Gary Paulsen really lays it on thick with this one.
Brian's hatchet is so important that Paulsen chose it as the title of the book. Check out the "What's Up with the Title?" section to hear a little more about this, and to see some of Shmoop's alternate title ideas. (We've always got something up our sleeves.)
But first, let's think about this one.
Brian's hatchet is the one possession that he carries all the way through the book, and in many ways it's the key to his survival. It's hard to imagine how Brian could have survived if he hadn't had the hatchet with him when the plane crashed. Moose chow, anyone?
The hatchet allows him to make all of the tools he uses to catch food—his fishing spears and his bow and arrows. It's the hatchet with which he cuts the branches and twigs that he weaves into a covering for his shelter. And it's the hatchet that ultimately allows him to build the fire that keeps him warm, repels the nasty biting insects that have been plaguing him, and takes the edge off his loneliness.
What can this kid not do with his hatchet, we wonder?
Chipping Away at the Hatchet
So yeah, the hatchet is awesome, okay, but how does it function as a symbol? What does it represent? Well, a hatchet is a man-made thing, a tool—but it's also pretty basic, the kind of tool woodsmen might have used hundreds of years ago to chop down trees, make weapons, and survive in the natural world.
In a way, Brian's hatchet is a thing that looks both ways, that encompasses both the man-made world of tools and technology and the primitive experience of living in and through nature. It bridges Brian's past experience, as a child of the modern world, and the way of life he comes to live in the woods, with all the skill and care that that entails. Pretty nifty, right?
Hope and Despair
Brian is completely isolated throughout the book—the only constant he has is the hatchet. And this actually gives him hope and perseverance, the only things he might need more than the hatchet itself. After a few major downfalls (including missing a rescue plane above), the hatchet helps Brian keep on keepin' on:
I might be hit but I'm not done. When the light comes I'll start to rebuild. I still have the hatchet and that's all I had in the first place. (16.38)
But wait. We can wax poetic all we want about how the hatchet symbolizes hope, but isn't this the same tool Brian uses to try to kill himself? Why yes it is:
To where he wanted to die. He had settled into the gray funk deeper and still deeper until finally, in the dark, he had gone up on the ridge and taken the hatchet and tried to end it by cutting himself. (13.13)
How can we reconcile these two things: hope and despair? Well, maybe we're not supposed to. The fact that the hatchet is Brian's only means of survival and also his only means to end his life show us how alone he is out there. His best friend is also his worst enemy.
And of course, his attempted suicide wasn't successful. Maybe the hatchet knew something that Brian didn't.
Don't forget who gave Brian the hatchet: his mom. Why? So that he could use it in the woods with his father. In a way, the hatchet also acts as a bridge connecting his parents, connecting the different parts of his family.
What do you make of this? Is Paulsen trying to tell us that Brian's parents will always be connected to each other, because of their love for Brian? Or that Brian will always have to navigate between his parents' mutual anger to find a path for himself? Or something completely different?