Brokeback Mountain and the Pastoral Trope

Scene from Brokeback Mountain

The idea of the pastoral trope evokes images of young shepherds alone in a lush, grassy field, surrounded by their flock. Though not what you’d typically first imagine when thinking of this trope, Brokeback Mountain is a prime example of a story told in this theme.

The short story “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx and its cinematic adaptation tell the story of two shepherds, both raised on ranches, herding for the summer of 1963 on a mountain in Wyoming. The two men, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, are virtually alone on the mountain, and are made to share a small tent during the nights when they are working, forcing them into closer quarters than they would be if they were nearer to civilization. The two begin a romantic relationship but are forced to separate after their summer herding is over.

When Ennis and Jack return to their separate homes in the “civilized” world, their lives, simple while on the mountain, become complicated. Four years later they are reunited, and often use the excuse of returning to nature (by going fishing or hunting) to be alone together. Each man tells his wife that he is going fishing with the other, and they leave their homes in more urban areas to camp in areas similar to where they met while herding sheep.

In her story, Proulx gives civilization and complexity extremely negative connotations. When Ennis and Jack are with their respective families, they are uncomfortable and stressed. While they both do their best to acclimate to the societies around them, the happiness experienced at home pales in comparison to their lives in the wild. The wilderness is the only place that Ennis and Jack can truly be their natural selves. In the wild, there is no one to judge them. Proulx further expresses the contrast between city and wilderness by using poetic language to describe her characters’ surroundings while on the mountain:

“Dawn came glassy-orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green.”

“The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone.”

Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher and a scene from Brokeback Mountain

Though the wilderness is definitely a place of joy for Ennis and Jack, it still has an underlying current of darkness. Only there are they able to express their homosexuality, something that can get them killed in their current locations and societal standing. There is also the aspect of nature not being a permanent place to be, though Jack expresses his longing for it to be. Realistically, both know that they have the obligation of their lives in civilization, and the burden weighs heavily on both men’s shoulders for the fleeting time that they are together:

“One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough.”

Throughout the story, Jack seems to be at least slightly “wilder” than Ennis, both in his range of thoughts and his actions; he often dreams of returning to the mountain or a ranch with Ennis to live, abandoning both of their lives in their cities. Ennis, meanwhile, stands firm on staying with his wife and children, and is still unable to leave with Jack after his eventual divorce. Jack was unable to mentally leave the mountain following their departure at the end of the summer in 1963, and went back to attempt to get the same shepherding job again.

In the essay “Proulx’s Pastoral: Brokeback Mountain as Sacred Space,” (found in the collection Reading Brokeback Mountain) Ginger Jones compares the story to pastorals by Theocritus (who is credited with creating pastoral poetry) in both the story structure and the themes. Jones states that there is even homoeroticism in some of his idylls. In addition to this, the men’s lives in civilization can be compared to an epic poem instead of a pastoral; perhaps Proulx is alluding to the literary idea of pastoral poems being a lesser form compared to the epic poem. Like epics, the lives of the men when they are in cities are complex and often tragic; a popular theme is the tragic hero being led into the underworld. Though the true cause of his death remains ambiguous at the end of both the film and short story, Jack’s dying is from unnatural causes: he is either killed by a tire exploding or murdered by a group of men after finding out about his sexuality.  In comparison, the wilderness offers them a safe place to love each other without the reach of society intruding.

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