“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx Essay
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“Brokeback Mountain”Annie Proulx was born on August 22, 1935, in Norwich, Connecticut, into a family of farmers, mill workers, inventors, and artists whose ancestors had lived there for three centuries. Because of her father’s career in textiles, Proulx’s family constantly moved, so she lived in several states, including North Carolina, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Vermont in 1969 and then went on to graduate from Concordia University with a Master’s degree in Art in 1973 (Info Please).
Starting as a Journalist, her first published work of fiction was “The Costums Lounge” and she subsequently published stories in Gray’s Sporting Journal in the late 1970s, eventually publishing her first collection in 1988 and her first novel in 1992.
Proulx has twice won the O. Henry Prize for the year’s best short story (Info Please). In 1998, she won for “Brokeback Mountain,” which had appeared in The New Yorker on October 13, 1997. Proulx won again the following year for “The Mud Below,” which appeared in The New Yorker June 22 and 29, 1999. Both appear in her 1999 collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Proulx emphasizes a heartbreaking tale of two homosexual individuals who struggle to be together, bound by the norms and rules of society.
I found “Brokeback Mountain” to be a very real and compassionate tale of two cowboys who unexpectedly found love in each other. In a most peaceful setting, away from the world, two cowboys embody one of the most disquieting issues affecting our entire culture. The pain experienced by every character is believable as is the anger. Proulx does a great job of letting Ennis’s confusion and his accompanying anger percolate beneath the cloak of social conformity. It is a garment that doesn’t fit, yet he is terrified to remove it. Proulx helps depict the depth of pain experienced when the object of love is socially unacceptable, and the anger one experiences when forced to live dishonestly.
Proulx is the narrator of “Brokeback Mountain”. She tells the story of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist’s summer on Brokeback Mountain, and the many years after that, and the deep love they develop for one another in an intolerant world.
The point of view of the story is third person omniscient. The narration is real in tone and employs description and dialogue to examine the actions, emotions and thoughts of the characters.
Proulx describes a sequence of events from a beginning point in time, when the characters are introduced in the year 1963 in Wyoming, to the end of the story nearly 20 years later. Throughout the story, Ennis and Jack reunite for brief liaisons on camping trips in remote settings over the course of 20 years. Proulx uses setting details to heighten the thematic significance of the story. The most effective use of setting as symbol occurs when she juxtaposes harsh and beautiful images of the landscape’s cruel beauty to suggest the difficult nature of Ennis’s and Jack’s relationship.
The story starts out with Ennis Del Mar getting a job on the mountain as a sheep herder with Jack Twist. Day after day, Ennis tends the camp while Jack herds the sheep and sleeps out on the mountain with them. One day, when Jack complains about his “commutin four hours a day,” he accepts Ennis’s offer to switch jobs. Every evening, they share supper by the campfire, “talking horses and rodeo, rough stock events, wrecks and injuries sustained,” (Proulx 75) and other details of their hard lives in the West. Toward the end of the summer when they shift the camp, the distance Ennis has to ride out to the sheep grows longer and he begins to stay later at the camp at night.
One evening, after the two sing drunken songs by the campfire, Ennis decides it is too late to go out to the sheep and so beds down at the campsite. After his shivering wakes Jack, he insists that Ennis share his bedroll. Soon after, the two have sex, something Ennis had never done before. Their sexual activity becomes more frequent in the following days while they both insist that neither of them is “queer.” One day the foreman, Joe Aguirre, watches them together through his binoculars. At the end of the summer, When Jack asks Ennis if he is coming back to the mountain the next summer, Ennis tells him that he will be getting married in December and then will try to find work on a ranch. Jack determines to go back home and then maybe to Texas, and the two say an awkward goodbye. As Ennis drives away, his gut wrenches and he feels “as bad as he ever had”. Ennis marries Alma and their first child, Alma Jr., is born a year later and after their second child is born, Alma convinces Ennis to get a place in town, so she doesn’t have to deal with anymore “lonesome ranches.” Four summers after their first on Brokeback Mountain, Jack visits Ennis. When Jack first arrives, he and Ennis share a passionate embrace, watched by Alma.
When Jack meets Alma, he announces that he too is married and has a baby boy. After a few awkward moments, Ennis and Jack leave, pick up a bottle of whiskey and head for a motel where they spend the night together. They talk of how they missed each other and Jack suggests that he married his wife, Lureen, because she came from a wealthy family. Ennis admits that he has been thinking about whether he is gay, but insists that he is not because though he does not enjoy sex with women, he has not been with any other man. Jack declares the same. After the two express their passion for each other, Ennis determines that nothing can be done since they both have families and warns Jack that if they are seen together, they may be killed. The only future Ennis can see for the two of them is to get together once in a while, explaining “if you can’t fix it you got to stand it.” After a while, Ennis and Alma begin to grow apart and she starts to resent him for not finding a steady job, and always going with Jack on fishing trips.
Eventually, they divorce and Alma remarries but stays in touch with Ennis and lets him visit their children. During the following years, Ennis and Jack occasionally meet on different ranges throughout the West. One night, they catch each other up on their lives, both admitting affairs with women and problems with their own children. After complaining about the infrequency of their time together, Jack suggests that they move to Mexico, but Ennis declines, insisting that he has to stay and work. Months later, when Ennis receives back a postcard he had sent to Jack marked “DECEASED,” he calls Lureen, who informs him that Jack was killed when a tire blew up in his face.
Ennis suspects, however, that he was murdered after he was caught with another man. He makes a trip to see Jack’s parents and offers to take Jack’s ashes up to Brokeback Mountain, where Jack had told Lureen that he wanted to be buried. During the visit, Ennis goes up to Jack’s room where he finds Jack’s shirt, which is covered in Ennis’s blood. Inside the shirt, he finds one of his own. Ennis then buries his face in Jack’s shirt, hoping to be able to smell his scent, but there is nothing there. Before Ennis leaves, Mr. Twist informs him that Jack’s ashes will be buried in the family plot. Ennis would have dreams of Jack and visions of their time in Brokeback Mountain, which fills him with both sorrow and joy.
The protagonist of the story are Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. Proulx gives a good description of both stating “They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high school drop out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough mannered, rough spoken, inured to the stoic life”(Proulx 74.) The antagonist of the story would be the locals and society for killing Jack because they didn’t find it acceptable for a man to be living with another man. I think both Ennis and Jack changed because they were both very masculine, rough, cowboys who had never been with a man before until they had a sexual encounter with each other and realized they were in love. This change is very believable because there are many people in our society today who are homosexual, marry their partners, and even take pride in being gay.
The story’s use of language is informal. Informal language is characterized by spontaneous speech and situations that describe natural or “real life”. It’s used by family and friends, which proves the story has informal dialogue with casual conversation.
The external conflict of the story is Man versus Society. Jack and Ennis must hide their relationship because of its immoral content. Thus, they live a life hiding from their true feelings. At times they even tried to deny their nature. Because of the threat of being ostracized and possible killed, these men led a life separate from their love for one another. In the end, their prejudice, along with everyone else’s, killed Jack. The internal conflict of the story is Man versus Himself. Proulx sketches a picture of two men who live in a constant struggle with their ideas of morality and presents a devastating study of Jack and Ennis’ subsequent struggle with both their families and their work as they try to come to terms with their sexual relationship. In exploring the intimacies and sexual pleasures emerging from this masculine world, Proulx captures the destruction and isolation, which comes from both men’s disapproval of their homosexual tendencies.
Proulx identifies this conflict when she writes, “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” (Proulx 79). Throughout the story the reader sees Jack and Ennis deal with the fact that they do not approve of their own feelings. The moral norm in the American West was that homosexuals are perverts. Ennis lives his adult life plagued by the remembrance of a man who was brutally killed because people thought him to be a homosexual. In essence these two live a life that could have been a lot happier if there weren’t prejudices that prevented them from being together. What I find most interesting is that it wasn’t other people’s prejudices that kept them apart; these men are kept apart by their own morals. They truly believed that their homosexuality was immoral.
The climax of the story is when Ennis sends Jack a postcard about getting together in November and it got sent back to him stamped “DECEASED”. After Ennis visits Jack’s parents and they tell him of Jack trying to fix up a ranch for him and another man, Ennis realizes that it wasn’t the tire that blew out that killed him. The locals murdered him for being homosexual and there was no resolution. As Ennis said, “If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it”.
I found that Proulx used the descriptive settings as a symbol. The most effective use of setting as symbol occurs when she describes harsh and beautiful images of the landscape’s cruel beauty to suggest the difficult nature of Ennis’s and Jack’s relationship. For example, she describes the “sweetened” cold air of the mountain on their first morning with the phallic “rearing lodge pole pines massed in slabs of somber malachite”(Proulx 74). When Ennis and Jack begin their sexual relationship, Proulx captures its harsh and exhilarating duality when she describes Jack and Ennis as “flying in the euphoric, bitter air” (Proulx 76) on the mountain.
The title of the story is “Brokeback Mountain”. The title is the name of the mountain where Ennis and Jack worked together when they first met. “Brokeback Mountain” represents all the memories the two cowboys had together and where their intimacy and love for each other deepened.
I believe the story only had one significant meaning which was that although love is prescriptively understood by people as a feeling between a man and a woman, as the evolution of human beings continues, love should be looked in another way. Any two people, no matter what gender or race, can find love.
Shame is a major theme in the story. Ennis’s internalization of the belief that homosexuality is indecent and punishable by death, causes him to be ashamed about the intensity of his feelings for Jack. At the beginning of their relationship on the mountain, he insists that he is not “queer,” that their feelings for each other are not indicative of his sexual orientation.
His shame, coupled with his need to maintain his marriage in the face of public scrutiny, causes him to lie continually to Alma about his feelings for Jack, insisting that when she catches the two in a heated embrace, their actions are a result of their not having seen each other for years. His internalized homophobia makes him unable to accept himself or act congruently. Ennis needs to maintain the illusion of a conventional life, even if that life denies him the one person he desires most.
The plot of this short story mirrors many experiences that gays have had to deal with in today’s society, such as banding gay marriages or homosexual hate crimes. There have been many incidents where homosexuals have been threatened, abused, and even killed because people don’t agree with their lifestyles.
Although I was very skeptical about reading this story at first, I found it to be very eye opening and real. Proulx does a wonderful job of telling a tale of two men who develop a deep love for each other but who are forced to live separate lives in an intolerant world. I think the story will help people empathize diversity in each other and become more tolerant.
“Annie Proulx Biography.” Info Please. 2007. Information Please Database. 13 Oct. 2008 .
Proulx, Annie. “Brokeback Mountain.” The New Yorker 13 Oct. 1997: 74-85.