It's hard—actually, impossible—to ignore the natural world in Hatchet. When a skunk sprays you in the face, can you ignore that?
From the moment the plane crashes into the lake, Brian becomes totally dependent on the natural world around him and on his ability to understand it and get what he needs from it. On the one hand, of course, this is a terrifying position to be in. Not only is Brian totally lost in an environment he's not equipped to deal with, but he soon learns that nature can be dangerously unpredictable—a place where a simple mistake can have dire, even fatal, consequences. There's no reset button in the woods. On the other hand, because of his absolute immersion in the wilderness, Brian ultimately discovers that the world is a far richer, more meaningful place than he had previously known. Life lesson officially learned.
In Hatchet, nature is presented as a powerful, destructive force that doesn't care who gets hurt as it goes about its business. Brian has to conquer nature in order to survive.
In Hatchet, nature is presented as a spiritual force. Brian, like the wolf and the bear, is part of nature, which he slowly comes to understand and appreciate.
Brian's experiences in the woods fundamentally change his relationship to the natural world—that's pretty obvious. But they also transform his understanding of his life before the crash. Both directly and indirectly, Hatchet compares life in the woods to life in the city. Of course, there's better Chinese takeout in the city, but that's not all. Brian's time in the woods makes him appreciate for the first time the ease and comfort of life in civilization, but Paulsen also suggests that that ease comes at a certain price. Sounds like our author is trying to make a statement.
Hatchet suggests that modern man—man in the city—lives an unnaturally easy life, and, as a result, has lost touch with what it really means to be human.
Nature is represented in the book as a scary, dangerous place that the urban man has successfully escaped.
In Hatchet, Brian's survival depends on his ability to figure out how to take care of himself: how to find food and shelter, how to avoid being attacked by a dangerous animal, how to hold out until he is rescued. You know, the usual.
The knowledge that he needs would have been common just a few hundred years ago, but he's forced to patch together bits and scraps of information gleaned from books, TV shows, classes in school, anything he can think of. Knowledge, in the "civilized" world of Brian's past, usually comes from second-hand sources; it's something someone tells you. In the world of the woods, on the other hand, knowledge is first-hand and largely experiential; that is, it comes from direct experience. The only way Brian can learn how to build a fire, or catch a fish, is by actually doing it. And, most often, by doing it again and again… and again. Practice makes perfect, right?
In Hatchet, real knowledge can only be gained through experience.
Hatchet suggests that modern man has lost an understanding of who he really is, an understanding that can only be gained through immersion in the natural world.
There's a serious transformation at the heart of Hatchet, and we're not talking about a bunny turning into dinner. When we first meet Brian, he's completely obsessed with his unhappy family situation. He seems less interested in the world around him than he is in mulling over the details of his past. When he finds himself alone in the woods, though, he's forced to look outward, and he finds that—oh yeah!—there is a world out there, after all. He's forced to rely on himself and his own ingenuity in ways that he's never had to before. And that's what we call a major change.
Brian's transformation is a spiritual one: he becomes aware of himself as part of something larger than himself.
Brian's transformation is a throwback to an earlier state: he becomes more like primitive man in his inability to see beyond the present moment.
In Hatchet, Brian's ability to keep going even when times are tough is really put to the test. Throughout the book, hope is often the only thing that keeps Brian moving forward. In the early part of the book, of course, Brian is hoping and expecting to be rescued at any time, and his main focus is on keeping himself alive until that happens; so keepin' on keepin' on seems pretty natural. But once the rescue plane passes him by and he's forced to give up that hope, Brian hits rock bottom. When he finally breaks out of his depression, we see a new Brian—one who is far more self-reliant, and full of what he calls "tough hope"—the ability to persevere, and to continue to plan for the future no matter what.
The only thing more important than the hatchet to Brian's survival is his ability to persevere.
Brian isn't very good at persevering in the early part of the book—he's really just doing his best to survive until he's rescued. Only after he's given up hope of being rescued does he really start to develop perseverance.
Brian spends almost all of Hatchet deep in the woods of Canada without any human interaction. It really doesn't get more isolated than that. (Or does it?) Part of the scariness of his situation comes from the fact that he's totally on his own, with no one to lean on, no one whose advice he can ask, no one with whom he can share his fears. Unless you count the bear, of course. But then again, Brian seems pretty isolated even before the plane crash. He barely speaks to his mother on the ride to the airport, and he's so angry and upset about his family's breakup that he's shutting out just about everybody. So which takes more of a toll: physical isolation or emotional isolation?
Brian's isolation is ultimately a good thing—it's exactly what he needs to get past the trauma of the breakup of his family.
Brian's sense of isolation isn't really based on his actual, physical isolation; in fact, he's far more isolated (emotionally) at the beginning of the book than at the end.
While on the one hand family can be a source of great comfort and strength (not to mention terrific birthday presents), it also causes all kinds of pain and sadness when family members don't live up to your expectations, or when things fall apart. That's exactly what happens in Hatchet. Brian alternates between comforting memories of his family in the past and unhappy realizations of the faults and shortcomings of his parents. He may be out there in the wilderness at home, but his parents are always present in his memories, and that both drives him and challenges his need for survival.
Brian seems to be angry with his mother for demanding the divorce, but he's really ticked off at himself. He thinks he shares his mother's guilt because he knows her secret and won't tell his dad.
Being away from his family is actually a good thing for Brian, as it allows him to come to terms with the divorce and lets him see for the first time who he is outside of the family he grew up in.
In Hatchet, Brian has no choice but to explore. After all, how stupid would he feel if there was a Dairy Queen on the other side of the lake, and he spent the whole summer scarfing down raw turtle eggs because he didn't know it was there? But more than physical exploration, the book shows Brian exploring the mental boundaries of his world. Deep, right? Again and again, we see him discovering new ways of looking at things, new possibilities for how to understand the world around him. That's the kind of exploration that Shmoop knows something about.
Brian's ability to think creatively is one of the most important tools he has in his quest to survive.
Let's be honest—Brian doesn't do that much physical exploration while he's stranded. Come on, Brian, live a little.