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Brokeback Mountain | Study Guide

Annie Proulx

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Brokeback Mountain | Themes



Beginning as a companionable friendship, the love between Ennis and Jack is filled with desire. On their first night together on Brokeback Mountain, the sexual encounter is urgent and Ennis feels like he has "touched fire." Annie Proulx's word choices illustrate the desperation of the couple's passion: shoved, hauled, quick, rough, and craved. After a four-year lapse in their relationship, their love still burns. Ennis feels "a hot jolt" and the two men seize each other, "squeezing the breath out of each other" and kissing so hard Jack's teeth make Ennis's lip bleed. When their hands touch it is as though an "electrical current snap[s] between them." At the motel Jack admits he knew they would just pick up where they left off, and he had "redlined all the way, couldn't get here fast enough."

When Jack later complains to Ennis that he cannot "quit" him he refers both to the pain of separation and to his longing to be with Ennis.


In mid-20th century America, intolerance for homosexuality was rampant. Homosexuality was considered to be a form of mental illness. People could be discriminated against and fired for their sexuality, and homosexual behavior was against the law nationwide.

As they grew up Ennis and Jack absorbed uncompromising standards on how to act like a man. Left alone that summer on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jack begin an animated friendship that unexpectedly transforms into romance. The intensity of their attraction is apparent as they move from intimacy in the tent at night to brazen sexual encounters in broad daylight.

Yet society's expectations of masculine behavior limit their emotional relationship. How can they be lovers without admitting they are homosexual? Both marry and father children, in spite of their love for each other.

Inherent in Jack and Ennis's fear of being labeled homosexual is their own homophobia, along with the intolerance of people they know. Their declarations that they aren't "queer" reveal they have adopted society's anti-homosexual bias as their own. Ennis explains "there's nothing now we can do" and that they "can't hardly be decent together." If anyone suspects they are lovers he believes "we'll be dead."

Society's intolerance is demonstrated in 1964 when Jack returns to Brokeback Mountain looking for work. Joe Aguirre refuses to rehire him, commenting that he doesn't approve of their behavior the previous summer. Ennis has witnessed society's brutal treatment of homosexuals: his father dragged him to see the body of a gay rancher murdered with a tire iron. He tells Jack if his father saw the two of them together, "Hell, ... he'd go get his tire iron. Two guys livin together? No."

The wives, Alma and Lureen, suspect their husbands' relationship. Having seen the men embrace, Alma's resentment grows over the years. Finally after their divorce, she confronts Ennis, calling Jack "Jack Nasty."

The only character who is not homophobic is Jack. He is the one who wants Ennis to come live with him, to have "a real good life" together. Jack also goes to Mexico—presumably to pick up men because he sees Ennis too infrequently. To try and make Ennis understand, he tells him to "count the damn few times we been together in 20 years." Yet, Jack may have been murdered because he was suspected of being homosexual. If Ennis's fears are correct, it was not an accident but a tire iron that killed Jack.

Consequences of Choices

Although Ennis and Jack love each other, their choices—to be together or lead separate lives—are limited by the social climate of their time. As a result, their lives are shaped both by choices they commit to and those they avoid. Refusing to live together openly, they are doomed to live unhappy lives apart. When they opt for heterosexual marriages this forces the choice of adultery. Ennis decides to stay with Alma instead of running away with Jack. However, Ennis's lack of commitment to his wife destroys their marriage anyway. Alma chooses not to confront Ennis when she sees how he acts with Jack. Her silence doesn't save their marriage—which ends in divorce.

The last time Ennis sees Jack, he realizes just how much they really mean to each other. But by then it is too late. Ennis is overwhelmed with the consequences of his choices, and "years of things unsaid and now unsayable—admissions, declarations, shames, guilts, fears—rose around them." The weight of this sends Ennis crashing to the ground, "grimacing, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched, legs caving."

Because Ennis cannot commit to him, Jack again chooses a sort of adultery: sex with other men. This choice on Jack's part, Ennis suspects, led to his death in a homophobic hate crime.

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