Franz Serdahely's January 1980 article in Writers's Digest, "Prolific Paulsen."

"Gary Paulsen." In Children's Literature Review. Vol. 19. Gerard Senick and Sharon R. Gunton, eds. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990: 167-178. Beginning with a summary of Paulsen's work through 1985, this essay's authorcommentary section comes from Maryann N. Weidt's August 1986 article in Voice of Youth Advocates, "Gary Paulsen: A Sentry for Peace." Readers will also find reviews on a variety of Paulsen's work for children through 1988.

Serdahely, Franz. "Prolific Paulsen." Writer's Digest (January 1980): 20-21. This article is somewhat dated, but it includes still valuable material on Paulsen's early years as an author, his writing habits, and his tips for beginning writers.

Trumpet Video Visits Gary Paulsen. Directed by Diane Kolyer. Trumpet Club, 1993. 24 minutes. The purpose of this video is to introduce children to the author and interest them in his books. Paulsen makes brief coms on Canyons, The Cookcamp, Hatchet, The Monument, The River, and The Winter Room, but the true value of the video is the insight it lends into Paulsen's methods of writing.

Weidt, Maryann N. "The Fortunes of Poverty." Writer's Digest (January 1992): 8. Weidt's brief motivational article for struggling writers is based on Paulsen's recollections of the lean years of his writing career.

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