"Brokeback Mountain" is best defined by two things: (1) these guys really, really love each other, and (2) ain't nobody ever gonna understand. We see signs of the first one in the way they react to each other: "Jack took the stairs two and two. They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, and easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together […]" (47).That continues pretty much every time they see each other, even when they're angry. Proulx makes us feel how fundamental those emotions are to their being: going right down to the core without looking back.
As for the second one, we get it in the veiled comments of everyone except Jack and Ennis, from wee Lureen whose "little voice was cold as snow" (133) to Joe Aguirre who says "you guys wasn't gettin paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose" (71). That all comes on top of, you know, Jack getting beaten to death on the side of the road, so we're going to say that society isn't down with these two and their wild love.
Put them together, and you have a tone of aching, deep-set feeling tinged with a whole lot of sadness. It's grim, but so, so pretty.
Proulx keeps the story in the realm of realism, even though it's fiction. Everything adheres to the tenets of reality, nothing happens that we wouldn't expect in the natural world, and we could very easily see this scenario taking place in the actual world (unlike, say, Harry Potter, where as much as we would like to believe the Hogwarts is out there somewhere, it just isn't. Trust us. We looked.)
Proulx tinges the realism with shades of Romanticism with a capital R, referring to an 18th-century movement that tried to understand the natural universe through human perception. You can see shades of it in the descriptions of the landscape, in Ennis's heartbreaking emotions, and in the way the two seem to twist back on each other more than once.
Brokeback is where it's at. For reals.
"Brokeback Mountain" is where Ennis and Jack fall in love, and as such, it becomes much more than a setting for the first part of the narrative. It's more a symbol for the story itself—an ill-fated love that could never be what these characters wanted it to be. It's so symbolic, in fact, we did a whole analysis of it in our "Symbols, Imagery and Allegory" section, so click on over there to read more.
We start out with love, we finish with pain and loss; that's the deal. Ennis ends up with Jack's shirts hanging under a postcard of Brokeback Mountain, and all he can do is step back and look "at the ensemble through a few stinging tears" (156). A lifetime of love reduced to a makeshift sharing in a horse trailer? That's pretty sad for a love that deep and abiding.
And that's really the point. If they were guy-and-girl, they could have gotten together and lived their lives in peace. Probably had a few kids to boot. But as it is, Jack's gone and Ennis is scarred for life with loneliness and grief… all because they're both men.
Despite that overwhelming sadness, though, Proulx still wants to remind us of how special their love was. Ennis dreams about Jack, "and he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release" (158). This wasn't just an affair—this was love. Why else would it have stuck with Ennis for so long? The ending helps remind us that what they had was very real, which makes it all the sadder.
But before we get all mopey and reach for the tissues, maybe we should remember Ennis's advice: "if you can't fix it you've got to stand it" (159).
Proulx sets many of her stories in Wyoming, and "Brokeback Mountain" is no exception. She ranges far and wide with her characters, but there's always an intense combination of beauty and loneliness where they go. Brokeback itself is defined by "the great flowery Meadows and the coursing, endless wind" (9), while the "lavender sky emptied of color and the chill air drained down" (23). This is a place without a lot of people, and even seems fairly indifferent to the presence of people.
That combination—natural beauty and a lack of folks messing it up—matches the key themes in the story pretty well. Jack and Ennis's love is very beautiful: intense, long lasting, and passionate in a way few of us ever get a chance to experience. But it's also lonely. They can't share it with anyone—they can't even tell anyone—and once Jack dies, Ennis gets to deal with it all by his lonesome. Tough break, but then again, this is a land full of tough breaks: "Stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing them on" (32). It's not exactly a beachy paradise.
The funny thing is, that stunning yet bleak landscape actually starts to seep into the souls of the two men plopped down in the middle of it. Take this passage, for example: "Like vast clouds of steam from thermal springs in winter the years of things unsaid and now unsayable—admissions, declarations, shames, guilts, fears—rose around them" (118). Proulx describes the characters' emotions using the language of the land itself. And the land itself begins to represent those emotions: when Jack dies Ennis feels "the huge sadness of the northern plains rolled down on him" (126). The characters start to reflect the world around them, making the setting as much a part of their internal life as their external life. This story doesn't just take place in Wyoming, the state itself becomes a part of the very fabric of the story.
Jack and Ennis are high school dropouts, so they don't exactly use their words. And when they do, they certainly don't use ten-dollar ones. Proulx endeavors to keep that reading level intact even when they're not talking, and while she uses her words with a lot more power, she still keeps it simple. This isn't a story to make you go running for the dictionary every third word. You may find yourself reaching for the tissues, though.
We say "rambling" out of love, of course, because this story's got some of the best darn rambling you're ever going to see. That said, you won't read many authors this side of Henry James who are as quite adverse to the period as Proulx. Just take a look:
They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, and easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack's big teeth bringing blood […] (47)
And it goes on like that for another five or six lines.
Why? We suspect it's in keeping with the characters' overall lack of control over their lives (and in this moment, a particular lack of control over their feelings). Just like their love careens this way and that with no sign of halting or slowing down, so does Proulx structure her sentences to convey how they might feel at the time. Go back and read that sentence we cited in paragraph 47 and see how it ends. You'll get what we mean.
On the other hand—or perhaps because of the rambling style—Proulx tends to get right to the point without a whole lot of embellishment. She doesn't use a lot of descriptions and skips through anything she doesn't feel is absolutely necessary, say, for instance when Jack dies and she tells us with a simple "Ennis didn't know about the accident for months" (123). That, too, is in keeping with the characterization in the story, since both Ennis and Jack are men of two worlds.
It's where Jack and Ennis meet, the "summer range" (4) for a herd of sheep that they spend several months in 1963 tending. It's basically just the two of them all summer, and the love that dare not speak its name comes into full bloom under Brokeback's lofty peaks.
In that sense, Brokeback is the most obvious symbol is of their love together: an idealized space full of campfire food, beautiful landscapes and steamy nights in the tent. Both men use "Brokeback" as a shorthand to describe the intensity of their feelings, and Ennis even says "Old Brokeback got us good and it sure ain't over" (67). You could just as easily sub in "love" for "Brokeback" and the sentence would make perfect sense.
And it's a telling phrase there: "got us." They can't stop—they're too much in love—and yet what happened in Brokeback was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. They're stuck in that memory because they can't have a life together and they can't express themselves publicly. All they can do is sneak off on the occasional fishing trip (that involves things other than fishing).
To quote Jack, "We could a had a good life together, a fuckin real good life. You wouldn't do it, Ennis, so what we got now is Brokeback Mountain." (120) So Brokeback doesn't only represent their love, but the way they can't resurrect it because it's something that's in the rearview mirror permanently. They will only ever have that memory. It's a tough break—one might even say a backbreaking break (see what we did there?)—and one suspects that that's the whole point.
When you're writing a story about a gay couple who can't express their love for each other, anything in the closet takes on a special significance. And that's just where we find Jack's two bloody shirts: in a hidden section of the closet. As symbolism goes, it's a trifle on the nose.
There's actually two shirts: one of Jack's with blood on it, and one of Ennis's that he thought he'd lost (of course, Jack had just stolen it as a memento). Jack put "the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one" (146). Pardon us while we reach for the tissues.
Since Jack's dad won't let Ennis have the ashes, these shirts are the only remaining link Ennis has to Brokeback Mountain. In that sense, they become kind of portable versions of Brokeback Mountain and all the forbidden emotions and enduring love that it represents. The shirts are intertwined, like Jack and Ennis. They're bloodied like Jack and Ennis. And they're part of the past, not the present: a past that Ennis can't return to now that Jack is gone.
And poor Ennis can't quit the shirts; "he drove a nail and on the nail he hung the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. He stepped back and looked at the ensemble through a few stinging tears." (156) They'll always remind him of what he had and what he can never have again, a nasty double-edged sword in fitted flannel.
The last section of the story details Ennis's efforts to reclaim Jack's ashes from his parents. Or at least half of them, since the other half is interred with his wife. As Lureen informs Ennis, "He use to say he wanted to be cremated, ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain" (128). Of course Ennis wants to honor that request and heads to Jack's parents for the other ashes.
But he just can't get it done: "In the end the stud duck refused to let Jack's ashes go. 'Tell you what, we got a family plot and he's goin in it'" (147). Ennis can't get him to budge. Oof. If that isn't a symbol for Jack and Ennis's doomed love, we don't know what is.
So what does it mean? Well, we suspect that it's a sign of the futility of their relationship: they have so little control over their life and their love that they can't even get buried the way they want to. It also highlights just how much other people (i.e., society) get to dictate their behavior and actions—even after they're gone. It's a hard-knock life for a gay cowboy, even when that life is over.
Proulx sticks to the basics here. Her author's voice can see all and know all. All the better to let us soar through the Wyoming skies to zero in on whatever she needs us to, right? Most of the time, she sticks with Ennis, who has the advantage of being the only member of the central couple still alive at the end. If this were always true, we'd call this third-person limited.
Occasionally she shifts the view, though, as when Joe Aguirre "watched them through his 10x42 binoculars for ten minutes one day, waiting until they'd buttoned up their jeans," (30) or when Jack "neglected to add that the foreman had leaned back in his squeaky wooden tilt chair, said, Twist, you guys wasn't gettin paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose, and declined to rehire him" (71). These moments deliver key information that Ennis can't possibly be privy to. They move the story forward, without introducing too broad a perspective.
But just as often, she'll deliberately limit her point of view to Ennis, to better stun us with her skillful dramatic effect. For instance, we never see Jack getting killed, only getting his postcard "back stamped DECEASED" (123). It preserves a sense of mystery and lets us connect more deeply with Ennis in the last few paragraphs, as he gets to the bottom of Jack's accident-that-really-wasn't-an-accident-at-all. That's the benefit of an omniscient narrator: it lets you change the rules and direct the reader's inner eye to wherever you darn well please.
Things begin pretty innocuously, with Jack and Ennis both heading up to Brokeback to tend sheep. We get a little on their background, watch them do the cowboy thing up on the trail, and don't suspect that anything notable is about to take place.
And then—boom. The two are engaged in a steamy affair. This causes a number of problems for the story to ponder. Ennis is engaged (to a woman) for starters, and their boss Joe Aguirre watches them through his binoculars for another. Neither of them approves, and though Jack and Ennis continue to get together occasionally over the next twenty years, the fact that they have to keep their love a secret really starts to eat at them after a while.
Finally, they have it out, with Jack playing the idealist with dreams of running away together and Ennis staying quiet with his unpleasant facts about the reality in which they live. It's bitter and angry and no fun, but hey, sometimes that's love. Couples fight, especially when they're backed into a corner, and Jack and Ennis are no different. It's a good thing they get this out to because…
A few months later, Jack has an unfortunate accident. Or alleged accident. We'd call it the climax, except it happens off-screen, and we just hear about it from Ennis's point of view. Ennis now has to face a life free of romantic fishing trips with the man he loves, and grapples with the impact on his emotional state.
The end finds one dead and one wounded as Ennis comes to terms with a Jack-free world. His more cautious nature has allowed him to survive, but it sounds like a rough road ahead, and not even Jack's bloodstained shirt is going to see our lonely cowboy through it. But hey, that's life for our man Ennis, and there's nothing he can do for it.
Proulx uses the wreck of the Thresher to give a historical reference and establish the time. It's clever thinking on her part because it's a notable news item that guys like this might talk about. It also happens in April, just before the summer the pair spend up at Brokeback Mountain.
The Thresher was the first nuclear-powered submarine in the U.S. Navy. It was commissioned in 1961 and spent two years undergoing trials to test all of its new-fangled bells and whistles. One the 10th of April, it began deep diving tests off the coast of Massachusetts, accompanied by a rescue ship in case things went wrong. They did. The rescue ship got some garbled communications suggesting big problems, then nothing. The sub went down and took 129 crewmen with it. Check out the Navy's page on it for more details.
Ennis and Jack weren't exactly Top 40 kinds of guys, but they knew the lyrics to "The Strawberry Roan," a country and western song written for a movie of the same name. The film was released in 1948 and starred legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry. It's about a boy thrown by a horse, the strawberry roan, and left paralyzed. Autry's character trains the horse to be gentle, returns it to the boy, and maybe helps him forget the whole "debilitating injury" thing. Autry also sings the title song, which Ennis apparently knows. It's also about tragedy and learning to bear injuries (physical and otherwise), which Ennis is clearly down with. The song makes a clever way of getting into Ennis's head a little bit without disrupting the distant spirit of the book.