Study Guide

Brokeback Mountain Quotes

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream. (1)

    Proulx gets right to the point here, doesn't she? It's obvious from the beginning that Ennis and Jack have a thing going on, what with the mention of pleasure and dreams; now it's just a question of filling in the details as the story goes on.

    "Jesus Christ, quit hammerin and get over here. Bedroll's big enough," said Jack in an irritable sleep-clogged voice. It was big enough, warm enough, and in a little while they deepened their intimacy considerably. (28)

    There's a casualness to the invitation that suggests it's really no big deal here. We're out in the wilderness, it's cold, sure let's huddle together for warmth. But it also suggests that they're both pretty comfortable with each other at this point. But that doesn't lessen the shock when "comfortable" turns to "intimate."

    Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. (28)

    There are early signs of the characters' relative reaction to their sexuality here: Ennis is fighting, Jack is plowing forward. That's pretty much the way it goes for the entire story, as Ennis always tries to keep it quiet and Jack seethes under the restraint. You might argue that Jack's more comfortable with his sexuality than Ennis is, or you might argue that Ennis is just more realistic. Either way, it's clear that they're not quite on the same page.

    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. (50)

    Clearly, their bodies know something that their minds don't, as the intensity of their physical chemistry just overwhelms them. But it's also clear here that these two are a match made in heaven, what with that simile suggesting they fit together like a lock and a key.

    "We got to talk about this. Swear to god I didn't know we was goin a get into this again—yeah, I did. Why I'm here. I fuckin knew it. Redlined all the way, couldn't get here fast enough." (59)

    At least this meeting lets them realize their feelings for each other haven't diminished. After all, if you redline all the way to a romantic rendezvous, we'd say your feelings are pretty clear. But still, check out Jack's attempt at denial here.

    "I like doin it with women, yeah, but Jesus H., ain't nothin like this. I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy except I sure wrang it out a hunderd times thinkin about you." (66)

    If we're to believe Ennis here, he's not gay… except for when it comes to Jack. That may very well be an accurate way to describe himself. But it also may very well be a denial-instinct that society has inflicted upon him.

    "[…] you guys wasn't gettin paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose." (71)

    Interesting turn of a phrase from Joe, right? He's suggestive without being explicit. He also doesn't seem surprised, so we might guess that Joe has seen this kind of thing before from other people.

    "There was these two old guys ranched together down home, Earl and Rich—Dad would pass a remark when he seen them. They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds." (74)

    The story of Earl and Rich tells Jack and Ennis that their love isn't entirely unprecedented. While that might seem like heartening knowledge that would give them hope that their relationship can work, the way society treated Earl and Rich also serves as a warning.

    No doubt about it, she was polite but the little voice was cold as snow. (133)

    Lureen knows, like a lot of people. And since she's never met Ennis, it implies that Jack's been stemming the rose with more than just Ennis over the years. That's a clever way of giving us that fact without coming right out and saying it, and that suggestive, unclear language is a hallmark of Jack and Ennis's relationship, which can never be explicit and out in the open.

    And he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets. (158)

    The parallel structure of the second half of this sentence reminds us that their sexual relationship is, at the end of the day, also a deep indicator of their love for each other. This isn't just some affair. This is true, messy, and doomed love.

  • Repression

    Jack said his father had been a pretty well-known bullrider years back but kept his secrets to himself, never gave Jack a word of advice, never came once to see Jack ride, though he had put him on the woolies when he was a little kid. (23)

    Ah, daddy issues. They usually explain everything. And if not everything, at least something. In this case, Jack's dad taught him the magic of shame and then basically dumped him on the side of the road to fend for himself. That may explain why Jack's kind of eager for attention, recklessly so as some points.

    They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack's choked 'gun's goin' off,' then out, down, and asleep. (28)

    Yeah, this might have been a moment for these two to, you know, talk about their feelings? But nope, they just keep mum and go to sleep. We can't help but wonder if things might have turned out a bit differently if they hadn't waited 20 years to have The Talk.

    They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, "I'm not no queer," and Jack jumped in with "Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody's business but ours." (30)

    They swear up and down to each other that they're not gay, even after they've had sex with each other. Sure, they might not identify as such in 1963 Wyoming, but all evidence would seem to point to the contrary. We think their denial and repression of their sexual identities stems from fear.

    She had seen what she had seen. Behind her in the room lightning lit the window like a white sheet waving and the baby cried. (50)

    It's the silence here that gets the repression across. here Nobody's saying anything; they're just taking in the lover's embrace. Proulx then adds a crying baby—the most unsettling and off-putting sound we'll ever hear by design—to emphasize how not-okay the silence is.

    "Ennis—" said Alma in her misery voice, but that didn't slow him down on the stairs and he called back, "Alma, you want smokes there's some in the pocket a my blue shirt in the bedroom." (57)

    These two sure know how not to have a conversation. Ennis knows exactly what happened (that Alma saw), but he's going to pretend he doesn't and hope that it will go away.

    "But if you can't fix it you got a stand it," he said. (78)

    This is Ennis's life creed, and while it sounds poetic, it comes with a cost. He stands it, sure, but he also ends up cutting himself off from everyone he cares about.

    A slow corrosion worked between Ennis and Alma, no real trouble, just widening water. (81)

    The effects of repression are subtle here. There's not a lot of fights or screaming (well, okay, there's one, but it hasn't happened yet). It's just gradually eating away at them. And what do you know? They aren't talking about it.

    "Count the damn few times we been together in twenty years. Measure the fuckin short leash you keep me on, then ask me about Mexico and then tell me you'll kill me for needin it and not hardly never gettin it." (117)

    This is Jack's moment of truth, where he tells us how much he's had to button it in and how much it's killing him. We don't hear anything similar from Ennis; does that mean that Ennis isn't feeling it as acutely?

    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)

    Check out this imagery. All of that pent-up emotion suddenly released is described as a geological force of nature. Notice, too, that Proulx is using a piece of Wyoming landscape—thermal springs—to make the comparison. Here, her tendency to describe the emotional landscape through the imagery of the physical one is particularly potent since it's touching on the issue of The Great Unsaid.

    Jack's mother, stout and careful in her movements as though recovering from an operation, said, "Want some coffee, don't you? Piece a cherry cake?" (135)

    Can you say "enabler?" Jack's Mom seems to want everything to be clean and happy, even though the conversation is tenser than your average ceasefire negotiation. Repression appears to run in the family.

  • Memory and the Past

    The fourth summer since Brokeback Mountain came on and in June Ennis had a general delivery letter from Jack Twist, the first sign of life in all that time. (43)

    Could Proulx be suggesting that Ennis's memories were hidden form him and only reawakened with the postcard? Or is it just that we don't have a lot of access to Ennis's thoughts?

    Ennis put his arm around Jack, pulled him close, said he saw his girls about once a month, Alma Jr. a shy seventeen-year-old with his beanpole length, Francine a little live wire. (104)

    Proulx is showing us memories—and more importantly regrets—before Jack dies, which remind us of what's at stake for their relationship. He can't be with Jack because of society and his family, but he also pushes them away out of his feelings for Jack.

    "I didn't want none a either kind," said Jack. "But fuck-all has worked the way I wanted. Nothin never come to my hand the right way." (106)

    Bitter, bitter regret bubbles up here. Jack ain't happy with his lot and he kind of blames Ennis for it. It's uncertain how living an ostracized life as a barely closeted gay couple would be happier, but at least it would be a life he wanted.

    "What we got now is Brokeback Mountain. Everthing built on that. It's all we got, boy, fuckin all, so I hope you know that if you don't never know the rest." (117)

    Brokeback has a way of reaching out from the past and shaking the pair up: it reminds them of what they had and (more importantly) the fact that they can never have it again, which is the central tragedy of the story.

    What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger. (120)

    Here's the link between Brokeback and the pair's emotional state, and the way they associate the one with the other. It's a powerful memory. It's also very Romantic in the big "R" sense, as Jack filters memories of his love through the physical location of Brokeback.

    "He had some half-baked idea the two a you was goin a move up here, build a log cabin and help me run this ranch and bring it up." (142)

    Jack's Dad is using a memory of something Jack said to twist the knife into Ennis. Memory is a very painful thing in this story, whether Ennis is remembering something himself or having some insensitive jerk do the remembering for him.

    The window looked down on the gravel road stretching south and it occurred to him that for his growing-up years that was the only road Jack knew. (144)

    The road suggests a lot about Jack's childhood in a very short amount of time. The road leads away… away from his lonely house, his not-so-nice father, and the general "I'm stuck in rural Wyoming"-ness of his life. Ennis looks at it and sees where Jack's yearning comes from: that need to escape everyone else and be his own man.

    The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain when Jack, in their contortionistic grappling and wrestling, had slammed Ennis's nose hard with his knee. (145)

    The blood triggers the memory and what a memory it is. Love? Pain? Both at once? It's a rich cocktail of feelings both wonderful and not-so-wonderful. It makes for a heck of a souvenir… assuming Ennis can handle the occasional grief-filled dream.

    He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands. (146)

    Can you say symbol? From here on out, this shirt is how Ennis will keep the feeling of Brokeback alive, with Jack gone. It ain't much, but at least it's something.

    When it came—thirty cents—he pinned it up in his trailer, brass-headed tack in each corner. Below it 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)

    Again, Proulx doesn't have to do much to show us how strong the memories can be. One little "stinging tears" and suddenly we're right there with Ennis, weeping over his lost love.

  • Choices

    He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work. (3)

    Early on, Proulx suggests that the big bad world doesn't exactly blaze a path to success for Ennis and Jack. From the get-go, they've got a hard-knock life to live, without a lot of opportunities to better their chances.

    They believed themselves invisible, not knowing Joe Aguirre had watched them through his 10x42 binoculars for ten minutes one day. (30)

    It's hard to make an informed choice when you don't have all the details: in this case, knowledge that your creepy boss is spying on you.

    "You and me can't hardly be decent together if what happened back there"—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment—"grabs on us like that. We do that in the wrong place we'll be dead. There's no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me." (70)

    And there it is. Ennis makes his choices out of fear rather than love, which keeps he and Jack apart, but also might save his life. It's a tough pickle, especially if he's motivated by a terror of getting killed.

    Her resentment opened out a little every year: the embrace she had glimpsed, Ennis's fishing trips once or twice a year with Jack Twist and never a vacation with her and the girls, his disinclination to step out and have any fun, his yearning for low paid, long-houred ranch work, his propensity to roll to the wall and sleep as soon as he hit the bed, his failure to look for a decent permanent job with the county or the power company, put her in a long, slow dive. (82)

    Ennis's choices have consequences, even if may not realize he's making a choice in the first place. One of the great tragedies of this story is how Ennis's inability to commit to Jack wreaks havoc on the lives of others.

    "Let me tell you, I can't quit this one. And I can't get the time off. It was tough gettin this time—some a them late heifers is still calvin." (111)

    Ennis is referring to a specific series of choices here—jobs that he can't leave in order to spend time with Jack—that ultimately define his life. He never advances much above the ranch-hand level, though we're never sure if it's because of Jack or because he's just like that.

    "Try this one," said Jack, "and I'll say it just one time. Tell you what, we could a had a good life together, a fuckin real good life. You wouldn't do it, Ennis." (117)

    Jack's blaming Ennis here, even though his scenario is sounds like a bit of a pipe dream to Shmoop. It suggests a lack of options in his life; there are things he'd like to do but can't. Blaming Ennis may be easier than admitting he could never have that ranch no matter what he did.

    "I wish I knew how to quit you." (117)

    It's maybe the most famous line in the whole story and it points profoundly to an inability to make a choice. He can't quit even if he might like to. Tough break, Jack.

    He called Jack's number in Childress, something he had done only once before when Alma divorced him. (123)

    This speaks to the importance of Ennis's reaching out. He doesn't do it often, which means that the times he does are really, really important.

    We put a stone up. He use to say he wanted to be cremated, ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain. I didn't know where that was. So he was cremated, like he wanted, and like I say, half his ashes was interred here, and the rest I sent up to his folks. (128)

    Here we have a choice, or a stated choice, being totally ignored. Jack clearly states what he wants for his ashes, and only Ennis seems interested in fulfilling his wishes. That makes him about as powerless as they come.

    There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it. (159)

    Proulx closes with a reminder that Ennis can't change anything: that his choices are now all used up. Only thing he can do now is cowboy up (literally) and hope for the occasional happy dream.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. (3)

    Welp, there you have it, folks. This is who men are expected to be in this world, and this is who our two protagonists are. Or at least, so we think.

    Ennis, high-arched nose and narrow face, was scruffy and a little cave-chested, balanced a small torso on long, caliper legs, possessed a muscular and supple body made for the horse and for fighting. (8)

    The physical description conveys a great deal of the character's masculinity, letting us see it, instead of just being told about it. It also hints at what might later make this character so resistant to entering into a full-blown relationship with Jack.

    "Shot a coyote just first light," he told Jack the next evening, sloshing his face with hot water, lathering up soap and hoping his razor had some cut left in it. (20)

    Ennis is shaving here, an act traditionally associated with the guys. Also, he killed a wild animal, something also connected to manly men. And his sense of self seems to be tied up in that assurance of masculinity, which might be why he's asserting it here.

    They shook hands, hit each other on the shoulder, then there was forty feet of distance between them and nothing to do but drive away in opposite directions. (38)

    Part of the casualness of this good-bye is because they're back in civilization, but part of it is also that guys aren't supposed to show their emotions, or at least, so goes the stereotype. It's only afterwards that Ennis actually feels what he's feeling. That's pretty messed up.

    "Got some crushed vertebrates. And a stress fracture, the arm bone here, you know how bullridin you're always leverin it off your thigh?" (65)

    There's nothing manlier than injuries… especially those sustained by riding 600 pounds of angry pot roast.

    "Nothin like hurtin somebody to make him hear good." (72)

    And again with the hurting. Manhood is associated with pain in Jack and Ennis's world. What does that say about Ennis's behavior regarding his affair with Jack?

    "They were no longer young men with all of it before them. Jack had filled out through the shoulders and hams, Ennis stayed as lean as a clothes-pole, stepped around in worn boots, jeans and shirts summer and winter, added a canvas coat in cold weather." (94)

    Proulx comes back to the physical descriptions to show us how his heroes are aging… and how they stay masculine at the same time. It's less visceral than her initial descriptions, but still lets us sense who they are as men.

    The old man sat silent, his hands folded on the plastic tablecloth, staring at Ennis with an angry, knowing expression. Ennis recognized in him a not uncommon type with the hard need to be the stud duck in the pond. (137)

    The dark side of masculinity pops up with Jack's dad. He's gotta be top dog and pushes Ennis to get what he wants despite Jack's wishes being clear. Funny how that kind of attitude always comes with a side order of anger.

    Jack was dick-clipped and the old man was not; it bothered the son who had discovered the anatomical disconformity during a hard scene. (143)

    Well that about says it all, doesn't it? Suffice it to say that dealing with the shape of your penis when you have a dad like Jack's is not apt to heighten your self-esteem.

    In the end the stud duck refused to let Jack's ashes go. (147)

    Proulx refers to Jack's dad as "the stud duck" to remind us what kind of attitude he has and why that attitude stinks. He wants to be in control, so he refuses to let Jack's ashes go, even though it's what his son would have wanted.