The opposing forces of personal independence and connection with the natural world play a key role in Brian’s journey. At the beginning of Hatchet, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is upset about his parents’ divorce but takes his immediate safety for granted, trusting the kind pilot to navigate to their destination in Northern Canada, where Brian is to spend the summer with his father. However, the pilot’s fatal heart attack creates a situation in which Brian is completely vulnerable and helpless, and from that point on, he longs to gain a sense of control over his difficult new circumstances. As his skills and experience develop, Brian also develops this stronger sense of independence, learning to rely on himself to survive in the wilderness. However, it turns out that simple self-reliance is not enough to allow Brian to truly thrive. Rather, Paulsen illustrates that in order to feel genuinely safe and at home, Brian must learn to connect deeply with his surroundings and give up the idea that he is separate from the rest of nature. Through Brian’s changing relationship with the wilderness around him, Paulsen argues that rather than being an end in itself, personal independence is instead a crucial step on the journey toward a meaningful connection with the rest of the world.
At the start of the novel, Paulsen foreshadows the conclusions that Brian will eventually reach about the limitations of personal independence. Before the crash, Brian imagines a sense of control over the situation that quickly turns out to be illusory. When the pilot offers Brian the chance to steer the plane, the experience of controlling the complicated machine distracts Brian from his troubles and prompts him to call flying “easy.” However, after the pilot’s heart attack Brian quickly realizes that his momentary perception of knowing how to fly is not enough to get the plane back on track. Similarly, Brian develops a careful plan to land the plane safely, drawing on all the facts he has about the situation. However, the plan becomes obsolete when the plane runs out of fuel much more quickly than Brian expected. This turn of events underscores the futility of trying to impose one’s own plans on the complex, unpredictable nature of the outside world.
After his initial despair after the crash, Brian revisits the idea of his own independence within nature. At first, his feeling of independence proves to be an essential means by which he gains the confidence to survive his early days in the wilderness. Taking stock of his assets, Brian at first thinks that he has nothing of value. Then, he remembers his teacher Perpich telling him: “You are your most valuable asset.” Remembering his own value and independence gives Brian the strength to begin finding food and shelter. Brian also uses the phrase “I am Brian Robeson” to stay calm, and he repeats basic facts about himself in order to focus on the tasks at hand. Throughout this early phase, individual identity is an important way for Brian to ground himself in reality and hang onto his courage. Later, when the rescue plane turns back without noticing Brian’s flare, Paulsen writes: “They would not come. He was alone and there was nothing for him.” This moment of extreme independence is painful for Brian, but it also pushes him into the next phase of his evolution, in which he develops “tough hope” and the ability to sustain himself in the wilderness. In this shift, Paulsen suggests that this sense of isolation is a necessary phase that Brian must move through in order to achieve true connection later on.
As Brian’s familiarity with the wilderness grows, his initial reliance on a sense of independence fades away. He develops a more nuanced view of himself as a component of nature rather than an entity apart from it. This shift highlights Paulsen’s argument that genuine safety and resilience, as opposed to simple survival, requires an understanding and acceptance of the interrelated nature of all things. An early hint of the coming change in Brian’s sense of self appears when he meets a bear while picking raspberries. Though terrified at first, Brian continues to contemplate the bear and realizes that it was only curious about him and did not want to harm him. Though still largely self-absorbed at the time, Brian later wonders whether the bear was surprised to see him, a thought that Paulsen notes as “the first time since the crash he was not thinking of himself, or his own life.” Gradually, Brian finds that his senses grow more acute and his mind and body are connected to the world around him in a way he has not previously experienced. Paulsen writes: “When he saw something […] he would truly see that thing, not just notice it as he used to notice things in the city.” Though he does not know exactly how or why, Brian perceives the boundaries between himself and the outside world breaking down.
Though independence gives Brian his basic survival skills, his newly sharpened senses and perception of connection give him a more sustainable way of existing in the wilderness. In particular, Brian applies this patient, open mode of being to his study of how to catch the elusive camouflaged foolbirds. When he finally learns how to recognize their unique shape in the underbrush, he is rewarded with his first taste of meat. This milestone solidifies Brian’s ability to thrive in the wilderness as a part of nature rather than simply survive there as an isolated individual. In contrast, when Brian finds a rifle in the survival kit just before being rescued, he reacts with discomfort, realizing: “It somehow removed him from everything around him. Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it—the woods, all of it.” Brian sets the rifle aside, choosing his newfound sense of connection over a shortcut to individual power. With this choice, Paulsen points to the necessity of surrendering independence in favor of interconnection, even when independence may seem to be the easier route.
Independence vs. Connection ThemeTracker
Independence vs. Connection Quotes in Hatchet
“Help! Somebody help me! I’m in this plane and don't know… don’t know… don’t know…” And he started crying with the screams, crying and slamming his hands against the wheel of the plane, causing it to jerk down, then back up. But again, he heard nothing but the sound of his own sobs in the microphone, his own screams mocking him, coming back into his ears.
“So.” He almost jumped with the word, spoken aloud. It seemed so out of place, the sound. He tried it again. “So. So. So here I am.” And there it is, he thought. For the first time since the crash his mind started to work, his brain triggered and he began thinking.
Yes, this was the third day and he had thought of the shelter as home. He turned and looked at it, studied the crude work. The brush made a fair wall, not weathertight but it cut most of the wind off. He hadn’t done so badly at that. Maybe it wasn’t much, but also maybe it was all he had for a home. All right, he thought, so I’ll call it home. He turned back and set off up the side of the lake, heading for the gut cherry bushes, his windbreaker-bag in his hand. Things were bad, he thought, but maybe not that bad. Maybe he could find some better berries.
Outside the rain poured down, but Brian lay back, drinking syrup from the berries, dry and with the pain almost all gone, the stiffness also gone, his belly full and a good taste in his mouth. For the first time since the crash he was not thinking of himself, or his own life. Brian was wondering if the bear was as surprised as he to find another being in the berries.
So much from a little spark.
A friend and a guard from a tiny spark.
He looked around and wished he had somebody to tell this thing, to show this thing he had done. But there was nobody. Nothing but the trees and the sun and the breeze and the lake.
He smiled. City boy, he thought. Oh, you city boy with your city ways—he made a mirror in his mind, a mirror of himself, and saw how he must look. City boy with your city ways sitting in the sand trying to read the tracks and not knowing, not understanding.
But it was a mental thing. He had gotten depressed thinking about how they hadn’t found him yet, and when he was busy and had something to do the depression seemed to leave. So there were things to do.
I am not the same, he thought. I see, I hear differently. He did not know when the change started, but it was there; when a sound came to him now he didn’t just hear it but would know the sound. He would swing and look at it—a breaking twig, a movement of air—and know the sound as if he somehow could move his mind back down the wave of sound to the source. He could know what the sound was before he quite realized he had heard it. And when he saw something—a bird moving a wing inside a bush or a ripple on the water—he would truly see that thing, not just notice it as he used to notice things in the city. He would see all parts of it; see the whole wing, the feathers, see the color of the feathers, see the bush, and the size and shape and color of its leaves.
He could not play the game without hope; could not play the game without a dream. They had taken it all away from him now, they had turned away from him and there was nothing for him now. The plane gone, his family gone, all of it gone. They would not come. He was alone and there was nothing for him.
Brian looked back and for a moment felt afraid because the wolf was so… so right. He knew Brian, knew him and owned him and chose not to do anything to him. But the fear moved then, moved away, and Brian knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it. Brian relaxed the tension on the spear in his hand, settled the bow in his other hand from where it had started to come up. He knew the wolf now, as the wolf knew him, and he nodded to it, nodded and smiled.
With his bow, with an arrow fashioned by his own hands he had done food, had found a way to live. The bow had given him this way and he exulted in it, in the bow, in the arrow, in the fish, in the hatchet, in the sky. He stood and walked from the water, still holding the fish and arrow and bow against the sky, seeing them as they fit his arms, as if they were part of him.
By the end of that day, when it became dark and he lay next to the fire with his stomach full of fish and grease from the meat smeared around his mouth, he could feel new hope building in him. Not hope that he would be rescued—that was gone. But hope in his knowledge. Hope in the fact that he could learn and survive and take care of himself. Tough hope, he thought that night. I am full of tough hope.
A flip of some giant coin and he was the loser. But there is a difference now, he thought—there really is a difference. I might be hit but I’m not done. When the light comes I’ll start to rebuild. I still have the hatchet and that’s all I had in the first place.
For all this time, all the living and fighting, the hatchet had been everything—he had always worn it. Without the hatchet he had nothing—no fire, no tools, no weapons—he was nothing. The hatchet was, had been him. And he had dropped it.
It was a strange feeling, holding the rifle. It somehow removed him from everything around him. Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it—the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn’t have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand.