Study Guide

Brokeback Mountain Memory and the Past

By Annie Proulx

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 f***-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, f***in 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.