This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time.
Slate: What’s challenging about writing the death of a character you’ve come to like? What’s rewarding about it?
Annie Proulx: I generally like the characters I construct. But they are characters, elements in a story, and they have a job to do to make the story work. It is my work to guide their actions, thoughts, and dialogue to achieve a strong, coherent story with meaning. (Entertainment is more of a side dish.) The relationship I have with a character is different than the relationship a reader might have.
Jack’s death in “Brokeback” occurs not only off the page, but in fact really is delivered to us via Ennis’ imagination, as he tries to decide whether the story Jack’s wife tells him is true.
I find it interesting that most readers took Jack and Ennis as hatched from an egg without noticing that the agents of action were the men’s fathers. Ennis’ “imagination” is built on his life experience. When he was 9 years old, his father took Ennis and his brother, K.E., to see a corpse in a ditch—the body of old Earl who ran a ranch with Rich, his companion. Old Earl had been beaten to death with a tire iron, his genitals mutilated—the sin of homosexuality was strongly implied. Ennis gets the message that two men living together were suspect, whether or not they were lovers. The childhood moment set Ennis’ adult fears in place.
But when Ennis makes his postmortem visit to Jack’s childhood home, Jack’s father throws out the news that Jack was planning to come back to the home ranch, not with Ennis but with “some ranch neighbor a his from down in Texas.” At that moment any thoughts Ennis might have entertained about the tire rim flying into Jack’s face were out the window. Jack had gotten involved with a Texas man. Ennis believed in the tire iron. Whether it was the tire iron or the tire rim is ultimately up to the reader. Either is possible, either is plausible. Unless you’ve grown up in tire iron country.
When you’re writing star-crossed lovers, there’s always a decision to make: to give them the happy ending a reader might desperately hope for or to kill one (or both) of them off. Did you know from the beginning that Jack had to die for the story to work?
As I had the ending in mind when I started the story, there was no possibility of closing it with a “happy ending.” Many readers did that themselves or applied an upbeat resolution to their own lives. Today in Texas or Wyoming, Jack and Ennis would hardly raise an eyebrow. Maybe.
Read more about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time, including picks from Proulx, Stephen King, Hilary Mantel, and more.