The most prominent theme in Hatchet is one of survival, since Brian spends the entire novel fighting to stay alive after he is stranded in the forest. Brian's actions, successes, and failures illustrate the important roles that resourcefulness, quick thinking, adaptability, and perseverance play in survival. This theme is particularly resonant with readers because most of Paulsen's target audience has never had to fight for their survival in this way before.
The entire novel takes place in the great, remote outdoors, and as such, the theme of understanding and respecting nature is hugely relevant. In order to stay alive, Brian must learn the ways of nature, understand its inner workings, and, essentially, become a part of it. He respects the other animals in his space and they respect him. He takes only what he needs to survive, never wasting anything. These practices send an important message to readers to respect the environment around them and appreciate the various ways in which it can provide for humanity.
This novel is an example of a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story. The young, naive Brian who finds himself in a plane crash is not the same person who emerges from the forest two months later. He matures a lot over the course of the story, developing a new way of thinking and a new appreciation for the simple pleasures that most people take for granted. He comes to terms with the Secret that he keeps, accepting his parents' divorce rather than mentally fighting against it. Brian's time in the forest has transformed him into someone new, with wisdom that had not been there before.
One thing Brian learns very quickly while in the forest is that he will get nowhere by feeling sorry for himself. He thinks of his old English teacher's insistence on constant positivity and determination in order to keep himself going, and this gives him the strength and outlook he needs to tackle the problems that constantly come his way. Whenever Brian starts to lose this positivity, like when the search plane flies over without stopping, he accomplishes nothing, so he quickly develops the ability to keep himself thinking positively in the face of failure.
Hunger and Food
Brian’s consuming hunger and his need to find food in order to survive drive nearly every decision he makes in the forest. He makes tools in order to catch food, a fire in order to cook food, and a sound shelter in order to protect his food; in the process, he learns firsthand how hunger and food drive all natural processes in the forest. This is especially eye-opening for readers because most will never have experienced the kind of hunger that Brian does in this novel—this account makes it more difficult to take food for granted.
City vs. Wilderness
The question of the wild forest's difference from the big city Brian left comes up repeatedly during this novel. Brian constantly finds himself having to adjust his city lifestyle for one more suited to his natural surroundings. This often proves to be difficult since cities are environments of abundance and overstimulation, where Brian constantly had everything he needs right at his fingertips. In contrast, he must go out and work for even the simplest of needs in nature. He must even change his way of thinking, remembering that while city life is often driven by randomness, every decision made in nature happens for a reason.
Isolation and Loneliness
As soon as the pilot dies and the plane crashes, Brian is completely and utterly alone. On top of fighting for survival, he must come to terms with the truth of his isolation and battle off feelings of loneliness that could potentially cripple him. Most of the time, Brian manages to keep himself busy enough not to think about how alone he is, but there are some instances—notably after he makes the fire and calls it his friend—in which it becomes clear that, just like anyone would, Brian is craving human companionship.
Hatchet Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hatchet is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.