In “Brokeback Mountain,” Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist fall in love while working as ranch hands on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. At the end of the summer, they part ways and attempt to start separate, conventional (i.e., heterosexual) lives, marrying women and having children. Four years later, when the two men meet again and still want each other more than anything, Jack raises the possibility that they could live together and start a business. Ennis, however, firmly rejects the idea—it’s the 1960s in Wyoming, and homosexuality is forbidden and dangerous. Besides, they have obligations to their wives and children, and Ennis doesn’t want to be a social outcast. Choosing a more conventional life over the life they both truly want could be seen as a rational decision, but it doesn’t lead them to happiness. Being unable to build a life together casts a long and dark shadow on their relationship, but their frustrated desire also prevents them from living and enjoying the lives they have chosen instead. Therefore, Proulx shows how rejecting the opportunity to fulfill a deep desire in favor of bending to social expectations leads to tragic results.
From the beginning of their love affair, Ennis and Jack try and fail to repress their desire for one another. For example, the first time the men part ways to return to their more conventional lives, Ennis feels a physical pain that he mistakes for food poisoning. His desire for Jack is so strong that it affects his mind and his body. Furthermore, when they finally see each other for the first time after four years, they embrace and, without thinking, kiss passionately, even though Ennis’s wife Alma is nearby. This flagrant display of affection catches them both by surprise, which shows that their desire is automatic and cannot be rationally controlled.
Despite their uncontrollable desire, Ennis’s decision to live separately from Jack is a deliberate and even rational choice in the sense that it prioritizes safety, family, and community. When Ennis was a child, his father took him to see the mutilated corpse of a local gay man (one living in a thinly-veiled domestic partnership akin to the one Jack proposes), which made Ennis acutely aware that expressing homosexual desire could get him killed. Thus, Ennis’s refusal to live with Jack can be seen as a fervent wish for their mutual safety. Furthermore, Ennis feels strongly about his obligation towards his wife and children. He has made a commitment to them and feels responsible for supporting them, so leaving his job and family to elope with Jack strikes Ennis as irresponsible and even immoral.
While Ennis’s decision not to live with Jack can clearly be seen as both moral and rational, he comes to regret repressing his desire. This is, in part, due to the fact that the life he believed he was choosing—a life of family, community, and safety—proves unattainable as a direct consequence of his repressed desire, which destroys his marriage. Ennis and his wife divorce because she can tell that Ennis wants Jack more than her (he takes many trips with Jack, for example, but never takes his wife and children on holidays). Furthermore, Ennis and Jack are never really able to fit into society and find a community, even though they try to present themselves as “normal” and heterosexual. Ennis remains single and drifts from job to job, while Jack has extramarital affairs, a vague managerial role in his wife’s company, and his father-in-law never accepts him. Thus, even though Ennis thinks he is sparing both of their lives by choosing not to live together as gay men, Jack is still murdered by homophobes and Ennis is left lonely and full of regret.
Ennis’s reasons for choosing not to fulfill his deep desire to live with Jack are understandable and even sensible. And yet, after Jack’s death, once the life they both wanted is no longer available to them, Ennis is filled with regret. He wishes he had taken risks to be with Jack, knowing that the life he chose instead has not been happy enough to outweigh the lost potential for a happy partnership with Jack. Ennis refuses to let his love for Jack die with his body, and continues to dream about him. He resigns himself to living with his pain and his memories of Jack—a better fate than never having met Jack at all, or banishing him from his thoughts forever.
Desire, Repression, and Regret ThemeTracker
Desire, Repression, and Regret Quotes in Brokeback Mountain
During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow, as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain.
“Tell you what, you got a get up a dozen times in the night out there over them coyotes. Happy to switch but give you warnin I can’t cook worth a shit. Pretty good with a can opener.”
“Can’t be no worse than me, then. Sure, I wouldn’t mind a do it.”
They fended off the night for an hour with the yellow kerosene lamp, and around ten Ennis rode Cigar Butt, a good night horse, through the glimmering frost back to the sheep, carrying leftover biscuits, a jar of jam, and a jar of coffee with him for the next day, saying he’d save a trip, stay out until supper.
They were respectful of each other’s opinions, each glad to have a companion where none had been expected. Ennis, riding against the wind back to the sheep in the treacherous, drunken light, thought he’d never had such a good time, felt he could paw the white out of the moon.
Ennis woke in red dawn with his pants around his knees, a top-grade headache, and Jack butted against him; without saying anything about it, both knew how it would go for the rest of the summer, sheep be damned.
There were only the two of them on the mountain, flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours. They believed themselves invisible, not knowing Joe Aguirre had watched them through his 10x42 binoculars for ten minutes one day, waiting until they’d buttoned up their jeans, waiting until Ennis rode back to the sheep, before bringing up the message that Jack’s people had sent word that his uncle Harold was in the hospital with pneumonia and expected not to make it. Though he did, and Aguirre came up again to say so, fixing Jack with his bold stare, not bothering to dismount.
Even when the numbers were right Ennis knew the sheep were mixed. In a disquieting way everything seemed mixed.
“Right,” said Jack, and they shook hands, hit each other on the shoulder; then there was forty feet of distance between them and nothing to do but drive away in opposite directions. Within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time. 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.
“Ennis, please, no more damn lonesome ranches for us,” she said, sitting on his lap, wrapping her thin, freckled arms around him. “Let’s get a place here in town.”
“I guess,” said Ennis… They stayed in the little apartment, which he favored because it could be left at any time.
They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying son of a bitch, son of a bitch; then, and as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again and still they clinched, pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together, treading on each other’s toes until they pulled apart to breathe and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, “Little darlin.”
“Friend,” said Jack. “We got us a fuckin situation here. Got a figure out what to do.”
“I doubt there’s nothin now we can do,” said Ennis. “What I’m sayin, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain’t her fault. You got your baby and wife, that place in Texas. You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment—“grabs” on us like that. We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead. There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me.”
“Dad made sure I seen it. Took me to see it. Me and K.E. Dad laughed about it. Hell, for all I know he done the job. If he was alive and was to put his head in that door right now you bet he’d go get his tire iron. Two guys livin together? No. All I can see is we get together once in a while way the hell out in the back a nowhere—”
Her resentment opened out a little every year: the embrace she had glimpsed, Ennis’s fishing trips once or twice a year with Jack Twist and never a vacation with her and the girls, his disinclination to step out and have any fun, his yearning for low-paid, long-houred ranch work, his propensity to roll to the wall and sleep as soon as he hit the bed, his failure to look for a decent permanent job with the county or the power company put her in a long, slow dive, and when Alma, Jr., was nine and Francine seven she said, What am I doin, hangin around with him, divorced Ennis, and married the Riverton grocer.
You got no fuckin idea how bad it gets. I’m not you. I can’t make it on a couple a high-altitude fucks once or twice a year. You’re too much for me, Ennis, you son of a whoreson bitch. I wish I knew how to quit you.”
It was Lureen and she said who? who is this? and when he told her again she said in a level voice yes, Jack was pumping up a flat on the truck out on a back road when the tire blew up. The bead was damaged somehow and the force of the explosion slammed the rim into his face, broke his nose and jaw and knocked him unconscious on his back. By the time someone came along he had drowned in his own blood.
No, he thought, they got him with the tire iron.
He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.
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.