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In the unforgiving austerity of the Wyoming plains, two men, liberated from the confines of society, find love in a time and place where their passion has dire consequences. In the short story “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx, the main character, Ennis Del Mar, is an orphan who left High School to make a living as a ranch hand. He falls in love with Jack Twist, a more sociable and animated man whose “ideas… never come to pass”. The two love each other intensely and always recalled the season they spent together on Brokeback Mountain while working for a cattle rancher. Years later, when Ennis finds out that Jack has died, his heart breaks and he constantly dreams of the days and nights he and Jack were together. While the storyline itself is thought-provoking, the techniques used by Proulx help create a profoundly emotional and poignant story in just a few short pages. Short stories are different than novels and each author has his/her own way to create the most well-rounded story in only a limited amount of pages. Wallace Stegner, author of the novels Angle of Repose and Big Rock Candy Mountain, as well as several collections of short stories, believed that all well written short stories have similar properties. Proulx uses Stegner’s properties, as well as other literary devices including point of view and setting, in “Brokeback Mountain” to convey the main idea of the story that repression leads to emotional desolation.
Annie Proulx wrote “Brokeback Mountain” in the third person limited point of view so that the reader can emotionally connect and empathize with the main characters, Ennis and Jack. All stories have a point of view and it is up to the author to decide which character, if any, is the right person to tell the story. Proulx’s use of third person limited in “Brokeback Mountain” aligns with Stegner’s opinion on perspective, “A good writer is not really a mirror; he is a lens. One mirror is like another, a mechanical reflector, but a lens may [vary]…. Fiction is only as good as its maker. It sees only with the clarity that he is capable of, and it perpetuates his astigmatisms”. Proulx uses Ennis’ perspective as a lens and not a mirror due to the fact that the story is not solely about Ennis’ life, but explores the lives of others, especially Jack. If the point of view were a mirror, there would be no mention of what Jack was doing and would only be a reflection of Ennis’ thoughts. This literary technique also reinforces Proulx’s point that both Jack and Ennis are victims of their own repressed emotions. There are only a few times in the story when the story is not told through Ennis. This occurs when Ennis’ view alone cannot provide the reader with important information about the characters and the point of view changes. When Jack and Ennis first express physical interest in each other, they are nervous and unsure about it because they know that their society would not accept them as lovers. Ennis’ insecurity about his feelings for Jack confuse him and Proulx shifts the point of view to third person omniscient to allow the reader to more fully understand what is happening in the story between Jack and Ennis. The first time the reader sees beyond what Ennis does is when the reader learns that their boss, Joe Aguirre, watches as they have sex, “They (Jack and Ennis) believed themselves invisible, not knowing Joe Aguirre had watched them through his 10×42 binoculars for ten minutes one day” (6). While Jack and Ennis believe themselves to be hidden away in the mountains, beyond anyone’s view, the reader knows this is not true and the seeds of fear that something bad is coming are planted. This is an example of Jack and Ennis’ innocence since they have no control over where they are from, what time period they were born into, and their sexuality. If a few words could summarize these characters’ tragic relationship it would be, “believed themselves invisible”. “Invisible” implies that they wanted to disappear and that is most likely due to society’s pressure to be heterosexual, or at least not homosexual. Invisible is an ironic word to choose when explaining their relationship since by the end of the story, it is implied that Jack’s death was because of his sexuality. Jack and Ennis unconsciously choose to be unaware of their apparent love and desire for one another. Since the story is limited to Ennis’ feelings, the reader has a better understanding that he and Jack are in denial concerning their sexuality, “‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours’”(6). They so passionately love each other, but where they thought they were most safe, on Brokeback Mountain, they were actually the most exposed, since Joe watches them. The fact that the story is told in third person omnipresent allows the reader to obtain some of Ennis’ inner most thoughts. However, it is not only the thoughts that the reader understands, it is also his emotions. While this is an example of how Proulx’s technique on using point of view to align with Stegner’s idea of a short story, it also contributes to the main idea of the passage. The time they spent together on Brokeback Mountain had to end, but Ennis could not have anticipated the sorrow and pain he experiences as the two men part ways. “ Within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out… He stopped at the side of the road and, in the whirling new snow, tried to puke but nothing came up. He felt about as bad as he ever had and it took a long time for the feeling to wear off” (8). While his grief appears only to be physical, it is also emotional. If the story were told from another point of view, it would only be suggested that Ennis is suffering; the depth of his pain would not be as well communicated. The reader would not have known that the relationship was not entirely sexual if it simply reflected the men’s life like a mirror. When Proulx writes, “He felt about as bad as he ever had”, the reader is not only seeing his pain, but also feeling it. Ennis is a strong character and the typical American’s idea on what a cowboy is. He has been beaten up, starved, and greets death as if it were a friend, but the fact that he falls apart as he watches his partner leave is both heartbreaking and revealing of his true character. Empathizing with Ennis and understanding how helpless he is against his desire was one of Proulx’s goals. In Stegner’s opinion, “a lens may vary” and in “Brokeback Mountain” the reader understands and witnesses who Ennis genuinely is through this lens. The reader discovers that Ennis is not only repressed by society, but he also rejects his own desires by isolating himself from the only person that truly matters to him: Jack.
Setting is used to describe the physicality of a scene. “Brokeback Mountain” takes place in Wyoming where the vastness of the landscape creates distance between people physically, but not socially. Setting can also be the time period and since Proulx wrote this story over the course of twenty years, the reader has a better understanding of the emotional pain Ennis has been through. Proulx could have easily written a shorter, more compact story about Jack and Ennis’ relationship during their time together as sheep herders, but instead she decided to use a more complex method. The physical setting of Wyoming and how it transforms from flat plains to elevated mountains and cliffs represents Jack and Ennis’ secret relationship and life. This symbol is never clearly stated nor discussed, but this supports the theory that Proulx’s short story follows Stegner’s idea on what makes a short story truly great. Stegner claims, “I wanted the fictions to be recognizable and true to the ordinary perception… and I thought I could best achieve that aim with a method that was direct and undistorted”. In other words, Stegner does not enjoy the overuse of literary devices since they tend to cloud and obstruct the reader’s lens. However, since the story does not rely upon the symbol and because it is one of the only symbols Proulx uses, Stegner’s theory aligns with “Brokeback Mountain”. When Jack reminisces his time spent on Brokeback, he believes that those days were the most perfect days of his life. After Jack tried to convince Ennis to runaway to with him, he thinks to himself, “What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger” (20). Both Jack and Ennis were free from expectations in the mountains and could could satisfy their “sexless hunger”. However, later in the story, when Ennis marries a woman named Alma, their sex is quite different than on Brokeback Mountain, “Slipping his (Ennis’s) hand up her (Alma’s) blouse sleeve and stirring the silky armpit hair, then easing her down, fingers moving up her ribs to the jelly breast, over the round belly and knee … and he rolled her over, did quickly what she hated” (8). Just like Ennis’ life, his sex is unemotional and lifeless. The physical setting of these scenes are reflective of Ennis’ life and how the flatlands of Wyoming are greatly different than the towering mountains in where he feels truly liberated with both Jack and himself. Temporal setting is another critical aspect of a story and can change the quality of literature significantly. Stegner claims, “Neither [fiction nor autobiography] should be wrapped in any straitjacket of method… The art of fiction, in which I include autobiography, involves putting that question within a plausible context of order”. “Brokeback Mountain” takes place over the course of twenty years which emphasizes the strength of Jack and Ennis’ relationship. Proulx could have easily written a twenty page story that takes place over several months; however, the length of the story both agrees with Stegner’s idea on what well written fiction is and also the overall theme of “Brokeback Mountain”. The story ends tragically as Ennis questions his choices and wonders why he did not submit to his desire to escape with Jack. Instead, Ennis lives an unfulfilling life because he is not true to his sexuality. In the final line of the story, he reflects upon his life, “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” (26). Ennis marries a woman he does not love, has daughters when he wanted boys, and most importantly, does not get to spend the rest of his life with Jack. “If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it”, Ennis cannot do anything about his mistakes and must live with them. The reader is left to assume that Ennis never finds a love as strong and passionate as the one he feels for Jack since he is never content without him in his life. Ennis rejects who he, himself, is as a person and as a result is forced to live the rest of his life knowing that he will never find joy.
Sigmund Freud, known as the father of psychoanalysis, once wrote: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”. Throughout “Brokeback Mountain”, Annie Proulx guides the reader through Ennis Del Mar’s thoughts. From sexual desire to simple freedom from the constrained society in which he lives, Ennis experiences emotions that one might not associate with the “American cowboy”. Proulx purposely sets the story in a sparsely populated and unforgiving environment to underscore the solitude both Ennis and Jack feel. The setting also reinforces their inability to hide from their reality and desire, despite their desire to do so. When Ennis discovers that Jack, the only person who truly mattered to him, dies in what the reader may classify as a hate crime, every emotion he denied explodes inside of him. The uncertainty he felt when he first had sex with Jack turns into confusion as he questions why he didn’t agree to run away with Jack to Mexico. The sorrow he felt as he walked away from his friend after their season together on Brokeback Mountain turns into unending heartache. Ennis’ profound sense of loss is caused not just by the loss of his beloved Jack but is multiplied by his realization that he could have perhaps prevented it by choosing a different path. His sorrow causes him to feel as desolate as the vast expanses of the high plains of Wyoming.
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