There are two main "Hatchet" themes: Physical survival and Emotional/Mental survival
Physical survival: After the plane crashes and Brian is alone in the wilderness with only his hatchet, he must survive until he can be rescued. This means he needs to fulfill his basic needs: hunger, thirst, and warmth (shelter). When you are reading "Hatchet", ask yourself: What does Brian eat? How does he get food? What does Brian drink? Where does Brian find shelter? The answers to these questions will help you understand how Gary Paulsen writes about the theme of physical survival.
Brian also must protect himself from physical danger. For example, when a porcupine comes into the cave, he throws his hatchet at it to scare it away. What does he do when he comes up against larger animals? How does he survive? What about his injuries?During this "Hatchet" review, don't forget about the chapters when Brian learns to make fire. This is a huge development in the novel to aid his physical survival. Why is it important for Brian to make fire? How does he learn to do it with his hatchet and things he finds in the wilderness?
Emotional/Mental survival: Brian's parents are divorced, and his mom is seeing someone else. Brian struggles with whether or not he should tell his dad. With this struggle comes feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion. Even in the end of the story, after all he went through in the wilderness, he is still thinking about his parents' situation and what he should do about it. He sees his parents come together in their love for him, but he realizes that they will not get back together.
"Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen is about Brian's inner struggle over a life-changing event out of his control and his outer struggle to survive in the wilderness with only his hatchet.
When you are doing a "Hatchet" review, you also may want to consider these minor themes:
- Man vs. Nature
- Coming of age
- Perseverance, determination, and positive thinking
Man Versus Nature
Gary Paulsen focuses on the theme of man versus nature in most of his work. In fact, he employs this theme to such an extent that his literary reputation has been built around it. Paulsen writes not only of man's struggle against nature, but also of his capability to live harmoniously with nature, demonstrating his love and respect for nature.
Brian's communion with the animals with whom he shares his surroundings demonstrates Paulsen's view that Brian comprises another element of the natural environment rather than a separate entity. He undergoes many of the same struggles that the animals experience. Brian's constant search for food, as well as his efforts to stay safe from the elements and from other animals, facilitates his understanding of them. His encounters with the wolf and the bear provide a particularly strong sense of affinity. While Brian initially fears these animals, he soon realizes that they do not intend to harm him. He establishes a sort of trust with the animals in the woods, and soon develops the ability to listen to his instincts in determining whether or not he faces danger. For example, during a second encounter with a bear, he senses he is unwelcome. Scanning the woods, he soon realizes that the female bear wishes to protect her nearby cub.
Brian grows not only to recognize nature's dangers, but also to marvel at its beauty. As he watches the tornado rip across the woods and the lake, he finds it at once "beautiful and terrible." Brian has tremendous struggles with nature, but it seems that this novel revolves to a greater extent around Brian's struggle with his own identity, using nature as the setting. The Canadian woods provide a sufficient distance from societal forces, his parents, and his friends; in this way his experience tests his sense of self. The natural setting, which is ideal for character development, tests Brian's strength, resolve, and patience.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Brian undergoes many transformations throughout the course of the book; perhaps most significantly, Brian learns the power of positive thinking. Initially, Brian's setbacks leave him frustrated, hopeless, and full of self-pity. He longs for home, focusing on the past rather than the future. Early in his stay in the woods, Brian recalls the words of his old English teacher Mr. Perpich. He constantly encouraged his students to think positively and to motivate themselves, saying, "You are all you have." This advice helps Brian to a certain extent, but he does not fully realize the import of positive thinking until a certain incident forces him to see it.
In Chapter 8, a porcupine awakes Brian and drives hundred of quills into his leg. He cries for a long time in pain and despair, but soon emerges with a new perspective. Paulsen writes that "later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn't work. It wasn't just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that—it didn't work."
This realization provides Brian's first step toward mental resolve. Although he has several lapses in resolve, most notably when he attempts suicide, he generally grows toward a more confident and determined state of mind. The moose attack and the tornado injure Brian and destroy his shelter, but in the aftermath of these events, he demonstrates a remarkably positive approach to the situation, immediately taking action to rebuild and heal.
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