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 f***in 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.