Brokeback Mountain | Study Guide

Annie Proulx

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Brokeback Mountain | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Introduction

"Brokeback Mountain" begins with a brief prologue set in the present, introducing readers to Ennis del Mar. Early on a windy morning Ennis moves about his trailer getting dressed and reheating a pan of stale coffee. The trailer is on an empty ranch whose departing ranch owner instructs Ennis to give the keys to the realtor. Ennis reflects on his desperate situation. He will be forced to move in with his married daughter if he can't find employment. As he drinks hot coffee out of a stained cup, he takes comfort in his dream about Jack Twist and their "time on the mountain when they owned the world."

The First Summer

Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist are rough and hardworking high school dropouts who grew up on rundown Wyoming ranches. In 1963 they meet in a Forest Service field office when they're both around 19 and desperate for work. Ennis is engaged to Alma Beers and needs to save for their future together. Jack needs money as well so he is back for a second summer of work on the mountain. The foreman, Joe Aguirre, hires Ennis as the camp tender and Jack as the sheep herder on Brokeback Mountain. Aguirre tells Ennis he can sleep at the campsite but Jack must eat his meals at the camp and sleep in a tent out in the pasture with the sheep.

Ennis and Jack spend the afternoon in a bar drinking beer and getting acquainted. Jack is a small man "infatuated with the rodeo life." He tells Ennis that the previous summer 42 sheep had been killed by lightning and how they will need plenty of whiskey to get by. He brags about shooting an eagle and shows Ennis the eagle feather stuck in his hatband. Ennis, scruffy with quick reflexes, seems "made for the horse and for fighting."

The next morning the two men choose their horses and load up the pack mules with supplies and three dogs. Then they and 1,000 sheep head up the mountain. Both men sleep in the camp the first night. Following that Jack rides out to camp with the sheep each evening. As they perform their jobs, Ennis and Jack can see each other at work across the mountain. Jack appears like an insect crawling "across a tablecloth," and Ennis shines like a "night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain."

Jack complains that his day is too long—"I'm commutin four hours a day." He feels it's unfair he has to constantly travel back and forth between the main camp and tending the sheep. Plus he has to jump up all through the night to check for coyotes. He believes he "should be spendin the night here. Aguirre got no right a make me do this." Ennis offers to switch jobs with him. Jack says that neither of them should have to spend nights out with the herd and, besides, he is a terrible cook. They do switch jobs that evening, and the next night Ennis joins Jack back at the camp to have dinner and wash up. They eat, drink, smoke, and talk about all kinds of things including their families, feeling "glad to have a companion where none had been expected." As he rides back to the sheep, Ennis thinks he's "never had such a good time."

As the summer progresses, the herd moves farther away, and the ride to the camp grows longer. Ennis and Jack stretch out the time they spend together after dinner. Jack plays the harmonica while Ennis sings in a raspy voice. One night, too drunk to ride, Ennis decides to stay in the camp with Jack and not return to the sheep until "first light." He tries to sleep on the ground with just a blanket for warmth, but his teeth start chattering from the cold. Jack invites him to share his bedroll and before long "they [deepen] their intimacy considerably." Jack grabs Ennis's hand and guides it to his groin. Ennis pulls away, turns Jack over, and they have anal sex; "nothing he'd done before but no instruction manual needed."

Throughout the summer, Ennis and Jack continue their sexual relationship. They don't talk about it but just "let it happen," at night in the tent and eventually out in the open during the day. Ennis and Jack declare that they are not "queer." Their intense lust for each other is "a one-shot thing. Nobody's business but ours." They are both euphoric about their blossoming romance. High up on the mountain, they enjoy the freedom of being "suspended above ordinary affairs." They believe themselves invisible—unaware that Joe Aguirre is watching them through his binoculars.

In August Ennis and Jack spend the night together in a hailstorm. Meanwhile the sheep straggle away from the herd and mingle with members of another flock. Afterward, Ennis spends five days trying to sort out the animals, but he is unable to do so. By mid-August the first snow arrives, and Joe tells them to bring the sheep back down. As the pair descends down the mountain, Ennis feels he is in a "headlong, irreversible fall." Joe pays them but lets them know the sheep count is incorrect.

Jack asks Ennis if he plans to return to Brokeback Mountain the following year. He reminds Jack that he is marrying Alma in December. Jack says he may come back if he can't find something better. The men part casually, Ennis venturing, "Well, see you around, I guess." A handshake, a slap on the shoulder, and they drive away in different directions. Ennis soon feels sick "and it [takes] a long time for the feeling to wear off."

Ennis and Alma marry in December and their daughter Alma Jr. is born in September. Ennis continues to find work to support them and soon a second daughter is born. Alma and their children occupy Ennis's whole world; there is no word from Jack.

Four Years Later

After four years with no contact between them, Jack sends a letter to Ennis telling him he would like to see him. Alma, understanding that Jack is a friend, thinks the three of them will go out for dinner, but Ennis says Jack isn't "a restaurant type," and the two men will simply go out drinking instead. When Jack arrives, Ennis meets him in the hallway outside the apartment door. He feels "a hot jolt" and the two men are locked in an embrace, kissing each other hard on the lips, "clinched, pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together." Alma cracks open the door and watches silently, not acknowledging what she's seen even when Ennis introduces the two of them. Jack announces that he lives in Texas, is married to a wealthy girl named Lureen, and has an eight-month-old son.

The two men take off and, after stopping for a bottle of whiskey, they end up at a motel for the night. Their torrid passion consumes them, and Jack admits he "couldn't get here fast enough." Jack explains he has been riding in the rodeo, but he has suffered crushed and broken bones as a result. The men share their thoughts about their relationship, Ennis stating that he has been trying to figure out whether he is a homosexual or not: "I know I ain't. I mean here we both got wives and kids, right?" They both state that they have no interest in other men, and Jack states wistfully they "got a figure out what to do." Ennis warns if they show their feelings for each other in public they might end up dead. Jack confides that he did return to Brokeback Mountain the following summer, and Joe Aguirre commented that "you boys found a way to make the time pass up there." Jack neglects to tell Ennis that Joe refused to hire him again.

Jack suggests they leave their current lives, get a ranch together, and live the "sweet life." Ennis disagrees as he feels stuck, and he also fears ending up dead. He tells Jack about "these two old guys ranched together down home." One of them was beaten to death with a tire iron; his body was "just bloody pulp" when it was dumped into a ditch. Ennis's father laughed about the attack and dragged Ennis and his brother to see the rancher's corpse.

Despite Ennis's worries, Jack doesn't want to accept living apart and just seeing each other every four years. Ennis responds that he dreads Jack leaving in the morning, "but if you can't fix it you got a stand it." Jack begs Ennis to spend a few days alone with him because "this ain't no little thing that's happenin here."

Relationships

Ennis and Alma's marriage starts to crumble. She doesn't want any more babies because Ennis doesn't make enough to support them as it is. Never mentioning it to Ennis, she holds on bitterly to the memory of the men's embrace and resentment builds over the time he spends on fishing trips with Jack instead of taking her and their girls on vacation. She is also frustrated that Ennis seldom shows her affection and, when he does, insists on "[doing] quickly what she [hates]," an indication that he is satisfied only by anal sex. Alma is also irritated that Ennis has no interest in finding a permanent job. Finally after 10 years of marriage, she decides to divorce him and marry the grocer instead.

The following year Ennis tries to show he has "no serious hard feelings" by accepting Alma's invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal Alma asks him if he still goes fishing with Jack. When Ennis says yes, she tells him that she knows they never actually fished. Inside Ennis's carrying case the fishing pole's price tag and a note from Alma were untouched after every trip. She warns Ennis that she knows "what it means. Jack Twist? Jack Nasty. You and him." Ennis grabs her by the wrist, threatens her, and storms out.

Jack and Ennis continue their romance for years, visiting many wild and mountainous locales, but never returning to Brokeback Mountain. In May 1983 they are on a week-long trip together, camping in a mountain meadow. Jack admits he had an affair with a rancher's wife and Ennis has been chasing a woman who works in a local bar. They sit close together, discuss their kids, aware of "the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough." Days later when they say goodbye, Ennis tells Jack that he won't be able to meet in August. When Jack complains about not seeing Ennis often enough, Ennis asks him if he has ever been to Mexico—a place where men can pick up male prostitutes. When Jack brashly replies that he has, indeed, been there, Ennis implies he would kill Jack if he knew he had sex with other men.

Jack reminds Ennis that they "could a had a good life together" if only he had consented to be with him. Instead, all they have is Brokeback Mountain to look back on and remember beside their occasional meetings over the past 20 years. Jack confesses that he hasn't been satisfied with only having sex once or twice a year with Ennis. His desire is "too much." He wishes he knew how to forget about him. Ennis is deeply affected by this and falls to the ground on his knees. He gets up, and they realize they have both felt the same way about each other all this time. Nothing has changed. They still hunger for each other. Jack "remembered and craved" Ennis holding him from behind on Brokeback Mountain, the "embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger." He recalls that embrace as "the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives." He knows that at the time Ennis was unable to look him in the face and accept "that it was Jack he held." He suspects Ennis is still incapable of that acceptance.

The Accident

Months later Ennis sends a postcard to Jack confirming their get together in November. It "[comes] back stamped DECEASED." Ennis calls Jack's number and his wife Lureen answers. She tells him Jack is dead. He was changing a tire when it blew up in his face, breaking his nose and jaw. Falling unconscious to the ground, he "drowned in his own blood." All Ennis can think about is "they got him with the tire iron" like the dead rancher he had seen as a boy. Jack was only 39. Ennis asks where he is buried, and Lureen explains Jack was cremated because he wanted his ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain. She had no idea where that was so she buried half of his ashes in Texas. Since Jack's parents did not attend the funeral, she sent the rest of his ashes to them in Lightning Flat, Wyoming.

Ennis travels to see Jack's parents in Lightning Flat. It is "desolate country" with "abandoned ranches." He finds their small home and sits in their kitchen drinking coffee. John, Jack's father, stares "at Ennis with an angry, knowing expression." Ennis tells them how awful he feels about Jack's death. He volunteers to take Jack's ashes to Brokeback Mountain and scatter them there. Jack's father says he knows where the mountain is and complains Jack "thought he was too goddamn special to be buried in the family plot." Jack's mother is much kinder and tells Ennis that he is "welcome to go up in his room" as it is just like it was when Jack was a boy. Jack's father speaks out angrily, saying that Jack used to say he was going to bring Ennis back with him to the ranch to help clean it up. Jack "had some half-baked idea the two a you" were moving to Lightning Flat to help run the ranch. Then in the spring Jack said he was going to bring a neighbor from Texas with him to help with the ranch but that never happened either. At that moment Ennis confirms his fears that Jack's death was not an accident; he had been murdered with a tire iron.

Ennis climbs the stairs to Jack's room and notices an "old shirt from Brokeback days" hanging in the closet. It has dried blood on the sleeve—Ennis's blood from a nosebleed. Inside Jack's shirt is another—an old plaid shirt that belonged to Ennis. The pair of shirts is "like two skins, one inside the other, two in one." Ennis presses his face into the shirts eager for Jack's scent. All that remains is the memory, "the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left" but the shirts.

Jack's father "[refuses] to let Jack's ashes go." A few weeks later, Ennis is in a gift shop looking through postcards. Linda Higgins, the owner, asks him what he is looking for and he says a "scene a Brokeback Mountain." She promises to order him one. When the card arrives, he hangs it up in his trailer. Underneath it he hangs "the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it." He looks at it "through a few stinging tears" and says, "Jack, I swear—."

Ennis starts to see Jack in his dreams and wakes up either in grief or "with the old sense of joy and release." He realizes that there are things that he knows and things he tries to believe "and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it."

Analysis

Setting

The austere setting Annie Proulx creates for "Brokeback Mountain" frames the story and defines the lives of its inhabitants. As she does with the settings of her other works, Proulx fleshes out the Brokeback locale until it becomes virtually a character in its own right. Its wilderness allows Jack and Ennis to be free of society's demands, while in the domesticated locations off the mountain, their lives are constrained.

In the prologue Ennis's trailer is rocked by hissing wind hitting it "like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck." This image of a creaky trailer buffeted by relentless wind embodies Ennis's own struggles. Robbed of his parents by "the only curve on Dead Horse Road" when he was a child, Ennis also loses out on an education, defeated by the distance between the ranch and school. Ennis spends much of the narrative feeling like he is "getting shortchanged." At the end of the story, a brokenhearted Ennis is once again looking for work, the effect of the forces of nature destroying the ranches and ravaging the landscape.

Brokeback Mountain itself serves as a catalyst for the men's emotional relationship. The growing distance between the mountain site and the camp pushes Ennis to rationalize spending a night in camp. Once the frigid night temperature forces Ennis to share Jack's bedroll the sexual encounter is inevitable. Proulx throws in an early snowfall to cut short the men's romance as the setting "[boils] with demonic energy" and forces them to depart. Over the next 20 years, Ennis and Jack continue to spend time in the mountains, using the hilly terrain, "the Gallatins ... Bridger-Teton Range ... the Sierra Madres" and other locales to hide their illicit romance.

After Jack dies, Ennis sees his pain reflected in the landscape, "the huge sadness of the northern plains [rolls] down on him." On his trip to visit Jack's parents, he passes "desolate country ... abandoned ranches ... houses sitting blank-eyed in the weeds, corral fences down." Afterward he sees the cemetery where Jack's ashes will be buried, a small space "on the welling prairie ... buried on the grieving plain."

Sensory and Descriptive Language

"Brokeback Mountain" is told in a rich, literary style, using an abundance of sensory and descriptive language. Proulx provides vivid details of what things look like, how they feel, and how they smell. Ennis "pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan," wears "worn boots," and drinks from a "stained cup." Morning on Brokeback Mountain is described from an artist's perspective: the "dawn [comes] glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green." Nighttime reveals a wind that works "over the meadow, [scrapes] the fire low, then [ruffles] it into yellow silk sashes." A late summer storm chases them off the mountain followed by a "purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow."

When Ennis sees Jack for the first time in four years, Proulx communicates their excitement through touch and smell: the scrape of whiskers and the subtleties of Jack's aroma—an "intensely familiar odor of cigarettes, musky sweat, and a faint sweetness like grass." Their hastily rented motel room smells of "smoke and sweat and whiskey ... old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather ... and cheap soap."

Later meetings in various wilderness locations are also painted with colorful detail, as the lovers are surrounded by "tea-colored" rivers, "ochre-branched willows" stiffly swaying, and "pollened catkins like yellow thumbprints."

At the story's end the discovery of Jack's old shirt evokes the man himself, as Ennis presses "his face into the fabric" hoping for the fragrance and the taste of his lover—for "mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack."

Proulx's consistent use of dialect easily places her characters in their rural western environment and indicates their education level, as when Jack explains that a rodeo friend was gored by a bull: "Friend a mine got his oil checked with a horn dipstick."

Friendship, Love, and Duty

The actions of the two main characters are motivated by friendship, love, and duty. It is clear from their very first meeting that Ennis and Jack share the bonds of friendship. They like talking, drinking, and going places together. This kind of male bonding is considered acceptable behavior: "the forming of close friendships between men." On Brokeback Mountain they keep the fire burning so they can "keep the talk going, talking horses and rodeo, roughstock events ... Jack's home ranch." They are "respectful of each other's opinion" and enjoy each other's company.

The love between the two men is apparent. When they see each other after four years, "Jack [takes] the stairs two and two" and they "[seize] each other by the shoulders, [hugging] mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other." They kiss and "their mouths came together, and hard." Ennis, not knowing what to say, calls Jack "little darlin." Jack is the romantic. He wants to live with Ennis and tells him he has "it all figured, got this plan ... how we can do it, you and me." Ennis is more pragmatic and tells Jack "it ain't goin a be that way. We can't. I'm stuck with what I got." Ennis feels a duty to his marriage and his girls. He also feels a duty to do what is considered right and that precludes two men living together. Ennis says, "Two guys livin together? No. All I can see is we get together" from time to time.

Sexuality

Sexuality and sexual attraction are woven throughout the narrative. Ennis and Jack lust for each other and their nontraditional romance is sustained over 20 years. Although they acknowledge the passion they feel for each other, they constantly deny their homosexuality. When they meet, neither of them has had any same-sex experience and Ennis is engaged to Alma Beers. It isn't clear whether their affair on Brokeback Mountain pushes Jack toward a heterosexual relationship. However, within two years he also is married with a child and both men stay married during much of their affair. Whether they are bisexual or homosexual is really not the point. What Proulx depicts is what it feels like to love someone, to be consumed with desire. As the men work on the broad expanse of Brokeback Mountain, Proulx employs similes to describe them. Jack is seen as an insect, and Ennis is seen shining like a "night fire, a red spark." This image foreshadows the intense attraction between the two—Jack is drawn to Ennis like a moth to a flame.

While Ennis seems content with their infrequent sexual liaisons, Jack is not. He complains that "he missed Ennis bad enough" and there is the implication that he visits Mexico to have sex with other men. Ennis asks Jack if he has been to Mexico because it "was the place. He'd heard." This veiled accusation of infidelity angers Jack and he grumbles about the "short leash" Ennis keeps him on, yelling "tell me you'll kill me for needin it and not hardly never getting it."

Heterosexual attraction is also depicted in the story. Tired of moving from one "lonesome ranch" to another, Alma pleads with Ennis while "sitting on his lap, wrapping her thin, freckled arms around him." Ennis responds by "slipping his hand up her blouse sleeve ... fingers moving up her ribs." Jack tells Ennis that back in Texas he "had a thing going with the wife of a rancher."

Dreams versus Reality

Dreams and reality pull at the characters and affect the events of the story. Disappointment abounds because so much that each character hopes for is never realized. Ennis needs to work but time after time ranches fail and he loses his job. The reality is that "again the ranch is on the market" and the horses have been "shipped out." Alma wants "no more damn lonesome ranches" and a steady income, but she always has "to work to keep ahead of the bills on what Ennis [makes]." Jack wants to be a professional rodeo rider. When he gets the chance, he nearly "starved. Had to borrow everything." He ends up with "crushed vertebrates. And a stress fracture ... a busted leg ... sprains and pains." Jack dreams about having a "little ranch together" with Ennis and a "sweet life." But he cannot convince Ennis to take a chance and run away with him. John Twist, Jack's father, complains to Ennis that Jack "had some half-baked idea" about moving "up here, build a log cabin, and help me run this ranch." Then he adds that most of Jack's ideas never happened.

The idea that Ennis and Jack can be together and embrace their love is a dream that is starkly contrasted with reality. What happens to men who dare to live together openly? They are spied on, refused work, insulted, looked down upon, and sometimes brutally murdered. The dream is being free to love without restriction as to gender, and the reality runs the gamut from unhappiness and separation to the finality of death.

Brokeback Mountain Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Ennis prepares to leave the ranch and dreams of Jack.

Rising Action

2 Ennis and Jack meet and get acquainted.

3 Ennis and Jack begin their affair on Brokeback Mountain.

4 Ennis and Jack continue their relationship all summer.

5 Ennis and Jack meet again four years later.

6 Ennis and Jack continue to meet for 16 years.

Climax

7 Jack dies while allegedly changing a tire.

Falling Action

8 Ennis visits Jack's parents.

Resolution

9 Ennis is alone, dreaming of Jack.

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