Study Guide

Hatchet Analysis

By Gary Paulsen

  • Tone

    Straightforward, Intense

    Brian isn't the narrator of the book—we know. But Hatchet is absolutely his story. And the fact that we see things from his point of view is clearly reflected in the book's tone. There's very little distance between Brian's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions and the attitude of the narrator.

    Take a look at this passage from late in the book, when Brian is trying to escape the crazy moose who's been attacking him:

    He started to move, ever so slowly; her head turned and her back hair went up—like the hair on an angry dog—and he stopped, took a slow breath, the hair went down and she ate. Move, hair up, stop, hair down, move, hair up—a half foot at a time until he was at the edge of the water. (16.19)

    The narrator doesn't comment on what Brian does or thinks: he just reports it in a straightforward manner, without any sense of judgment or evaluation. He tells us what's going down as it's experienced by Brian.

    Because of this, and because Brian's situation is often desperate and almost always stressful, the overall feeling of the book is super intense. Through some specific stylistic tricks (see the "Writing Style" section for more on this), Paulsen's writing mirrors Brian's keyed-up emotional state—which, by the way, mirrors our own as we're reading.

  • Genre

    Adventure; Family Drama; Children's Literature

    There's no question about it: Hatchet is first and foremost an adventure story. The book has all the elements—and then some—that make the adventure genre so exciting and fun. Dangerous situations! Mortal peril! Plane crash! Hurricane! Bears and wolves! Moose attack! (Moose attack?) In fact, if you're not on the edge of your seat at least a few times while you're reading Hatchet, you can pretty much assume that you're clinically dead.

    If Hatchet were just an adventure story, though, it probably wouldn't have struck a chord with the number of readers that it has. What allows the book to really shine, and to catch the reader's attention in the way that it does, is that we really care about Brian from the start. Why? Because he's already experiencing some conflict even before all the awesome, adventurey (yes, thank you, we know that's not a word) action starts happening. Even though Brian's the only character to really appear in the book, there's still a family drama taking place in Brian's life and inside his head.

    Finally, Hatchet is a children's book. Although it definitely appeals to both adults and kids, it's aimed at and speaks most directly to young people. Besides the fact that its main character is a thirteen-year-old boy, Hatchet is concerned with lots of things that are often deeply interesting to kids, and that adults (sadly) can often lose touch with: the natural world, animals, creativity, and problem-solving. You know, things that kids just have a knack for.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    You don't have to be a rocket scientist (or an English teacher—here at Shmoop we think they're pretty smart, too) to figure out that Brian's hatchet is an important little item in this book. His hatchet helps him build a fire, cut branches for his shelter, and make the tools he uses to catch animals for food. Without his hatchet it's a pretty safe bet that Brian would have been bear breakfast within just a few days of the plane crash.

    If it weren't for the hatchet, in fact, the book might have been called something like Brian's Very Short Adventure. Or maybe Brian is Eaten by a Bear. Or Brian Survives a Plane Crash Only to Perish Slowly in the Woods. Bummer. So calling the book Hatchet kind of makes sense, huh?

    For more on this nifty little item, check our discussion in "Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegory."

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    At the end of Hatchet, Brian is rescued and returns to his life in the city. Simple, right? Not so much.

    Hoping for More

    It's certainly a relief to the reader to know that he's safe, and that he'll no longer have to struggle to survive in the wilderness. But at the same time, the ending feels a little anti-climactic, doesn't it? We've already watched Brian go through so much; we've seen him sink to the very depths of despair and then fight his way back up again. He's learned, the hard way, how to take care of himself in the harsh, unforgiving conditions of the natural world.

    After all that, having the pilot suddenly show up to save Brian somehow doesn't pack the emotional punch that we might have expected it to earlier in the book. It's fitting that Brian, having discovered so much about himself and his abilities, reacts so calmly, almost matter-of-factly, to the arrival of the pilot. Like the seasoned veteran he has become, Brian welcomes his guest with composure and courtesy: "My name is Brian Robeson," he says, "Would you like something to eat?" (19.28).

    Were you satisfied with this rescue? Were you hoping for more drama?

    The Aftermath

    The epilogue that follows the final scene fills us in on Brian's life after his return from the woods, and it also gives us some background information about some of the plants and animals he encountered during the story. Brian is, as we might expect, permanently changed in some ways by his experiences. He's more observant, more thoughtful, and no longer takes for granted the amazing resources of modern life.

    With all the changes, though, Brian's family situation stays pretty much the same. Brian's newfound self-reliance is a huge deal, but it can't magically make his family problems go away, or make it any easier for him to tell his father "the Secret" he's been hiding about his parents' breakup. We don't know about you, but Shmoop loves the realism of this, and the way in which Paulsen levels with his readers. He doesn't try to sugarcoat anything because he's writing for kids.

    One more note: a lot of readers have actually complained to Paulsen about the ending of the book—or at least about the fact that Brian gets rescued before winter sets in and the going really gets tough. If you're one of those who feel that the ending of Hatchet lets Brian off too easy, be sure to read Brian's Winter. This cool-idea-alert sequel continues the story from the point of his finding the survival pack, but this time, he doesn't activate the emergency signal.

  • Setting

    The North Woods of Canada

    The Where

    We don't know exactly where the story of Hatchet takes place because Brian is very, very lost. Here's what we do know:

    • Brian's plane comes down somewhere in the North Woods, a vast area that covers much of central Canada. 
    • The airport he flies out of is in Hampton, New York, and he's headed for the oilfields of northern Canada where his father is working. 
    • Since the plane goes off course when the pilot bumps the steering wheel, it ends up going northwest instead of due north, stranding Brian far away from where he was expecting to end up.

    We're guessing he's somewhere around here.

    Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

    Brian's exact location, of course, isn't as important as knowing that he's, well, totally alone in a vast wilderness, miles and miles from where the rescuers may be searching for him. Oh, and that he's more or less at the mercy of any strange animal that may happen to come by.

    So yeah, let's just say, he's not in the best place he could be.

    The North Woods of Canada are home to a huge number of animal species, including wolves, deer, black bears, otters, skunks, and many more. And Brian has his fair share of encounters with these little buggers during his stay in the woods.

    At times, the natural setting seems really threatening and scary—we're talking Forbidden Forest level here—and it seems like every creature in it wants nothing more than to serve Brian up as some kind of human sacrifice. The porcupine stabs him with its quills, the skunk sprays him in the face, and the moose—don't even get us started on the moose.

    At first, Brian is terrified by this angry, dangerous world around him:

    He looked around suddenly, felt the hair on the back of his neck go up. Things might be looking at him right now, waiting for him—waiting for dark so they could move in and take him. (5.71)

    This passage pretty much sums up how Brian sees nature in the first half of the book. Anything could be out there. Sure nature's pretty and all, but underneath all that, the woods are just full of dangerous, scary, unknown and unknowable creatures, all of them thirsting for Brian's blood.

    Mother Nature, Human Nature

    As the story progresses, though, Brian's view of nature does a complete 180. As he spends more time in the woods and gets to know the animals and the environment better, he comes—slowly but surely—to see them as not so different from himself.

    Especially after his failure to signal the rescue plane, Brian seems to see his place in the woods in a whole new way. Once he stops thinking of himself as just a visitor, someone who can dip in and dip out quickly, how he feels about the animals and the world around him changes. His new attitude is neatly summed up in his encounter with the wolf:

    Brian looked back and for a moment felt afraid because the wolf was so … so right. He knew Brian, knew him and owned him and chose not to do anything to him. But the fear moved then, moved away, and Brian knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it. Brian relaxed the tension on the spear in his hand, settled the bow in his other hand from where it had started to come up. He knew the wolf now, as the wolf knew him, and he nodded to it, nodded and smiled. (13.8)

    Wow. This is so totally different from the way Brian reacts to the bear earlier in the book, isn't it? It's not that the wolf is any less frightening or powerful than the bear, it's just that Brian is able to see the wolf as "another part of the woods, another part of all of it." Which is just what Brian is, too. His nature, he realizes, is not all that different from the wolf's—or the bear's, or the porcupine's. Both Brian and the wolf are just doing what they need to do to get through to the next day.

    Which way of looking at nature do you think our modern way of life encourages—nature as a dangerous, hungry battleground where man has no place, or nature as a harmonious but competitive kingdom where we fit in just fine? Which way do you think Paulsen thinks is right?

    What If?

    One more thing about the setting: it's lucky for Brian that his time in the woods coincides with the season of late summer/early fall, when food is plentiful and the temperatures aren't too extreme. If you want to know what might have happened if Brian had been lost in the woods at a different time of year, check out Brian's Winter, a sequel Paulsen wrote in response to his readers' questions about that very issue. This guy leaves nothing unanswered, that's for sure.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (1) Sea Level

    Hatchet is a pretty straightforward book without many tricks up its sleeve. The story is exciting and easy to follow, the language is clear and accessible, and the narrative style is direct and sincere. This is good old-fashioned story-telling at its best, and it's a pretty safe bet that once you get started on the book, the biggest difficulty you'll have with it will be getting yourself to put it down when it's time for bed.

  • Writing Style

    Detailed, Immediate, Unedited

    Details, Details

    Calling the style detailed doesn't require much explanation. Where another book might gloss over some of the smaller points of the main character's life, Hatchet often takes us step by step through all the little things that make up Brian's days. Sometimes it almost feels like a how-to book. You know, how to survive with just a hatchet after your plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Even if you go into the story knowing nothing about nature, by the time you reach the end, you'll be well on your way to constructing a bow and arrow, building a fire, or making a fishing spear. We dare you.

    You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Reader

    Okay, so what do we mean by "immediate" and "unedited"? Well, here at Shmoop we think that Paulsen's style works really well to create a sense of urgency, and to reflect pretty directly how Brian feels throughout the book. It almost feels like there is no narrator; what we're looking at is an attempt to represent in writing (without any fuss or authorial rearranging) what it would be like to have a direct line into Brian's consciousness.

    Paulsen achieves this by using lots of sensory detail and by varying his sentences a lot, using whatever sentence structures most accurately represent his protagonist's state of mind—even if those sentences aren't something an English teacher would necessarily let you get away with on a term paper. There are fragments and run-ons and lots of sentences that come at you so fast that they make you feel almost breathless.

    Here's a good example of what we're talking about. This is the point where the rescue plane suddenly arrives while Brian is out looking for wood to make a bow:

    A persistent whine, like the insects only more steady with an edge of a roar to it, was in his ears and he chopped and cut and was thinking of a bow, how he would make a bow, how it would be when he shaped it with the hatchet and still the sound did not cut through until the limb was nearly off the tree and the whine was inside his head and he knew it then. (12.17)

    Wow. That's a lot to stuff into one sentence, huh? Can you see how reading it kind of feels like running, like you can't quite stop and catch your breath? (Actually, try to read it out loud, and we'll bet you will have to stop and catch your breath part way through.) Here's an idea—let's rewrite that paragraph, and see how it might sound differently with a few more breaks and joining words in it.

    A persistent whine, like the insects only more steady with an edge of a roar to it, was in his ears. He chopped and cut and was thinking of a bow, of how he would make a bow, and how it would be when he shaped it with the hatchet. Still the sound did not cut through until the limb was nearly off the tree. The whine was inside his head and he knew it then. 

    Can you hear how much calmer it sounds this way? How much more controlled and regulated? But with take two, how much further you are from Brian's panic and excitement? When it's written this way, it's a lot less intense, and it loses some of that feeling of immediacy, that feeling that you're right there alongside Brian, experiencing the same things he's experiencing. Sure, it might be technically more correct, but it's a lot less powerful than Paulsen's "incorrect" way.

    Goes to show you: sometimes (writing) rules are just made to be broken.

    P.S. If you want to be all fancy, you can call this writing style "free indirect discourse." Free indirect discourse is a big clunky phrase that describes a special type of third-person narration that slips in and out of characters' consciousness. In other words, characters' thoughts, feelings, and words are filtered through the third-person narrator. It's almost as if Paulsen is Brian, except he's still that third person. He just has a backstage pass to Brian's soul. Bonus!

  • The Hatchet

    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.

    Function

    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)

    Yikes.

    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.

    Connection Home

    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?

  • The Wolf

    He doesn't get much screen time, but the wolf that Brian meets in Chapter 13 is a pretty big deal when it comes to symbolism. Let's take a look.

    While hunting on the edge of the lake, Brian senses something, something that makes him stop what he's doing and hold perfectly still. Turning his head slightly, he sees a wolf watching him. The wolf is "not as big as a bear but somehow seeming that large" (13.7)—definitely a dangerous, powerful animal.

    While Brian does feel a fleeting sense of fear, the final impression created is one of peacefulness and belonging. Hmmm. Has he never read Grimm's fairy tales? But really, there's an understanding between Brian and the wolf, as between two parts of a bigger whole:

    The wolf claimed all that was below him as his own, took Brian as his own. […]

    [Brian] knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it. (13.7-8)

    Is that Kumbaya we hear in the distance?

    Brian's acceptance of the wolf—both its power and its beauty—can be read as a symbol of his new relationship with nature and his new sense of his own place in the natural world. When he discovers the wolf watching him, he reacts not with fear but with calm understanding. Compare this to Brian's frightened, panicked reaction when he first stumbles across the bear in the berry patch, and you can see just how much Brian—and his relationship with nature—has changed during his time in the woods.

  • The Gun

    When Brian recovers the survival pack from the plane toward the end of the book, one of the things he finds inside it is a ready-to-assemble rifle. You know, the kind that—oh wait, we have no idea what one of those looks like.

    But instead of being glad that he now has a weapon to help defend himself and find food, Brian reacts to the gun with discomfort and uneasiness:

    The rifle changed him, the minute he picked it up. (19.8)

    Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it—the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn't have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand. (19.7)

    The rifle, unlike the hatchet, is a tool that's easy to use and (gulp) easy to kill with. As Brian realizes, a man with a gun won't really have to get to know the animal he's hunting in the same intense, time-consuming way that Brian has to in order to catch his prey—he can more or less just point and shoot.

    What does this mean? Although it might help Brian survive, the rifle also threatens to distance him from the life he's made in the woods, and from the real, in-the-moment sense of belonging represented by Brian's encounter with the wolf. The rifle separates Brian from the feeling he has when he sees the wolf ("[Brian] knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it" [13.8]). It takes him out of the natural world, and makes him a stranger, no longer part of what's around him.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Limited Omniscient)

    The story of Hatchet is Brian's story, plain and simple.

    The third person narrator who tells the story has access to Brian's deepest thoughts and feelings, but not to anyone else's. That means we don't know anything about Brian's parents' divorce beyond what Brian himself knows about it, and we know nothing about how his parents feel or what they do when they learn that his plane is missing. (Which, by the way, would make a great Lifetime Original movie.)

    But we're not complaining. We get to know Brian really well because of this limited perspective, and every little detail counts:

    It had always been so simple at home. He would go to the store and get a chicken and it was all cleaned and neat, no feathers or insides, and his mother would bake it in the oven and he would eat it. His mother from the old time, from the time before, would bake it. (15.22)

    Paulsen packs a punch with memories like this—giving us a glimpse of what Brian's life was like before the crash, and contrasting it to his life in the woods.

    This limited focus on our one main squeeze helps us sympathize with Brian through all his sufferings and disappointments. We're right there next to Brian, and we can't help feeling all buddy-buddy with him. It also helps us to better understand how frightening and bewildering Brian's experiences are, and increases the tension in the story. When he finds berries in the woods, we don't know any more than Brian whether they're fit to eat; we're equally baffled by the senselessness of the moose attack; and we're just as surprised as Brian is when the rescue plane shows up at the end of the story.

    One quick question we have to throw your way: if the story is told entirely from Brian's point of view, how come he's not the one actually telling us the story? Why does Paulsen choose to give us the events through a third-person narrator instead?

    Is there something we get from a third-person narrator that we couldn't get from Brian? Would Brian for some reason not be able to tell us how he feels at certain points in the story? Is Brian just too busy throwing up and screaming to tell us the story himself? Those are some of Shmoop's ideas. Now it's your turn—take it away.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Leaving on a Jet Plane

    As the book begins, we are introduced to Brian, a troubled thirteen-year-old boy. Brian is a normal (although unhappy) kid, on a plane going to visit his father for the summer. He's dealing with his parents' recent divorce, and with "the Secret" that he's discovered and that he hasn't been able to share with his father. Okay, so we're prepared. This is going to be a nice little family drama—sad, maybe, but ultimately nothing we can't handle, right?

    Conflict

    Crash!

    Not so much. Suddenly, the pilot suffers a heart attack and dies, and Brian must guide the plane in a controlled crash into the Canadian wilderness. As far as conflict goes, this is some serious, game-changing stuff. The emotional turmoil of Brian's family life goes on the back burner as Brian is forced to deal with the nail-biting situation of being alone in a plane hurtling toward nothingness. But Brian is smart and resourceful (not to mention lucky) and manages to bring the plane down without smashing himself into little pieces. Phew. So far, so good.

    Complication

    Lost

    Brian is now in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a hatchet, and he must survive until he's rescued. Complicated, indeed. You'd think that single-handedly flying a plane into a lake in the Canadian wilderness without radio contact or even a How to Fly a Plane for Dummies book would be enough to let you off the hook for a while, but now Brian has to figure out how to keep himself alive, find food and shelter, and avoid any dangerous animals for as long as it takes the authorities to find him. 

    Climax

    The Rescue Plane Comes… and Goes

    Brian does his best to adapt to life in the woods. He constructs a shelter of sorts, eats berries and turtle eggs, copes with a porcupine attack, and even learns to make fire with his hatchet. All the while, though, he is hoping and expecting to be rescued at any time. When the rescue plane finally comes, and Brian is unable to get his signal fire going in time to alert it to his presence, he is utterly devastated.

    This is the point in the book where everything changes for Brian; first, he's thrown into a depression so deep that he even tries to kill himself by cutting his wrists with the hatchet. Then, realizing that that isn't a solution, he is transformed into "the new Brian" (13.11), ready for whatever comes his way. The climax is when the big change occurs, so we're pretty sure we've hit the jackpot.

    Suspense

    Moose attacks, tornadoes, and planes! Oh my!

    Just because we've passed the emotional climax of the book with the loss of Brian's chance to be rescued, that doesn't mean that it's easy going from here on out. Brian still has to handle day-to-day life in the wilderness, which means learning to hunt and fish and contending with the animals that share the lake with him. Just when things seem to be going swimmingly, Brian is hit with the one-two punch of a mad moose and a powerful tornado. We are definitely worried for his safety, but with his new toughness he's able to survive both the raving beast and the ravaging weather, with the added bonus of the plane surfacing and the possibility of retrieving the survival bag. Yeah, Brian.

    Denouement

    Rescue Me!

    Having managed to salvage the survival bag from inside the downed plane, Brian unpacks the bag and looks forward to enjoying all the goodies he finds in it. After everything he's been through, it's almost incidental that he accidentally turns on the emergency transmitter and gets rescued at last, but we can't help but be happy and amazed to know that he'll finally be going back to civilization.

    Conclusion

    Back Home

    In the book's epilogue, the narrator tells us about Brian's life after his rescue. Some things don't change, of course—Brian's sadness about his parents' divorce, for instance—but in other ways everything is different. Brian's ability to observe the world around him, his attitude toward food, even his physical makeup—all are deeply affected by what he's been through. Ultimately, Brian's relationship with the natural world is permanently transformed by his experiences in the woods. Bottom line: two months in the wilderness will really do a number on you.