A fair bit of ink has been spilled about the contrast between the story and the film called “Brokeback Mountain.” Of this, a lot of it is because of the reception of the film as compared to the reception of the story, which I think makes us realize something about the story itself. The story is, I believe, fundamentally about how society, through the two pressures of economic necessity and social exclusion, punishes people for being different. And it highlights some of the ways that behavior that breaks the rules of society is “fixed.” One of these ways is through using the “wrong”ness to reinforce the values of the society, and I think the reaction to the film Brokeback Mountain is an example of this. The incredible popularity of the film is in large part a way of straight women making a story about two gay, marginalized men into an affirmation of their straightness (Brown). That is the theme I want to develop in this short paper.
Jack Twist, as a character, shows Ennis what satisfaction with life looks like. What I mean by this isn’t that Ennis wants Jack’s life for himself, exactly, but rather that it’s through Jack that Ennis gets an idea of what sort of life he could be happy with (i.e. a life with Jack) and by Jack’s example that he is shown how such a life could be achieved, though he doesn’t recognize it at the time. Jack is the one eager to embrace a life with Ennis, and it is Ennis who balks because he finds Jack unrealistic (Brown). Jack refuses to accept the role assigned to him by society, and it seems at times that if only Ennis would go along with Jack, they could find lasting happiness. When Ennis protests that he has but one option in his life, Jack reminds him that this was not always true: “‘Jack, I got a work… You got a better idea?’ ‘I did once.’ The tone was bitter and accusatory” (Proulx).
Ennis del Mar, by contrast, resigns himself to their separation. He sees himself as a realist and Jack as a fantasist. His perspective is best summarized by his own words: “if you can’t fix it you got a stand it” (Proulx). He accepts seemingly without thinking that he and Jack “can’t fix it” by finding a place where they can be together. He struggles to maintain a life of normalcy, but ultimately fails and accepts that Jack — for all of his impracticality — was correct. This realization comes only after Jack’s death; but with this realization comes at least a partial reclamation of the fulfillment and liberation that he found with Jack.
In this story, Wyoming serves as a site suspended in time. It doesn’t have a personality of its own, it seems. Instead, it is a blank canvas that takes on the character of its inhabitants. For Proulx, this character is a bleak and dusty sort of conservatism. The endless plains of Wyoming are a place of confinement, convention, and misery for Jack and for Ennis (Tuss 245). It is not coincidental that Ennis and Jack are happiest on the mountain, rising above the endless plains of Wyoming. Nor is it a coincidence that Jack’s wishes to have his ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain are frustrated, just like his other plans, by his being confined to the plains and kept from the mountains.
Within this glum environment, the early self-discovery of the characters is one that is facilitated by their poverty. Their poverty literally (geographically) and figuratively pushes them outside the boundaries of their society. It is because of their joblessness and their need for any work at all that the two meet, and are forced into such closeness, and ultimately have the opportunity to embrace this closeness. This extends beyond just working together: “Ennis is presented with what ultimately becomes a choice between either facing harsh (and potentially debilitating) natural conditions or putting himself in a position that could lead to a homosexual encounter” (Barounis 64). It seems that the entire world, at times, and all of its capitalist pressures and ugly necessities are conspiring together to force Jack and Ennis to love one another, only to tear them apart.
It is only outside the conservative city (and the pressures of class and normalcy that it carries with it) and above the oppressive emptiness of the plains that Jack and Ennis are free to explore their desires and their love for each other. This is because their poverty, for all that it first liberated them by removing them from “respectable” society, also constrains them. It traps Ennis in Wyoming, and prevents him from leaving his job to be with Jack. It forces Jack and Ennis to act out roles they despise. Ennis says to Jack, “you got a wife with money, a good job. You forget how it is bein broke all the time,” but Jack doesn’t really forget (Proulx). He knows, just as well as Ennis does, how inescapable the requirements of society are. He simply hopes that Ennis and he together can find a way to meet those requirements without leaving each other; a hope that is ultimately unfulfilled.
Ultimately, the self-discovery of Ennis and Jack is co-opted by society; that is, it is transformed from something that could liberate them to something that hurts them. Society judges the way in which they have found happiness, finds it non-standard, and rejects it. Ennis and Jack both have to form lives apart from each other, and the tension this creates tears them both in two. Society uses their transgression to enforce normalcy; it uses progress to reinforce the status quo. Jack’s murder and the murder of the gay rancher are examples of this: the rule-breaking of those two figures is used to reinforce the pressures that prevent other people from emulating them (and, indeed, that prevented Ennis from starting a ranch with Jack). Similarly, Proulx’s work itself, a transgressive piece, is co-opted by society (Nayar), first by being made into a major film, then by being repurposed as a vehicle for straight women to seek easy answers and emotional fulfillment. Proulx says that she regrets writing “Brokeback Mountain” because its meaning is lost (or, rather, deliberately ignored) by its audience (Brown). Instead of seeing it as a story about the homophobic pressures of society and the ways in which that harms those who are invisible, they see it as a story about just those two characters, and are angered by the lack of a happy ending they feel that those characters ought to have.
Ultimately, I think that the most powerful message of “Brokeback Mountain” is not one that is properly heard (or, rather, is one that is drowned out by those who mishear it), and that this actually underscores that message. “Brokeback Mountain” shows us that society takes the strange, the abnormal, the “queer,” and uses that queerness to further reinforce its own backwardness. Similarly, the film Brokeback Mountain, and society’s response to it, shows us an example of “respectable” society becoming uncomfortable in the face of transgression that highlights its problems, and demanding an easier, safer text.
- Barounis, Cynthia. “Cripping Heterosexuality, Queering Able-Bodiedness: Murderball, Brokeback Mountain and the Contested Masculine Body.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, vcu.sagepub.com, Apr. 2009, pp. 54–75.
- Brown, Kat. “Annie Proulx: ‘I Wish I’d Never Written Brokeback Mountain’.” The Daily Telegraph, 30 Dec. 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/11317434/Annie-Proulx-I-wish-Id-never-written-Brokeback-Mountain.html.
- Nayar, Sheila J. “A Good Man Is Impossible to Find: Brokeback Mountain as Heteronormative Tragedy.” Sexualities, vol. 14, no. 2, Apr. 2011, pp. 235–255.
- Proulx, Annie. Brokeback Mountain. 1997, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/10/13/brokeback-mountain.
- Tuss, Alex J. “Brokeback Mountain and the Geography of Desire.” The Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, men.sagepub.com, Mar. 2007, pp. 243–246.