Rationality Versus Emotion
Brian constantly fights emotional weakness, recognizing the need to think clearly and rationally. As he spends more time in the woods, his problem solving and brainstorming capabilities improve. He begins to overcome his natural tendency to become frustrated, understanding that he must approach each problem anew. While he also develops physical strength, his determination and intelligence serve the greater role in his survival. Brian makes many mistakes throughout the course of the book, but when he thinks rationally about how to improve upon those mistakes, he makes significant progress. For example, he finally succeeds in catching fish from the lake when he remembers from his science class that the refraction of light on water distorts the appearance of objects underwater.
Past Versus Present
Gary Paulsen employs the literary technique of shifting back and forth through time. While Brian experiences his present situation and its urgency, he constantly refers to the past, which shapes his thoughts and actions. Paulsen uses flashbacks to inform the reader of past events, and specifically, of the circumstance surrounding Brian's parents' divorce. For example, the reader learns of Brian's knowledge about "The Secret" when he thinks back on it and recalls his feelings that day. In addition, Paulsen incorporates the past into the present by commenting that the hate Brian felt that day returns to him with intensity when he remembers the incident. In painting a vivid picture of Brian's emotional landscape, Paulsen effectively interweaves past and present.
Dream Versus Reality
Throughout the course of the book Brian has several significant dreams. In some cases, dreams not only inform the reader of Brian's subconscious, but also enter reality and have relevance to it. When Terry and Brian's father attempt to show him how to start a fire in his dream, he does not initially pick up on the connection. Later, however, it dawns on him that they were trying to tell him to strike the hatchet on a stone to ignite sparks. This overlapping of dream and reality also brings elements of Brian's former life into the forefront, particularly when he dreams of his mother's affair.
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