The Neglected Victim: Alma and her Agony
In the short story, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx, page 11 describes Alma’s one encounter with Jack. After witnessing her husband kiss another man, she faces them both quietly and uncomfortably, but does not otherwise convey any dramatic emotion and remains surprisingly collected. She attempts to stop Ennis once when she gets money so that he can buy her cigarettes and come home, but Ennis shuts her down before she can even ask. In the movie version by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Alma is still quiet and uncomfortable. However, she also speaks with much more emotion than the story implied. At the moment she witnesses the kiss, her mouth opens slightly, her eyes widen, and she begins to shake. Once Jack begins talking about his children, Alma appears to be just as incredulous and heartbroken. She nods furiously and can hardly force words out, but once she realizes they’re leaving she walks quickly behind Ennis to catch him and ask him to buy her cigarettes. He cuts her off and she is left standing in the doorway alone, looking after them. Then, after Ennis and Jack’s rendezvous, the movie adds a scene where Ennis returns, only to leave Alma again for a “fishing trip” with Jack. On Ennis’ arrival Alma sits at a table in pajamas with disheveled hair while wiping away tears. She sits up when she hears him and follows him to the other room; she then discovers that he and Jack are leaving again. Ennis blows past Alma and immediately begins packing, while Alma tries to convince him to invite Jack inside. She asks Ennis if he might be fired if he leaves, to which he replies that his boss owes him a favor. Then, one of their young daughters runs in and asks Ennis to bring her a fish. Ennis kisses the child and hands her to Alma, then turns back and briefly kisses Alma before he walks out the door, leaving Alma crying with a child in her arms. The film shows Jack and Ennis leaving with the sound of Alma’s tears in the background.
McMurtry and Ossana’s devastating and sympathetic portrayal of Alma establishes Ennis as a controversial and condemnable character once he abandons her with their two daughters. Contrastingly, the short story heavily sympathizes with Ennis and his forbidden romance over his only-briefly-described family. Although Ennis is the most commonly recognized victim as the main character, the film’s focus on Alma’s sadness and hardship criticizes Ennis’ ignorance towards his family and interestingly portrays Alma as the clear victim in the relationship.
In the short story, Proulx glosses over many of Alma’s reactions with brief and passive descriptions, causing her sorrow and loss to be overlooked and quickly forgotten. After Alma sees Jack and Ennis kiss, Ennis returns and introduces his lover to his wife. Proulx writes, “ ‘Sure enough,’ said Alma in a low voice. She had seen what she had seen” (SS 11). Not only is Alma able to reply in a calm manner, but “she had seen what she had seen” implies she must make peace with the kiss and move on, as she will never be able to forget it. Of course Alma isn’t happy, but speaking in “a low voice” is not a dramatic reaction. Alma’s passiveness and the subtle suggestion for her to move on glosses over her pain and sense of loss, and does not victimize her in any way. Then, Ennis and Jack begin to have a conversation; meanwhile the only description given of Alma is that her, “mouth twitched” (SS 11). The twitch suggests discomfort and anger, but because of the only brief description of this passive behavior, it also does not warrant much sympathy. Finally, Alma gets money and calls after him: “ ‘Ennis—‘ said Alma in her misery voice, but that didn’t slow him down on the stairs and he called back ‘Alma you want smokes there’s some in the pocket a my blue shirt in the bedroom’ ” (SS 11). Alma calls after Ennis, but she does not run after him or make any physical effort to stop him. There is also “misery” in her voice, but more than this one word is not used to describe her emotion. Alma’s submissive sadness and lack of movement display that she recognizes and almost accepts her inability to stop her husband, and the bitter toll that the loss of her husband’s presence and care should have on her is therefore overlooked. Once again, Alma is portrayed as pitifully passive and the reader is instead able to rejoice that Jack and Ennis have found each other after four years.
The film and screenplay include many emotional details such as crying and dramatic facial expressions to express the suffering Ennis has caused Alma by neglecting his family and ultimately display Alma as the victim in the marriage. Once Alma witnesses the kiss, “She backs away from the front door a step or two, pale, struggling, trying to take in what she has just witnessed” (SP 47). This description includes dramatic motion and emotion, and lots of it; the words “pale” and “struggling” exhibit a true sense of shock. Michelle Williams’ expresses surprise and traumatization by widening her eyes and opening her mouth while beginning to shake slightly. Her breathtaking performance matches the exciting screenplay, but both cause the audience to more vividly sympathize with Alma and her loss, which was not present in the story. This sympathy becomes linked to a disappointment in Ennis due to his rude treatment towards her and their children, portraying Alma as a victim. Alma is also described as “having aged a few years”(SP 47) and “stone faced” (SP 47). The aging implies a sad and weathered condition, while her “stone face” depicts anger, which Alma never expressed so outrightly in the story. The clear expression of emotion makes the audience more emotional on her behalf. Finally, once she realizes the two are leaving together, Alma actively goes after Ennis to ask him to buy cigarettes so that he will return to her, but he responds negatively and closes the door in her face, leaving Alma to stand alone in the shadows. The physical action of chasing after Ennis demonstrates a much more passionate love and care for him than exhibited in the book, and the utter rejection is tragic.
Alma’s loneliness and unrequited love emphasized by her expressive longing in facial expressions and attempt to bring Ennis back to her make her a relatable and sympathetic character, while Ennis’ harsh treatment of her makes him increasingly detested. Then, Ennis comes back to Alma only to leave again. Alma’s dismal appearance upon Ennis’ arrival warrants sympathy; her disheveled hair and pajamas demonstrate her lack of sleep and her tears demonstrate the terrible sorrow Ennis has caused her. As Ennis walks in he moves right past her without even a greeting. Alma states “Your friend could come inside, have a cup of coffee… we ain’t poison or nothin’” (50). Her attempt hinder Ennis’ rushing to buy more time with him shows her care and sense of solitude, especially as she is willing to spend time with Jack if it means Ennis will stay. Her strategic “we” could be referring to herself and the girls, or the family as a whole, which he is of course included in. Reminding Ennis of his family is a subtle way of convincing him to stay, as he has an obligation and is a part of their lives. Alma even tries to convince him further by asking, “You sure that foreman won’t fire you for taking off?”(SP 50). However, Ennis disregards both of her attempts and simply continues packing without giving her so much as a glance. This neglect and ignorance towards his family taints the image of the sweet and confused Ennis the audience has come to know so far.
These first rather dramatic, controversial actions display the usual victim, Ennis, as harsh and rude, while Alma bravely suffers throughout their relationship. Final heartbreak for the audience arrives when Alma Jr. “hears her father’s voice, stumbles out of the bedroom, rubs sleep out of her eyes” and says, “Bring me a fish, Daddy, a big fish” (SP 50). The innocent child watching her father leave brings upon a feeling of sorrow and anger towards Ennis for abandoning his family. The combination of her “stumbl[ing]” and cute voice are impossible not to sympathize with, and so Alma and the children are the poor victims, only given an awkward kiss before their loved one disappears to the man he values more. The final shot of Alma crying with Alma Jr. in her arms only solidifies a disapproval of Ennis. McMurtry and Ossana’s incredibly tragic and sympathetic portrayal of Alma ultimately creates a new victim in the story, one not present in the original text, all the while oddly depicting the suffering main character as the culprit.
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