32 pages 1 hour read

Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1997

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Brokeback Mountain”

“Brokeback Mountain,” by award-winning American author Annie Proulx, addresses themes of Masculine Sexuality and the Forbidden Love of Queer Romance, The Inescapable Effects and Momentum of Poverty, and Powerlessness and Loss of Hope. Like much of Proulx’s work, the story includes a strong sense of place. Wyoming’s unforgiving landscape figures prominently in “Brokeback Mountain,” and the film adaptation by the same name received acclaim for its cinematography as well as its unapologetic portrayal of queer love. The story follows a 20-year romance between two Wyoming cowboys and the unscalable barriers to happiness they face due to both poverty and bigotry.

This guide refers to the version published in Proulx’s 1999 story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, which expands slightly on the 1997 story published in The New Yorker.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of child abuse and an anti-gay hate crime.

The story begins with a short prologue in which Ennis del Mar, one of the two main characters, wakes up in his meagerly furnished trailer. It’s early in the morning, and Ennis has to leave soon; the ranch he was working on has been bought out, and he doesn’t have another job lined up. Nevertheless, he’s in a good mood because he was dreaming about Jack Twist.

The main narrative begins in 1963 when Ennis meets Jack, the other main character. Not yet 20 years old, each man is beginning a seasonal job minding sheep on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain; they both grew up in poverty and hope to save some money from this job. Joe Aguirre, the foreman, takes for granted their poverty and hopelessness, privately assessing them as a “[p]air of deuces going nowhere” (257). Aguirre assigns Ennis the role of camp tender; Jack, as the herder, must sleep on the mountain with the sheep. Because sleeping outside established campsites violates Forest Service rules, Aguirre prohibits Jack from building a campfire and instructs him to break camp without a trace every morning.

The men follow these instructions for the first few nights, but before long Jack’s complaints spur Ennis to switch tasks with him. When together for dinner each night, the two share stories about their lives. Ennis’s parents died when he was young, and his older brother and sister couldn’t keep the ranch afloat. Jack’s parents are still alive and scraping out an existence on their own ranch; Jack is interested in performing at rodeos, but his father, who was once a bullrider, has never offered him help in this respect. The men find unprecedented companionship in conversation.

One night, when Ennis is too drunk to ride back out to the sheep, the men share a sleeping bag. In a short time, they have sex. The sex continues all summer but they never talk during or about it, with one exception: “Ennis said, ‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours’” (262). They eventually have sex out in the open during the day, not realizing that Aguirre is watching them through his binoculars.

After the first snow, they bring the sheep down and get paid. They awkwardly say goodbye and drive off, each in his own direction. Though privately distraught, Ennis returns to his fiancée, Alma. They marry and have two daughters, and he works a stream of small, temporary jobs. Four years pass before he gets a letter from Jack, asking to meet up when he passes through town.

When Jack arrives, he and Ennis passionately kiss on the apartment landing. Alma glimpses them through the apartment door but doesn’t mention it. Ennis introduces Alma to Jack, who is now married to a woman named Lureen and has a baby boy. They tell Alma they’re going out to drink but in fact check into a small, dirty motel and have sex. Afterward, they catch each other up on their lives. Ennis wonders if Jack kept out of touch because of the punch Ennis threw on their last day together (later explained as Ennis’s reaction to Jack accidentally kneeing his nose). Jack says he has been busy working at rodeos but plans to leave the business; it’s increasingly hard to find work, especially as Jack’s injuries accumulate.

The men talk briefly about their orientation; Ennis says he’s never been with any other men, and Jack (dishonestly) claims the same. They indirectly profess their love for each other—Ennis mentions how sick he felt after they parted—and discuss what to do. Ennis points out that they’re both married with children and says that the kiss they shared earlier was reckless. Jack mentions that Aguirre refused to hire him after that summer and speculates that he might have seen them together. Nevertheless, he lays out a plan for a life together: Lureen’s father dislikes him and would pay him to leave her, so he proposes buying a ranch together. Ennis stops him and says they’re “stuck” with the lives they have. Besides, he says, “I don’t want a be dead” (270). He tells Jack a story from when he was a young boy: His father took him to see the body of a man who lived with another man. The dead man, Earl, was found in an irrigation ditch, and Ennis describes his beaten corpse in detail to Jack. Ennis concludes that the best they can do is occasionally meet. Jack bristles, noting how many years have passed since their last meeting, and persuades Ennis to call Alma and tell her they’re on a trip for a few days.

Alma and Ennis grow apart after this. Already frustrated with Ennis’s insistence on pursuing ranch work, Alma increasingly resents his “fishing trips” with Jack. She leaves Ennis, marries another man, and eventually confronts Ennis about his relationship with Jack. She says she once tied a note to one of his fishing lines only to find it intact when he returned from his trip; clearly, the line had never been in the water. She also disparagingly alludes to what she saw in that first reunion with Jack. He separates himself completely from Alma and his daughters afterward, believing he’ll reconnect with his children when they are older.

As the men grow older, they meet a few times every year, camping and horse-packing across Wyoming, but they never return to Brokeback Mountain. In May 1983, 20 years after that first summer, they spend a few days in the high country. Before parting, Ennis breaks the news that he can’t meet Jack in August as they had planned, proposing they instead meet in November. Jack is angry, and Ennis explains his work constraints and obligations. He ends his explanation with, “The trade-off was August. You got a better idea?” (277). Jack retorts that he “did once.” When Ennis indirectly alludes to Jack’s relationships with other men, Jack lashes out, saying that they could have had a life together and that he wishes he could leave Ennis for good. They part on an uncertain note.

Ennis discovers a few months later that Jack has died when the postcard he sent him comes back marked “DECEASED.” When he calls Jack’s wife, she says he had an accident on the road, but Ennis suspects Jack was beaten with a tire iron, just like the corpse he’d seen all those years before. He visits Jack’s parents to collect his ashes because Jack wanted them scattered on Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s father refuses to give Ennis the ashes, but Jack’s mother allows him to see Jack’s room. He finds Jack’s shirt from their time on Brokeback Mountain, still stained with Ennis’s blood; Jack used his shirt to staunch the bleeding when he hit Ennis’s nose with his knee. Tucked carefully inside Jack’s shirt is Ennis’s.

Ennis returns home and creates a memorial in his trailer with the shirts and a postcard of Brokeback Mountain. He continues to dream of Jack, sometimes happily and sometimes sorrowfully, and resigns himself to the life he has.