Although he is isolated from all human interaction during his time in the wilderness after a tragic plane crash, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson frequently turns to language as a coping mechanism and survival tool. Brian’s ability to verbalize what he is going through is pivotal at many points throughout the story, and the words he chooses often define the way he proceeds in the face of challenge. By repeatedly emphasizing the importance of language in shaping Brian’s reality, Paulsen argues that words can actively shape the world around us rather than just describing it.
Even at the start of the novel, Brian is preoccupied with words and definitions. The words that he uses to interpret events, whether good or bad, impact the roles that those events play in his life. Thinking about his parents’ divorce while on the plane, Brian reflects that his thoughts are “always the words.” He mulls over the harsh language of divorce, lawyers, and visitation rights, and feels that the words themselves are breaking his life apart with “legal phrases that mean nothing.” After the pilot suddenly dies of a heart attack, Brian turns again to language, this time as a mode of support rather than a force of destruction. Planning how he might land the plane, he repeats the phrase, “easy say, hard do,” until it becomes “a chant that beat with the engine.” This repetition allows Brian to stay calm enough to manage the plane’s descent to a degree that might otherwise have been impossible. After the crash, Brian is largely helpless until he says aloud: “Here I am.” Paulsen writes that after Brian speaks those words, “for the first time since the crash […] his brain triggered and he began thinking.” Voicing his reality leads to Brian’s first attempts at survival, demonstrating that using clear language is a crucial tool for creating real action.
Once Brian begins consciously using language to shape his circumstances, he remembers the lessons of Perpich, the English teacher who taught him about positive thinking. Committing to using positive words to interpret his surroundings helps Brian find opportunities where at first he only saw setbacks. Though Brian is initially certain that he has nothing that will help him survive, thinking of Perpich’s directive to “look at all of it” leads him to go through his assets more carefully and, crucially, to remember the hatchet strapped to his belt. Although his actual circumstances have not changed, Brian goes from having nothing to having something very valuable, just by using different language to describe his situation. Beginning to venture out in search of sustainable food, Brian catches himself thinking of how he will return “home” at the end of the day. Though initially uncomfortable with considering his shelter home, Brian decides that even though the shelter “wasn’t much,” he would rather call it home than not have a home. With that, Brian gains another asset just through changing his definition of what constitutes a home, and his ability to think of the shelter as home leads him to make improvements that ultimately increase his safety.
The changing meanings of the words “luck” and “mistake” are perhaps the most essential instances of Brian’s use of language to shape his reality. Brian uses these words to find the positive aspects of his situation and to learn from occurrences that at first seem negative, again demonstrating how simple word choice can dramatically alter one’s mindset and surroundings. When Brian feels lucky to have survived the crash, he quickly reminds himself that genuine good luck would have been to have his parents still together, or to have been flying with a pilot who didn’t have a heart attack. At this early stage, Brian has not yet harnessed the power of language to positively shape his reality. Accordingly he becomes despairing and struggles to endure the first day in the wilderness. However, when Brian discovers the spot that will become his shelter, he feels lucky again and decides that he is lucky to have survived the crash at all, casting his life in the wilderness as a positive outcome rather than a negative one. This new mindset provides Brian with a way to remain upbeat and inspires him to continue searching for ways to improve his situation. Similarly, Brian comes to rely on the word “mistake” as an indication that he can learn from a negative outcome. Paulsen writes that Brian “list[s] all his mistakes” mentally and analyzes each one thoughtfully to turn the mistake into an asset. By returning over and over to this word and the many lessons that it teaches Brian, Paulsen demonstrates how even a seemingly negative word can have great power for good, underscoring the way that careful, thoughtful engagement with language can be a tool for shaping reality for the better.
The Power of Language ThemeTracker
The Power of Language Quotes in Hatchet
Luck, he thought. I have luck, I had good luck there. But he knew that was wrong. If he had had good luck his parents wouldn’t have divorced because of the Secret and he wouldn’t have been flying with a pilot who had a heart attack and he wouldn’t be here where he had to have good luck to keep from being destroyed.
The scenery was very pretty, he thought, and there were new things to look at, but it was all a green and blue blur and he was used to the gray and black of the city. Traffic, people talking, sounds all the time—the hum and whine of the city. Here, at first, it was silent, or he thought it was silent, but when he started to listen, really listen, he heard thousands of things.
“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.
Nothing. It kept coming back to that. He had nothing. Well, almost nothing. As a matter of fact, he thought, I don’t know what I’ve got or haven’t got. Maybe I should try and figure out just how I stand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He went to sleep thinking a kind of reverse question. He did not know if he would ever get out of this, could not see how it might be, but if he did somehow get home and go back to living the way he had lived, would it be just the opposite? Would he be sitting watching television and suddenly think about the sunset up in back of the ridge and wonder how the color looked in the lake?