Just as nature governs the ranch and mountain lifestyle, the natural force of desire directs every significant action taken by Ennis and Jack in “Brokeback Mountain,” even when those actions are against their better judgment and against acceptable social dictums. The passion between the two men is so strong that they cannot explain it rationally or logically, and the way it ebbs and flows is not predictable or reasonable. Instead, it is irresistible and overwhelming—a point that Ennis makes emphatically when he tells Jack that “There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me.” “Brokeback Mountain” is a love story, and like many love stories, its end is tragic, not least because the natural force of the men’s desire prevents them from ever fully fitting into the lives they were forced to pursue apart from each other.
The idea of two male ranch hands falling in love in conservative 1960s Wyoming epitomizes the suggestion that love, a natural force, persists against all odds. Indeed, Jack and Ennis have everything to lose because of their relationship. Society’s powerful indictment of male love is woven deeply into Ennis’s psyche; he tells Jack the story of how a gay rancher in his hometown was murdered, voicing his own apprehensions that the same thing could happen to them. The figure of Joe Aguirre, peering through his binoculars at the two men making love, is a stand-in for all those passing judgment on them. Even Alma has only disgust for Ennis’s furtive sexual behavior: she calls his lover “Jack Nasty” and makes it plain that she finds the notion of two men in love reprehensible. But despite these opposing forces and the lives they build with their respective wives and families, Jack and Ennis are helpless in the clutch of their feelings for each other.
“Brokeback Mountain” begins with movement and motion in Ennis’s home, and the idea of the world being constantly in flux permeates the entire story. In the first few lines, Proulx describes the “wind rocking the trailer” and the hanging shirts that “shudder slightly in the draft.” Despite the seeming permanence of Ennis’s situation, despite the feeling of endlessness conveyed by the Wyoming plains, the winds of change are always blowing. Proulx has said she sees the world “in terms of shifting circumstances,” and wind, for Proulx, suggests the meeting of opposing forces, of past, present, and future. Movement occurs when a kinetic force meets a static object, pushing it or acting on it in some way. In this sense, the shuddering shirts of the story’s first line suggest a tension between the conservative, homophobic line that Jack has dared to cross (and been punished for crossing) and a time and place in which greater tolerance exists.
The notion of the world as constantly in flux is borne out more obviously in the span of years covered in the story. Along the way, the narrator comments on changes in the main characters’ physical appearance—a thickening paunch, a patch of graying hair, the development of a benign growth over one of Ennis’s eyes. The result is a sort of time-lapse view of the relationship between Jack and Ennis, one in which a single constant—their devotion to one another—is set against a backdrop of inevitable change.
Both Ennis and Jack make frequent references to their parents and childhoods, and the opening description of the men’s respective birthplaces suggests the significance of home and leaving home to the story. To “know where you are from” is to be of like mind with your family, kin, and community. Jack, a wandering soul who moves away from home and then out of state, is condemned by his father for wanting to be buried on Brokeback rather than in ancestral ground. Jack’s desire to get away from home—in the sense of escaping its conventional values—is ultimately what gets him killed. Ennis, on the other hand, is mindful of his father’s homophobia and being taken by him to see the dead body of a murdered gay rancher. He frequently professes his inability to break away from his home and upbringing. Home evokes safety, conservatism, status quo, and acceptance, whereas distance from home in this story becomes associated with progressiveness and risk.
Despite Ennis’s declaration that “All the travelin I ever done is goin around the coffeepot lookin for the handle,” traveling away from home proves influential to both Ennis and Jack, even if their travel covers little actual distance. If staying home is synonymous with stasis, permanence, and conventional thinking, then traveling away from home is an escape from all of that. Jack makes many trips to Mexico, a place that represents the gratification of his sexual desires, a place freer and more accepting than the rural plains of the American West that Jack calls home. When Ennis asks Jack what other people in their situation do, Jack cites travel as a solution: “It don’t happen in Wyomin and if it does I don’t know what they do, maybe go to Denver,” he says. Just as the notion of home as tradition and continuity is a constant refrain in the story, the idea of leaving home and traveling marks the distance between an old-fashioned way of thinking and a forward-thinking mindset.
Brokeback Mountain looms large in a physical sense, casting its shadow on the plains below, and it rises up in the shared memories of Jack and Ennis and represents an idyllic, although temporary, life. The name “Brokeback” stands in for all that happens between the two men in the summer of 1963 and all they have lost since then. They refer simply to “Brokeback” rather than to specific events or feelings. When Jack says years later that “what we got now is Brokeback Mountain,” he uses the phrase as shorthand for acts, emotions, and thoughts that, because he shares them with Ennis, he needs not articulate more explicitly. Brokeback Mountain also stands in stark contrast to the flatlands of Wyoming in an echo of the duality between Jack and Ennis, man and woman, resistance and acceptance, past and present, and, ultimately, life and death. In the postcard memorial that Ennis constructs to his dead lover, the mountain serves as a tombstone under which the men’s relationship must finally be buried.
If the high peak of Brokeback Mountain, thrusting into the sky, evokes the yearning to rise above and escape one’s life, then the flatland of Wyoming represents all that is dull and desperate. Ennis and Jack are both raised on the plain, but while Jack takes off for Texas to live with his wealthy bride, Ennis is trapped by economic circumstance and responsibility. Proulx uses the noun plain just four times. First, the narrator describes how, from the extraordinary position of being atop the mountain, the plain is where “ordinary affairs” occur. The last three “plains” are used in conjunction with Jack’s death, an event that renders Ennis “ordinary” once more. When Lureen confirms Jack’s death, Ennis feels the “huge sadness of the northern plains” rolling over him. Later, driving to the Twist home, he notes the abandoned ranches scattered over the plain. Finally, leaving Lightning Flat, he notes the cemetery where Jack will be buried, calling it “the grieving plain.”
By the end of the story, Ennis’s pared down existence seems inseparable from the desolate Wyoming flatland, a locus of grief or of the status quo, which in this story is equated with grief. In the last line, another symbolic association becomes clear. The narrator describes the “open space” between what Ennis knows and believes about Jack’s death, a reference to both the expansive, endless plains and the open-ended pain that will stay with Ennis forever.