Study Guide

Brokeback Mountain Themes

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    "Brokeback Mountain" is not a bedtime story for the kiddos. Why? Because sex and sexuality are front and center. Ennis and Jack, who would never in a million years describe themselves as gay (in fact, the word "gay" is never uttered in the story), find themselves embroiled in a sexual affair that spans decades and changes their lives forever. No matter how much they try to stay apart, they always come back to each other, which leaves them grappling with the reality of their sexual orientation, and how it just won't fit in the world they live in.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Why doesn't Ennis develop relationships with other men? Would it make a difference in the story if he did? What about Jack? Why does he, presumably, pursue other men? 
    2. How might Alma have reacted differently to her husband's affair if it had been a woman? Or would she have acted differently at all?
    3. Why don't these two men ever identify as gay? Would you describe them as gay? Why or why not?
    4. What's the relationship between sex and love in this story?

    Chew on This

    Ennis is ambivalent about his sexuality only because he knows it will cause him so much trouble.

    Ennis's ambivalence comes because he loves Alma and his daughters as much as he loves Jack.

  • Repression

    When you're gay in Wyoming in the 1960s and 70s, repression is something we imagined you'd have to get used to. In a lot of ways, "Brokeback Mountain" is about the cost of that repression: how it can twist your guts into funny animal shapes, how it can turn a rich fulfilling sex life into a life-threatening secret, and how even the most innocuous comment becomes hateful and sinister under its weight.

    Questions About Repression

    1. How much of a role does repression play in keeping Ennis safe? What kind of impact does it have on him? Is there a cost to remaining safe from society's censure?
    2. Is Jack freer than Ennis because he's less repressed? Is he in fact less repressed? Why or why not?
    3. Is society actively trying to repress Ennis and Jack and their feelings for each other? Or is it just a passive fact of life? In other words, who's the antagonist here?

    Chew on This

    Bottom line? Repression is the only thing that keeps Ennis alive.

    If they had chosen to buck society's rules and be together, Ennis would have love, and Jack never would have died.

  • Memory and the Past

    We spend a lot of time Ennis and Jack. Sure, "Brokeback Mountain" is only a few pages long, but it spans more then twenty years in these men's lives, so you can bet that they get to a fair amount of reminiscing and, yes, regretting. In fact, at the end of the day, their relationship is carried on through one single memory of the time they spent together on Brokeback. That's when they had it good, and they'll never have it that way again. In a way, all they have are their memories.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What does Jack mean when he tells Ennis, "What we got now is Brokeback. Everthing is built on that."? 
    2. How does Jack's father use his own memories against Ennis at the end? 
    3. In what ways do Jack and Ennis try to outrun their memories? In what ways do they try to recreate them?

    Chew on This

    Ennis's memories are ultimately a source of comfort and support for him.

    Ennis's memories haunt him worse than any other punishment.

  • Choices

    In "Brokeback Mountain," Ennis and Jack do have a choice. They can choose to be together, or they can remain apart. Other than that, they don't have many choices at all. And of course, the factors that determine the consequences of that one choice they have are entirely beyond their control. 1960s rural Wyoming is not exactly a place brimming with opportunity, and that lack of choice might explain why they're so reluctant to pull the trigger on their love.

    Questions About Choices

    1. How much of Jack and Ennis's love is dictated by choices and how much is out of their hands?
    2. Do the two have any real choices when it comes to being together? Could they have found another path that might have made them happier?
    3. How do the choices of supporting characters affect Jack and Ennis?
    4. How do Jack and Ennis's choices differentiate them from each other?

    Chew on This

    Jack and Ennis have real choices in their life; they simply make the wrong ones.

    Jack and Ennis have no choices and struggle futilely against their lack of options.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Ennis and Jack are cowboys in the classic sense: they're lean, tall, and not inclined to say a whole lot. But "Brokeback Mountain" throws a big wrench in that stereotype in that neither one sweeps a local cowgirl off her feet—they sweep each other off their feet, completely. What's key to understand, though, is that their sexual identities don't compromise their manly-man tendencies—they're still a ranch hand and a rodeo rider through and through. Rather their sexuality complicates their manliness, helping to poke a hole in the cowboy stereotype we've all come to know.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    • How much does Jack and Ennis's masculinity hide their sexuality and how much does it draw attention to their sexuality?
    • What does the characters' assertion of their masculinity say about the world they live in and the dangers they face?
    • Is Ennis's silence indicative of his masculinity in the story? Why or why not?
    • How do both men's fathers impart masculinity to their sons? Why does it leave them so scarred?

    Chew on This

    Ennis's masculinity demands his silence, which is why he can't express himself the way he should.

    Ennis's silence is just who he is; masculinity doesn't enter into it.