Study Guide

Hatchet Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    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.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. When the story opens, do you think Brian is a typical modern kid in terms of his attitude toward, and knowledge of, nature? Or is his understanding of nature unusual in any way?
    2. Why does Brian react to the bear the way he does? Do you think his reaction suggests anything about his understanding of the relationship between nature and man? How is his reaction to the wolf, later in the book, different? What does that difference suggest?
    3. Toward the end of the book, when Brian finds a rifle inside the plane's survival pack, he thinks that just holding the rifle "changed him" (19.8). How do you think the rifle changes him? Does he gain anything from adding the rifle to his survival tools? Does he lose anything? 
    4. Do you think nature is presented as something good (that's on Brian's side), or as something bad (that's working against him)? Or something in between? How do you think Brian would answer that question? Would his answer be different at different points in the book?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Contrasting Regions: The City and the Woods

    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.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: The City and the Woods

    1. How would you describe Brian's attitude toward nature in the beginning of the book? How does it change through the course of the story?
    2. How does being immersed in nature make Brian see the city in a new way?
    3. According to Hatchet, one of the main differences between nature and civilization, is the difficulty (or ease) of finding food. Why is this so important? How does not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from affect your ability to focus on other things?
    4. Does the book suggest that life in the woods is somehow better than life in the city, or the other way around? Or are they just different? 

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    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?

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Does Brian learn anything during his time in the woods besides the specific skills that he uses to survive (like catching a foolbird or starting a fire using only a hatchet)? Does he learn anything about the world or about himself that will be useful when he gets back to the city? If so, what?
    2. Do you think Brian will remember the things he learned during his stay in the woods? Does knowledge disappear when you stop using it? Do you think knowledge gained through direct experience stays with you longer than knowledge you got through other means?
    3. Does the book's exploration of different kinds of knowledge make you think that some kinds are better than others? Is all knowledge good, or are some kinds of knowledge more valuable?
    4. If how to build fires, find food, and survive in the natural world was common knowledge through much of man's history, should we be worried about the fact that so few of us know how to do those things now? Have we lost something important? Or is it simply knowledge that we no longer need? 

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Transformation

    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.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. How much is Brian's mental transformation tied to his physical transformation?
    2. Do you think Brian could have been "made new" without hitting rock bottom first? Is pain a necessary part of transformation?
    3. Part of Brian's transformation is that he pays attention to the world around him much more closely than he did before. Do you think this is a specific result of living in nature? Or is it something that could have happened to him in the city as well?
    4. At the end of the book, we learn that Brian is never able to tell his father about "the Secret." Why not? Hasn't he changed enough to be able to spill the beans?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Perseverance

    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.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. How important to Brian's survival is his ability to persevere? Do you think he would have made it if he'd given up on things more easily?
    2. What's the relationship in the book between hope and perseverance? Does hope inspire perseverance? Does perseverance give rise to hope?
    3. Where do you think Brian's "tough hope" comes from? Do you think he'll still have tough hope after he's rescued? 
    4. Have you ever made something completely from scratch, like Brian with his fish spear or his bow and arrow? How did it make you feel? Did what you made seem more valuable to you than it might have if someone else had made it?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Isolation

    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?

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Are there different kinds of isolation in Hatchet? Are emotional and physical isolation related to each other? Or are they totally different things?
    2. Is isolation (or solitude) a good thing or a bad thing in the story? Or both?
    3. Do you think Brian enjoyed being alone before he was stranded in the woods? Do you think he'll enjoy it after the story ends? Is being alone something that comes naturally to people in modern society?
    4. How would the story have been different if there had been another passenger on the plane when it crashed? Would Brian have been able to find the strength he eventually finds, the "tough hope" he develops? How necessary is his isolation to Brian's transformation?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Hatchet is basically a wilderness survival story, with a little family drama tossed in the background for some flavor. Do you feel that the family plot adds to the book? Takes away from it? Is it out of place, or does it feel right at home?
    2. Brian is (understandably) upset about his parents' divorce. But do you think there's something else going on, too? How does "the Secret" affect his understanding of his parents, and his relationship to them?
    3. At the end of the book we learn that Brian is never able to tell his father about the secret. Why do you think that is? Has something changed in the wilderness, or was he never going to spill the beans? 
    4. Can we really tell what actually caused the divorce, or who is to blame? Can we completely trust Brian's understanding of what happened? Does it matter?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Exploration

    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.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Where do you think Brian's ability to problem-solve comes from? Is problem-solving something you can learn, or are some people just born with it?
    2. How is Brian's willingness to explore different ways of approaching problems related to his ability to persevere through adversity? 
    3. Does exploration always end up well in the book? Does Brian ever regret his willingness to explore new ways of doing things?
    4. How are exploration and knowledge related? Can you have knowledge, as defined in Hatchet, without exploration?

    Chew on This

    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.