Intolerance, and the violence to which it can lead, are constant threats to Jack and Ennis’s relationship. Proulx presents intolerance toward homosexuality as a pervasive characteristic in Jack and Ennis’s society—not something specific to certain people or places. Earl and Jack’s violent deaths, for instance, are attributed not to any one person, but rather to a generalized “them.” Jack and Ennis’s fear of this pervasive violence and intolerance keeps them from being together, and for good reason: homophobic violence is ultimately what kills Jack and leaves Ennis alone with his regret. While violence is the most clearly horrible outcome of widespread intolerance, Proulx also uses Ennis’ thoughts and experiences to show that intolerance can lead to internal psychological effects that are nearly as devastating as outright violence. Ultimately, homophobia robs both men of their lives: Jack is murdered for his sexuality, while Ennis is stuck in limbo, unable to fulfill his desires or fit into a society that can’t accept him the way he is.
Intolerance and hatred, both internalized and external, are present even in the remote hills of Brokeback Mountain. Throughout their first summer together, Jack and Ennis never discuss the nature of their relationship or their feelings for one another, which shows how ingrained homophobic norms are. Only once does Ennis voice that he “ain’t no queer,” a sentiment Jack immediately agrees with. Though the two men are sexually intimate, they are afraid to label themselves as gay, since they have both internalized the notion that gay men are unnatural and they know that being outed can be a death sentence. While the two men do not experience outright violence that summer, they do face social consequences for their relationship. Their boss, Joe Aguirre, watches them have sex through binoculars. While he doesn’t address their relationship explicitly, he treats both men coldly afterwards. He doesn’t dismount his horse to deliver Jack the news that his uncle is dying, and he declines to offer them jobs again for next summer.
While Joe Aguirre’s homophobia is expressed without outright violence, the threat of violence, and even death, is a very real possibility for Jack and Ennis should their relationship become public knowledge. This shapes both their choices and fates. The fear of violence drives Ennis, in particular, because his father took him as a child to see the mutilated corpse of a gay man (Earl) who was murdered as a punishment for his sexuality. As a result of this experience, Ennis will not entertain the possibility of living with Jack, even if that is what he wants most; when the two men kissed in front of Ennis’s wife, Ennis tells Jack that if they do that again they will “be dead.” Jack does not have the same fear that Ennis does, and while it allows him to be more open to expressing and exploring his desires, his freer attitude towards his sexuality eventually leads him to be murdered by homophobes. The violence that has cast a pall over their relationship from the beginning is ultimately what brings it to a premature end.
While Ennis’s internalization of the intolerance around him may save his life (as it leads him to be more careful with his behavior than Jack), this internalization of homophobia also leads Ennis to psychological distress. It’s clear, for example, that Ennis is uncomfortable with his own sexuality because the only times in the story in which he is violent occur in response to others directly acknowledging his sexual desire. The first instance is at the end of their summer at Brokeback Mountain, when Ennis punches Jack hard for no apparent reason, although it seems that this unexpected violence is due to his own shame and distress over having to leave the man he loves. This interpretation of Ennis’s violence towards Jack gains credence when, years after Alma witnesses Jack and Ennis in a passionate embrace, she reveals to Ennis that she knew about Jack and Ennis’s relationship and calls Jack “nasty.” Ennis hurts Alma in a fit of violent rage and, as a result, he doesn’t see her or his children for several years afterwards. This is seemingly the first time Ennis has been accused of being gay, and he uses violence to try and show Alma that she is wrong, as well as to intimidate her into not sharing what she knows with others.
Ennis’s shame over his sexuality, which leads him to violence, shapes all of his choices and actions throughout the story. While Jack is open to the idea of being a social outcast in order to live with Ennis, Ennis does not entertain this possibility and, as a result, he loses his chance at the life he most wants. Although Ennis has not been physically touched by homophobic violence—he does not lose his life, as Jack does—he must live with the regret of not having fulfilled his deepest desires, which is a bitter and heartbreaking experience. Therefore, Ennis must live with the pain of losing the person he loved most, living a life on the fringe of society, and knowing that to live as his true self would be to die a violent death.
Intolerance and Violence ThemeTracker
Intolerance and Violence Quotes in Brokeback Mountain
“Forest Service got designated campsites on the allotments. Them camps can be a couple a miles from where we pasture the sheep. Bad predator loss, nobody near lookin after em at night. What I want—camp tender in the main camp where the Forest Service says, but the herder”—pointing at Jack with a chop of his hand—“pitch a pup tent on the Q.T. with the sheep, out a sight, and he’s goin a sleep there. Eat supper, breakfast in camp, but sleep with the sheep, hundred percent, no fire, don’t leave no sign. Roll up that tent every mornin case Forest Service snoops around. Got the dogs, your .30-.30, sleep there. Last summer had goddam near twenty-five-percent loss. I don’t want that again. […] Tomorrow mornin we’ll truck you up the jump-off.” Pair of deuces going nowhere.
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.
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.
“Don’t lie, don’t try to fool me, Ennis. I know what it means. Jack Twist? Jack Nasty. You and him—”
She’d overstepped his line. He seized her wrist and twisted; tears sprang and rolled, a dish clattered.
“Shut up,” he said. “Mind your own business. You don’t know nothin about it.”
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.
The old man spoke angrily. “I can’t get no help out here. Jack used a say, ‘Ennis del Mar,’ he used a say, ‘I’m goin a bring him up here one a these days and we’ll lick this damn ranch into shape.’ He had some half-baked idea the two a you was goin a move up here, build a log cabin, and help me run this ranch and bring it up. Then this spring he’s got another one’s goin a come up here with him and build a place and help run the ranch, some ranch neighbor a his from down in Texas. He’s goin a split up with his wife and come back here. So he says. But like most a Jack’s ideas it never come to pass.”
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.