Analysis of Brokeback Mountain
The use of setting in Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” contributes to its placement within the post-1945 American gay literary canon. Unlike most gay novels during this time period, the short story takes place entirely in a rural setting rather than chronicle the movement of the main character from a small town to a big city. The rural setting contributes to its literary and cultural impact as well as justifies its placement within the post-1945 American gay literary canon. The rural setting differentiates Brokeback Mountain from other post-1945 gay literature and played a critical role in the film adaptation’s cultural impact.
Adam Sonstegard notes in the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America that “gay men and lesbians needed to leave the rural, small-town, or suburban places in which they had grown up for urban centers where they could comfortably be lesbian or gay was the common message” of many post-1945 gay novels (Sonstegard 199). For example, in Dancer From the Dance, Anthony Malone leaves a small Midwestern town and travels to New York City, where he enjoys the gay nightlife and drag scene. In this homosexual community, he finds acceptance and meets his love interest, Andrew Sutherland. The move from small town to city allows Anthony to freely express himself without worrying about social repercussions. He is amongst a group of other men like him and has safe spaces in which he can express himself.
Brokeback Mountain differs from novels such as Dancer From the Dance in that the main characters never leave their rural setting in favor of the big city. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist’s relationship only takes place in various parts of Wyoming, preventing either man from becoming a part of a homosexual community. They are forced to navigate their relationship on their own while living in rural communities that are intolerant of homosexual relationships. The lack of an accepting community prevents the characters from being exposed to what other homosexual relationships are like and creates an overwhelming feeling of isolation. At one point when Ennis and Jack are musing about their relationship, Ennis says ““I been lookin at people on the street. This happen to other people? What the hell do they do?” (Proulx). Ennis is unable to find support from other homosexual men due to the repressive society in Wyoming. Jack replies, “It don’t happen in Wyomin and if it does I don’t know what they do, maybe go to Denver” (Proulx). This brief exchange highlights the fact that cities are perceived as more tolerant of homosexuals than rural communities.
The vast and beautiful landscape also emphasizes the loneliness and isolation the characters feel. Ennis and Jack do not find acceptance from others and must spend their time together in secret. The overwhelming expanse of nature also creates the sense that Ennis and Jack are societal outcasts. After an intense reunion in front of Ennis’ house, he says “You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there…grabs on us like that. We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead” (Proulx). The threat of violence prevents Ennis and Jack from revealing their relationship to others and confines their relationship to brief trips into nature.
Brokeback Mountain and the other natural spaces in the short story create a safe heaven in which Ennis and Jack’s love is most strong. It is also where their most tender moment takes place, as remembered by Jack. He reminisces about “that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger” (Proulx). Jack and Ennis refuse to classify themselves as “queer” and instead succumb to a nameless love. Thus, “Brokeback Mountain” also differentiates itself from “coming out” novels in which the characters reveal their homosexuality.
The description of a homosexual romance amidst a rural setting adds a unique twist on the typical Western story. Asquith notes that “It was important for Proulx that they…wanted to be cowboys-part of the great Western myth” (Asquith 78). Homosexuality is not normally associated with cowboys in American society, adding to the story’s significance as an alternative depiction of homosexual life in America. Kitses argues, that “the Western’s settings gave it a unique power to express in what became a coded aesthetics the ideological promise of America-freedom, openness, redemption, reinvention” (Kitses 25). The open space of Wyoming, contrasted with the necessity of secrecy emphasizes the characters’ struggle with their sexuality. Kitses argues “it is possible to see the validity of the claim that Brokeback Mountain queers the Western, that setting a saga of same-sex love in the American wilderness both naturalizes and nationalizes it” (Kitses 25).
The beginning of their relationship in nature rather than the city suggests that homosexuality is not an unnatural product of city life. “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…” (Proulx). While in nature, separated from society, Ennis and Jack are able to express their love without negative repercussions from members of rural society. Mark Asquith notes in “Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and Postcards” that while in nature “ …there is…an acknowledgement that the codes of masculinity change once they get away from civilization and into the mountains” (Asquith 92). Brokeback Mountain and the other natural landscapes they visit provide a safe place for Ennis and Jack to explore their relationship.
The role of setting in the overall story is a major part of the experience of watching the film. Kitses observes, that “As the film unwinds, the wilderness setting is left behind but for brief scenes sandwiched between the domestic norms of the men’s lives. The expansive images from the film’s early scenes…shrink to the dimensions of crowded kitchens, closets, trailers, and window-framed views” (Kitses 26). As Ennis and Jack’s relationship develops, the transition from wide-open spaces to confined domestic locations reinforces the concept of loss of freedom and the oppressiveness of the community in which they live. Annie Proulx said in a 2009 interview for the Paris Review, “It’s place that interests me, and the social and economic situation in a place—how people live, how they make their living, the culture—but the story comes from place” (Proulx). Many readers and audiences may have previously viewed homosexuality as being more connected to human interactions and mostly found in city life rather than rural life. The image of two gay men in rural Wyoming was startling to many viewers and led to a flurry of responses about the “gay cowboy movie”.
Proulx enables her audience to better understand closeted homosexual life by placing her story within rural Wyoming rather than a large city, thus adding to the description of the gay experience that is a major aspect of gay literary canon. Annie Proulx describes “Brokeback Mountain” as “It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality” (Proulx).Brokeback Mountain’s use of setting coupled with its cultural impact solidifies its place in the American gay literary canon. The short story and film adaptation brought attention to an underrepresented part of America in the gay literary canon and helped transform American perceptions of homosexuality.
Sonstegard, Adam, Karla Jay, and Julie Abraham. “Literature.” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Ed. Marc Stein. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 184-201. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.
Asquith, Mark. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and Postcards. London ; New York: Continuum, 2009. Print. Continuum Contemporaries.
Cox, Christopher. “Annie Proulx, The Art of Fiction No. 199.” Paris Review Spring 2009. Web. 3 May 2012.