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Between the Wild West and Pastoral Peace: Nature, Gender, and Tragedy in Annie Proulx's 'Brokeback Mountain'


Mühlheim, Martin (2009). Between the Wild West and Pastoral Peace: Nature, Gender, and Tragedy in Annie Proulx's 'Brokeback Mountain'. In: Hyner, B H; McKenzie Stearns, P. Forces of Nature: Natural(-izing) Gender and Gender(-ing) Nature in the Discourses of Western Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 210-241.

Abstract

This paper posits that “Brokeback Mountain” is related to the tradition of the pastoral, which, since its beginnings in ancient Greece, has portrayed same-sex desire as part of a ‘natural’ setting. The essay examines the ways in which Western culture has conceived of same-sex desire as both too natural and unnatural, and links these contradictory attitudes to a more fundamental cultural ambivalence concerning the meaning and moral value of ‘nature.’ While the pastoral, for instance, privileges nature over a corrupt, civilized urbanity, the genre of the Western tends to celebrate the triumph of civilization over an often hostile and savage nature. In “Brokeback Mountain,” these conflicting views of nature are mirrored in the opinions of the story’s protagonists, Ennis and Jack. While Ennis sees their love for each other as a force that needs to be reined in, Jack believes it should be allowed to freely run its course. However, this conflict between the two lovers does not primarily point towards a tragic flaw in their characters. Rather, their conflict results from societal fears that in turn are related to the rigid class and gender hierarchies of the American West. The tragedy of Ennis and Jack can thus be read as the negative image of a utopian society in which their love would no longer condemned and persecuted. At the same time, however, “Brokeback Mountain” is no unequivocal manifesto for gay liberation. Proulx’s story does not make an explicit political statement, but instead confronts its readers with human suffering as a consequence of homophobic violence. In doing so, “Brokeback Mountain” urges the reader to make an ethical choice concerning the nature — and the value — of love in all its forms.

This paper posits that “Brokeback Mountain” is related to the tradition of the pastoral, which, since its beginnings in ancient Greece, has portrayed same-sex desire as part of a ‘natural’ setting. The essay examines the ways in which Western culture has conceived of same-sex desire as both too natural and unnatural, and links these contradictory attitudes to a more fundamental cultural ambivalence concerning the meaning and moral value of ‘nature.’ While the pastoral, for instance, privileges nature over a corrupt, civilized urbanity, the genre of the Western tends to celebrate the triumph of civilization over an often hostile and savage nature. In “Brokeback Mountain,” these conflicting views of nature are mirrored in the opinions of the story’s protagonists, Ennis and Jack. While Ennis sees their love for each other as a force that needs to be reined in, Jack believes it should be allowed to freely run its course. However, this conflict between the two lovers does not primarily point towards a tragic flaw in their characters. Rather, their conflict results from societal fears that in turn are related to the rigid class and gender hierarchies of the American West. The tragedy of Ennis and Jack can thus be read as the negative image of a utopian society in which their love would no longer condemned and persecuted. At the same time, however, “Brokeback Mountain” is no unequivocal manifesto for gay liberation. Proulx’s story does not make an explicit political statement, but instead confronts its readers with human suffering as a consequence of homophobic violence. In doing so, “Brokeback Mountain” urges the reader to make an ethical choice concerning the nature — and the value — of love in all its forms.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Book Section, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > English Department
Dewey Decimal Classification:820 English & Old English literatures
Uncontrolled Keywords:Homosexuality, Genre Theory, Gender, Nature, Pastoral, Tragedy, Western, American Studies, Short Story, Fiction, Literature
Language:English
Date:2009
Deposited On:31 Dec 2009 06:05
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 13:04
Publisher:Cambridge Scholars
ISBN:978-1-4438-0187-4
Related URLs:http://opac.nebis.ch/F/?local_base=NEBIS&con_lng=GER&func=find-b&find_code=SYS&request=005820480
Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-15792

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