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.