Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist are both born poor and raised on small ranches on opposite sides of Wyoming, sometime in the midst of the Second World War. Ennis’s parents die when he’s young, so his older brother and sister raise him. He wanted to finish high school, but when his pick-up truck breaks down and there’s no money to fix it, he has no way to make it to school and has to drop out. Jack, too, drops out of school when he’s young to work on his parents’ ranch in Lightning Flat, Wyoming.
Jack and Ennis are born to poor ranchers in Wyoming. The fact that neither boy receives a complete education means that they, like their parents, face lives of difficult, low-paying manual labor. Ennis once hoped to continue his education but had his hopes dashed, signaling how difficult it is to escape from rural poverty.
Jack and Ennis meet for the first time in the summer of 1963, before either of them has reached the age of 20. They have both signed up with Farm and Ranch Employment to work as herders and camp tenders on Brokeback Mountain. Jack worked on the mountain the summer prior; this summer is Ennis’s first. When they meet, Ennis has recently been engaged to Alma Beers.
As neither Jack nor Ennis finished high school, both of them have been working ranching jobs around Wyoming for several years. They are still teenagers when they leave home to work on an isolated mountain with people they’ve never met in the summer of 1963. Even though they are both young, they have a lot of life under their belts: Jack has worked on the mountain already, and Ennis is engaged to be married.
They are introduced in the presence of their boss, Joe Aguirre, who instructs Ennis to be the camp tender and Jack to be the herder. He tells Jack to go and sleep with the sheep to protect them from wolves and thieves at night. This is against the rules of the Forest Service, so he’s not allowed to leave any trace of his presence, including remnants of any campfire. Joe is unimpressed with the two men, thinking to himself that they are a “pair of deuces going nowhere.”
Jack and Ennis are first introduced while receiving herding instructions from their boss, Joe Aguirre. Joe’s orders (for Jack to sleep with the sheep) mean that the men will be working largely alone on an isolated mountain. Aguirre is an older, jaded rancher who thinks Jack and Ennis seem stupid and ambitionless.
Jack and Ennis head to a bar, where they get to know each other. Jack tells Ennis about a lightning storm the summer prior that killed forty-two sheep. Jack is described as a small man with curly hair and buckteeth, who loved bull riding and was desperate to get away from his hometown of Lightning Flat. Ennis is described a tall, muscular man with a narrow face who has quick reflexes and is farsighted.
As two inductees of the Mountain, Jack and Ennis get to know each other a bit before heading out to their respective campsites. Though the narrator initially described the men as having similar backgrounds, here readers learn more about their different physical appearances, inner traits, and desires.
Jack provides Ennis with more tips for surviving the mountain, such as how to pack the mules, and to never order the soup. They collect their horses, dogs, and supplies and head out to the camps. Ordered by Aguirre to set up their camps in different locations to protect the sheep, Jack and Ennis watch each other as small, colorful dots from across the mountain.
Jack is relatively more knowledgeable about the mountain, as he worked there the summer prior, and eagerly shares what he knows with Ennis, a newbie. The men won’t get to know too much about each other for some time, as they work and sleep in separate parts of the mountain. However, the fact that they watch one another work shows that they’re both interested in learning more.
One day Jack complains about his four-hour commute to and from his campsite out with the sheep. Ennis offers to switch jobs with him, but Jack insists it’s more about the principle—they both should be allowed to sleep at the main camp. Still, he allows Ennis to take his place that night.
Jack clearly has the less desirable job; however, Ennis offers to take it off his hands in order to relieve Jack of some of its annoyances. This exchange of responsibilities show that Ennis feels kindly for Jack, and it is the beginning of a relationship that will develop quickly into a romance.
The next day, the two men stay up late by the fire, drinking and getting to know one another—sharing stories about their families, ranches they’ve worked on, dogs they’ve owned, and experiences with the military. When Ennis finally rides out to the sheep, he realizes he’s probably never had such a good time with someone else.
Once Ennis takes over Jack’s job and the men establish that they can be more than just coworkers, they become fast friends. Ennis stays at Jack’s campsite until late into the night and the men bond over their pasts. Even where they differ, they are respectful of one another. Ennis has found companionship unlike he’s ever had before.
As the summer wears on, the men continue to spend time together late into the night, sharing a fire, songs, a flask of whiskey. One night, when they’re both drunk, Jack says it’s too late for Ennis to ride back out to sleep with the sheep. Ennis falls asleep on the floor, and Jack wakes up to his snoring, insisting he’ll be quieter on the bedroll, which is big enough for the two of them. Almost as soon as the two men get into the bedroll together, they begin to have sex. Ennis wakes in the morning with his pants around his ankles, Jack sleeping up against him. Without exchanging any words, both men know that their emotional and sexual intimacy will continue through the rest of the summer.
Jack and Ennis grow much closer as the summer wears on. Even though Ennis has taken up Jack’s job out with the sheep, he frequently stays up late in the campsite in order to spend time with Jack. The fact that neither man feels the need to discuss their sexual encounter suggests that it seems to be the logical progression of their growing closeness. However, it also suggests that they perhaps feel unable to discuss what happened openly, as though even acknowledging their attraction to one another privately would be too taboo, and perhaps even endangering.
The men commence their summer relationship. They feel safe in the solitude of the mountain. They never discuss their relationship, except for one brief exchange in which they both insist that they aren’t “queers.” One day, Joe Aguirre watches them have sex through binoculars. He subsequently treats Jack coldly when he delivers the news that Jack’s uncle is dying.
The mood of both men completely changes when they commence their relationship: they are buoyant, and the mountain has never been more beautiful. The men still don’t discuss their relationship, partially due to the self-evident nature of their desire for one another, and partially because they fear the label “gay.” Joe Aguirre spies on the men, foreshadowing the watchful judgement the men will face from society at large for the next 20 years.
One night in August, Ennis spends the night with Jack in the main camp. A hailstorm sets the sheep off course and they get mixed up with another herd, and prove very difficult to separate. Snow arrives early on the mountain in mid-August, and Aguirre calls for them to bring the herd down. Aguirre pays the men for their summer work, noticing that some of the sheep are different.
When Jack and Ennis part ways after coming down from the mountain, they do not make plans to see each other again. Ennis is going off to marry Alma, and Jack may be pulled into the military draft. Ennis finds it hard to look at the bruise Jack has on his face from a punch he threw. When they say goodbye, Ennis is overcome with stomach pain so strong he thinks it is food poisoning. Soon he realizes that his agony is due to his sudden separation from Jack.
Jack and Ennis never discussed their relationship, leaving the nature of their bond indeterminate. Thus, they part ways without making any plans to see each other again. Perhaps they sense that their relationship as they know it cannot continue in the “real world,” both because they already have obligations and because it would be very dangerous. Ennis’s sickness is a physical manifestation of his heartache over being separated from Jack.
Ennis marries Alma in December, and she is pregnant by January. They name their daughter Alma Jr. Ennis works a series of ranch jobs, frequently moving his wife and daughter. After four summers away from the mountain, Ennis receives a telegram from Jack, postmarked from Texas. Jack says he has heard Ennis is in Riverton, and that he would be passing through and wanted to come say hello. Ennis replies, “you bet.”
After leaving the mountain, Ennis carries on with life just as planned: he has a wife, two children, and a variety of ranching jobs. This seems to be the only way of life available to Ennis. When Jack sends word that he’ll be in town, Ennis jumps at the chance to see his old lover. Even though he has been somewhat fulfilled by Alma, Alma Jr., and Francine, Jack is the only person who has ever truly made Ennis happy.
When Jack comes into town, Ennis is nervous and puts on his best clothes. When Jack arrives, the men embrace, and before they know what is happening, they are kissing passionately. Alma, standing in the doorway, sees the whole encounter. When Ennis finally turns to see her there, he makes no explanation, simply introducing her to Jack. Within twenty minutes, the two men find themselves in a local motel, where they spend the night together.
Jack and Ennis waste no time having a passionate and intimate reunion. Though Ennis has felt secure in his family life for the past four years, seeing Jack makes him realize how much he has missed the passion that they shared on the mountain. Ennis knows Alma has seen him kiss Jack, but he does not attempt to make up an excuse, suggesting he feels little emotional responsibility to his wife. It is this moment that is the beginning of the end for Alma and Ennis’s marriage, and it also marks the beginning of a 16-year sporadic affair between Jack and Ennis.
The men catch up regarding the last four years. Jack had moved to Texas and married a wealthy woman, Lureen, whose father owned a farm machinery business. He competed in some rodeos, but had to quit due to injuries. Jack wants to find a way for them to see each other more often, but Ennis points out that he has responsibilities: to his work, to his daughter, to Alma. Further, he’s scared that if the wrong people find out about their homosexual relationship, they’ll be beaten, or even murdered. Jack declines to tell Ennis that Joe Aguirre revealed to him that he knew about their relationship, and refused to hire him for the following summer on Brokeback Mountain.
Both Jack and Ennis have spent the last four years doing what society has told them men their age should do: find a woman, get married, have children, and get a job. Yet their passionate reunion shows them that something has been missing from their lives: passion, and arguably love. Their time together is bittersweet because they know it’s fleeting. They both have responsibilities at home, and to be together in any official capacity would mean bearing the stigma associated with being gay in rural Wyoming. It could even get them killed.
Jack proposes that the men start a ranch together. Ennis refuses, telling him the story of Earl and Rich. They were two men who lived on a ranch together near where Ennis grew up. Ennis’s father often made disparaging comments about them, insinuating that it was presumed they were gay. One day, Earl was brutally murdered with a tire iron and mutilated, and Ennis’s father took his young son to see the body as a way of teaching him a lesson. This memory has traumatized Ennis, and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him and Jack. The men are left at a loss with what to do for their desire for each other, which stands in direct contrast to what society and their families expect of them. Jack finally convinces Ennis to take a few days away from home to spend time with him.
Ennis’ fear of being killed due to his homosexuality has been ingrained in him from a young age. His father was homophobic, and likely contributed to the murder of Earl. Jack and Ennis’s love for each other is in direct conflict with what society expects of them, and what society will tolerate. They have no answers as to what to do with each other because their society has only provided them with one model for how to live. If they did want to live together, their only option would be to live like Earl and Rich, which could easily result in death. Ultimately, they make the decision that preserves their home lives and physical safety, while reconciling their desire by agreeing to meet a few times a year. This is how many gay men and women lived in this time, fulfilling their illicit desires furtively on the side while maintaining “normal” lives.
As the years wear on, Alma and Ennis have another daughter. The couple begins to grow apart, as Ennis steals away for weeks at a time to be with Jack, while Alma is left wondering why he doesn’t take her and the girls on vacation. She tires of his predilection to take work with long hours and low pay, and gets a job at the grocery store. Eventually, she divorces Ennis and marries the owner of the grocery store.
Now that he has rekindled his love with Jack, Ennis is not as interested in intimacy with Alma. Alma puts two and two together, and reasons that Ennis is having a relationship with Jack when he goes on “fishing trips.” Stuck in a dead-end grocery job with a husband who ignores her, Alma decides to take matters into her own hands by leaving Ennis, taking her daughters with her, and marrying the grocer. He gives her more stability, attention, and another child, allowing her to start her life afresh.
At a Thanksgiving at the grocer’s house, Ennis does his best to show that he isn’t upset by the divorce or that his daughters live with Alma. But when he and Alma are alone and she accuses him of being in a relationship with Jack, he grabs her out of anger. He doesn’t see Alma or his daughters for several years after that, though he continues to pay child support.
Ennis is alarmed at being accused of homosexuality and reacts violently. He has never discussed his sexuality with anyone but Jack. His fear manifests as anger as he hurts Alma. He becomes so upset at these accusations that he walks out of his daughters’ lives for years, demonstrating that he finds it difficult to confront the truth of his sexuality, perhaps because of the shame he carries as a result of internalized homophobia.
Jack and Ennis continue to see each other over the years. They age, but their desire for each other is stronger than ever. In May 1983, 20 years after they first met on Brokeback Mountain, they spend a few days by a lake. They speak about women they are sleeping with and their concerns about their children. They both feel that they never have enough time together.
Jack and Ennis make their relationship work, however fractured, by finding time when they can to see each other. They boast about women they are sleeping with, but the subtext of their conversations is that they really wish they were with each other more often. Here, as elsewhere in the story, displays of exaggerated heterosexual masculinity are shown to be attempts to cover up for a deficit of love or an unfulfilled longing.
They fight over when they will see each other next; Jack had thought they would next be together in August, but Ennis says he can’t get off work until November. Jack tries to convince Ennis to elope to Mexico with him, but Ennis cites his responsibilities towards work and child support. They are left without a resolution as to how to make their relationship work better. They hold each other through the night.
The two men both want to be together, but Ennis continually pushes Jack away when Jack suggests they start a ranch together or elope to Mexico. He, unlike Jack, saw Earl’s mutilated corpse: he knows all too well what kind of price they could pay if they were found out. Though they are both angry with one another for what has been said, they are more angry with the situation in which they find themselves, which neither of them can fully control, and take advantage of what little time they can spend together.
Months later, Ennis sends a postcard to Jack, and it is returned marked “DECEASED.” Unable to believe it, Ennis calls Jack’s wife, Lureen, who confirms that Jack was changing a tire when it blew up and hit him in the face. He drowned in his own blood before help arrived. Based on the tone of her voice, Ennis surmises that there is more to his death, and that it is likely he was murdered in a similar manner to Earl, with a tire iron. Lureen tells Ennis that Jack had always wanted his ashes to be scattered on Brokeback Mountain. When he died, she kept half of his ashes and gave the other half to his parents.
Ennis’s worst fears come true when he learns that Jack has been murdered at the hands of homophobes in a manner similar to the murder of Earl. He surmises this from Lureen’s story based on the tone of her voice. It is bittersweet that Jack wanted his ashes spread on Brokeback Mountain: it shows that it was as important a period in his life as it was for Ennis. To Ennis, of course, this news is nothing but tragic: even though he refused Jack’s proposals that they live together for the last 20 years with the idea that they would be safer, Jack ended up being murdered in the same way Earl was anyway.
Ennis goes to visit Jack’s parents in Lightning Flat, Wyoming. Jack’s mother is kind to him, but his father is cruel, insinuating that he knew Ennis and Jack were lovers. He refuses to give Ennis the other half of the ashes, saying that they will be buried in an ancestral burial ground. Ennis recalls an anecdote Jack told him about his father. Once, when Jack was three or four, he didn’t make it to the toilet in time, and Jack’s father urinated on him in an attempt to both humiliate the little boy and teach him a lesson. Ennis looks around Jack’s childhood bedroom, where he finds two shirts that Jack wore on Brokeback Mountain. One of these shirts has blood on it, from the last day on the mountain when Ennis hit Jack on the nose. Nested inside this shirt is another shirt: Ennis’s. Ennis had lost the shirt long ago, and he now realizes Jack had taken it. Ennis takes both of the shirts home with him.
Though Ennis has known Jack for two decades, this is the first time he has met his parents. Jack’s father is exactly as described: similar to Ennis’s father in that he is hyper-masculine, abusive, and cruel. Ennis realizes that Jack’s parents already know all about him, as Jack had been speaking to them about him for years. Jack’s father’s unkindness towards him confirms for Ennis that Jack was more open in his sexuality than Ennis was, and that this was what ultimately led to his murder. He feels overcome with emotion when he discovers his own shirt nested inside Jack’s. He wants to use the shirts to transport him back to that summer, but it doesn’t work. He must resign himself to loving Jack’s memories and these mementos, and grieve for the loss of his life’s great love.
Ennis buys a postcard of Brokeback Mountain and pins it up in his trailer. He hangs the shirts up alongside the postcard. He frequently dreams about Jack, and resigns himself to mourning what could have been.
Ennis resumes his quiet, solitary life as a rancher. He creates a kind of shrine for Jack, and is both pleased and tortured by seeing young Jack in his dreams. The ending is both beautiful and tragic: Ennis had the fortune of knowing deep love in his life, but he knows it is lost to him forever.