Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet" presents a fictional account of 13-year-old Brian Robeson's harrowing experiences following a small plane crash. The crash leaves Robeson stranded in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but his wits and the eponymous hatchet, a gift from his father. As Robeson struggles to survive as well as cope with his parents' impending divorce, he learns to rely on his keen observational talents and problem solving skills. As he develops skills of self-sufficiency, he also adjusts to the idea of his parents' separation.
Humanity's Triumph Over Nature
A common interpretation of Paulsen's "Hatchet" focuses on the classical narrative conflict of humanity versus nature. While stranded in the Canadian woods, Robeson must build and repair shelter, hunt or gather food and fend off attacks from predatory animals. Additionally, he must discover a way to signal to the outside world that he is alive. By the conclusion of the tale, Robeson's ingenuity and observational talents allow him to tame the wilderness, making humanity the victor in this classic case of humanity versus nature.
The Advantages of the Wilderness
Though the wilderness is depicted as challenging and even a formidable opponent early in the novel, by the end of the narrative Robeson develops a deep respect for the unpredictable wild as it compares to the predicable and staid life he led in New York. Consequently, "Hatchet" can be conceived of as a tale extolling the virtues of the wilderness, as well as the qualities an individual must develop in order to survive in the wilderness. In this way, the conclusion of the story is bittersweet, as Robeson's "rescuing" actually tears him away from the habitat he has grown to know and love and in which he flourishes.
Coming of Age as a Teen
Many of Paulsen's works are categorized as teen fiction, and "Hatchet" is no different. Though the circumstances might be different than most for thirteen year olds, Robeson's development in the wilderness reflects the common literary form of a bildungsroman or a narrative that emphasizes the psychological or moral growth of the protagonist. Prior to being stranded in the wilderness, Robeson was soft, slightly pudgy and confused about his parents' marriage problems. At the conclusion of the story, however, he has become fit and learned how to survive on his own, and through his development he comes to understand and accept his parents' decision to separate.
Problem Solving and Positive Thinking
Borrowing from the general theme of all possible main ideas present in "Hatchet," it's easy to understand how the novel generally reflects the idea that problem solving and positive thinking skills will help you deal with life problems. Rather than become despondent due to being stranded in the wilderness, Robeson immediately focuses on the possibility of survival and eventual rescue. This motivates him to stay active and alert as he attempts to first secure himself in his environment and then find a way to escape his environment. And because he is ultimately successful in this escape, "Hatchet" includes the idea that positive thinking will benefit the individual, no matter how tough his plight might be.
- "Interpreting Young Adult Literature: Literary Theory in the Secondary Classroom"; John Noell Moore; 1997
- SparkNotes: Hatchet: Themes and Motifs
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