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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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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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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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.

For Further Reference

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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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