Ennis is a man of few words, whose actions often speak for him. When Ennis meets Jack, he is saddled with responsibility, engaged to Alma, and at the mercy of a conservative Wyoming culture that has no place for a gay ranch hand. Yet Ennis has nowhere else to go and no other profession at which to try his hand. An orphaned high school dropout dependent on hardship funds and raised to be pragmatic, he is trapped in a life over which he has little control. Rather than run off with Jack and try to build a happy life, as Jack repeatedly suggests, Ennis considers the reality of it all: the violent opposition that would greet two gay ranchers living together, his marriage to Alma, his love for his daughters. The life he builds, which involves financial hardship and eventually child support, effectively prohibits him from escaping.
Ennis is a prisoner of the life he has been born into. Without the financial wherewithal to escape, without any sort of community support for his sexual proclivities, and imbued with the belief that one must bear whatever one can’t fix, Ennis is fated to live out the rest of his life as a man who tasted happiness once but has never again reached that peak. Though it is Jack Twist who, we infer, is murdered by those who oppose his sexual orientation, it is Ennis Del Mar—living in his trailer, confined to a sad life on the broad, flat plains of Wyoming—who is the story’s tragic soul.
Jack Twist is the more verbally aggressive and outgoing of the story’s two main characters. His name is onomatopoetic in its quick, light-footed sound, the clarity of its consonants strikingly dissimilar to the marbles-in-mouth quality of “Ennis Del Mar.” Jack Twist is flashy and brazen, a would-be rodeo star, and later a glitzy Texan transplant who sports a brass belt buckle and large capped teeth. He is far less able and willing than Ennis to subjugate his sexual impulses to the demands of conservative married life. The initial tryst on Brokeback is Ennis’s first sexual encounter with a man; but of Jack we may suspect that he is somewhat more experienced. And whereas Ennis muffles his sexual desire, Jack projects his desire for Ennis onto other men and women.
Ennis and Jack are complementary: Ennis the taciturn loner, Jack the performer who needs an audience; Ennis the hand-to-mouth earner, Jack the man who has married into money; Ennis the stoic who grits his teeth and bears his life, Jack the proponent of change. Yet for all his bravado and planning, Jack never seems to get what he wants. His father shrugs that most of his son’s ideas “never come to pass,” and Jack himself says, “Nothin never come to my hand the right way.” When he tells Ennis his plan for them to run a ranch together, it doesn’t occur to him how detached from reality his fantasy truly is, how impossible or ill-advised it would be to implement it. This divide between fantasy and reality drives the two men apart over the years, and Jack ultimately pays a steep price for his dreams.