English 321 – American Masterpieces

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Close Range:  Discussion Questions

(from ReadSmart Guide)


“A Lonely Coast”


1.    Take another look at the image that opens this story.  What do you make of the narrator’s description of the emotions that the long-distance sight of a burning house evokes?   Why does Josanna Skiles remind her of this house on fire in the night?


2.    Consider Josanna Skiles and her wild girl posse.  What do we learn about their personal lives, their relationships to their families?  How do their weekend activities help them to feel that they are “really living”?  Could we argue that this is as much “real living” as they have the chance to do?  What are their limitations, their options, their dreams?


3.    Josanna finds Elk Nelson through the personal ads.  How does either the narrator or Josanna and her friends think about these ads?  How does Elk Nelson represent himself in his ad?  Does he measure up to his written presentation of himself?  What do he and Josanna want out of their relationship?


4.    How is the narrator’s story of her own life connected to her account of Josanna Skiles?  What do the two women have in common?  Discuss your interpretation of the narrator’s comment at the story’s conclusion, when she confesses that “I think Josanna seen her chance and taken it.  Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up the dark impulse” (207).


5.    How is the town like a lonely coast?  The narrator tells her husband Riley that what they need in Wyoming are lighthouses, but he disagrees, saying that what they need is “a wall around the state and turrets with machine guns sin them” (193).  What would you guess that each is saying about his/her home state?


“Brokeback Mountain”


1.    Consider the life experiences of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.  What is similar or different in their background, their childhood, their marriage or work choices?

2.    How do Ennis and Jack come together?  What draws them to each other?  How do they talk about or interpret their sexual passion?  How do they feel about homosexuality?

3.    How do Ennis and Jack think about women, about married life?  What kinds of husbands are they?  What kind of father is Ennis?

4.    Once Ennis and Jack meet again, four years after their time on Brokeback Mountain, what expectations does each man have of the relationslhip?  What does Jack want?  What does Ennis offer?  Which man do you think is the more courageous, the more honest, the more realistic, or the more committed?

5.    Consider Jack’s memory of the “single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives” (279), the time on Brokeback Mountain when Ennis comes up behind Jack, pulls him close, and holds him, “the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger” (278).  What is this hunger?  If it is sexless, why is neither man successful in satisfying this hunger in any other relationship?

6.    How do Jack’s wife, his parents, and Ennis respond to Jack’s death?  What conclusion does Ennis draw about the way that Jack dies?  How does he remember his lover and friend?  Consider the narrator’s final assessment of Ennis’s mindset:  “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it” (285).  Do you agree that nothing can be done?  How do these words function as an appropriate conclusion to either the story or the collection as a whole?

7.    Proulx has commented that she enjoys writing from the male perspective.  What would you say about the representation of Jack and Ennis in this story?

8.    What kind of love(s) do Jack and Ennis share?

9.    What assumptions about the Old West does Proulx challenge?


“The Mud Below”


1.    Did you like Diamond Felts?

2.    Consider the life and times of Diamond Felts.  What are his driving passions?  How does he get involved with rodeo?  What does he find so appealing about riding a bull?  Until he rides that first bull, what does he think about ranchers and rodeo?

3.    Describe Diamond’s family life.  How does he feel about his mother, his brother, or his absent father?  What kind of woman and mother is Kaylee Felts?  What does she want for and from her sons?  Why does she take him to see Hondo Gunsch?  Why does she claim that Diamond has cost her “everything”?  Do you see any connections between Diamond’s family life and his passion for rodeo?

4.    How good is Diamond at making friends?  How does he get along with men?  With women?  How does his rodeo career affect his personal relationships?  Why does his partner Pake Bitts feel the need to tell Diamond that “the bull is not supposed to be your role model” (70)? 

5.    How would you describe the story’s representation of rodeo and rodeo culture?  What kinds of people are drawn to this life?  What do you think of Diamond’s comment in the Saddle Rack bar that despite the noise the other rodeo cowboys are making about missing their families, “none of you spend much time at home and you never wanted to or you wouldn’t be in rodeo” (73).  What about his assertion that riding rodeo makes you “Somebody”?

6.    When Diamond refers to himself as a rodeo cowboy, his mother responds, “You’re no more a cowboy than you are a little leather-winged bat” (59).  What is his mother’s definition of a cowboy?  What is Diamond’s definition?  In what ways does this story challenge or support the traditional vision of the American cowboy?


“Brokeback Mountain”


English 221—Survey American Literature II

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

“Brokeback Mountain” Discussion Questions


Support all of your answers to these questions with specific passages in the text.


1.     “Arcadia” has been used often in literature to describe an ideal land of rural peace and contentment.  Arcadia usually suggests rural withdrawal and simple happiness, and in mythology we often see shepherds watching their flock in simple happiness. 


Find passages in “Brokeback Mountain” where the place, Brokeback Mountain, fits this literary understanding of Arcadia.


2.    Proulx added the italicized prologue to the story after it had already been published in the New Yorker, but before it appeared in her collection of short stories, Close Range.


How does the prologue add to your interpretation of the story?


3.    Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel is a very important criticism in American Letters.  Fiedler’s premise is as follows:  The American hero’s fear of being “tamed” or “domesticated” drives him into the wilderness to escape the limitations of “family” and into the company of fellow westerners.  Often the hero teams with a Native American or an African American because they too have been cheated of their natural right to the land by the practice of Europeans.  This thesis contains the following elements:


·         The hero is “adolescent”

·         The hero escapes to the New Eden, America as a Paradise

·         The hero is defiant of the moral conventions of society

·         The hero flees the restrictions of authority (especially the authority of women)

·         The hero expresses repressed homosexual desires

·         The hero must “die”


How does “Brokeback Mountain” fit Fiedler’s thesis?  How does it differ?


4.    Did “Brokeback Mountain” in any way challenge stereotypes?


The American Cowboy





5.     How important is sexual orientation to identity?

6.    How are Jack and Ennis different?

7.    If you are a male, how do you express your friendship with another male?

8.    List the significant differences between the short story and the screenplay.

9.    How are the following important in the story?


·         Sheep

·         Father/Son relationships

·         Two shirts

·         Brokeback Mountain