Carol (aka: The Price of Salt), Patricia Highsmith

The journey of this novel is well known but worth recounting: after penning her successful first novel, Stangers on a Train (which became the basis for the Hitchcock film of the same name), the twenty-something Highsmith rejected her publisher’s advice to immediately follow it with another in the same genre. When she presented instead this literate and self-revelatory tale of a romance between two women, the publisher returned the favor, rejecting the manuscript. (This was, after all the early 1950s.)  Highsmith ended up publishing it through another house as The Price of Salt, using the pen name Claire Morgan to avoid damaging the marketability of her real name. To the surprise of many, it was quite successful, eventually selling nearly a million copies under that title before being re-released in 1990 as Carol.  By either name, it is considered one of the most successful ‘lesbian-novels’, and possibly the first widely-known one which did not end in tragedy or despair thanks to the proclivities of its lovers.

Reading Carol today, one is struck by the pace; slow, atmospheric and introspective. While appropriate to the characters’ journey, such style would only survive in today’s marketplace if the author were already an established literary figure or a bullet-proof best-seller.  The social constraints of the time also come through crystal clear; Carol’s husband Hargess’s assumptions of entitlement, authority and moral rectitude seem drawn from a different century (oh, yeah, I guess now they are!).  Therese’s aspiring fiance Richard runs a close second, and several other males here fare little better. 

For women, Highsmith has an abundance of sympathy, her portrait of Therese’s co-worker Mrs. Robichek is heartbreaking, as it is meant to; a foil to the hint of happiness Therese may, just possibly, find if she has the courage to be true to herself.  Carol, her friend Abby and several of the landladies Therese encounters are also warmly drawn, though there are also exceptions, particularly among the women who supervise Therese’s brief department store employment (drawn from the author’s own life, and evocative of a wildly-different workplace culture than exists today).

As that suggests, the story takes place at a curious economic moment – early enough after WWII that materialism and television culture have not yet completely transformed people’s day to day lives, yet among a crowd who seem borne by the post-war economy.  Carol’s wealth – attained, in an interesting counter to the ‘empowerment’ implications of her sexual frankness, through her marriage to Harge – enables the two women to live a life of leisure, flitting from restaurant to shop to restaurant, and that’s even before their month-plus round of hotel-tripping across the US.  Even Therese, who is described as a virtual orphan with no resources, manages to maintain an apartment of her own in lower Manhattan, cash in her purse, and has an incredibly (literally) easy time making contacts and getting paid for her work as a scenic designer, despite having taken only two short courses on the subject and putting rather little effort or diligence into it. This may be reflective of Highsmith’s own journey, for though not raised to wealth or status, she seems to have found early success as a writer with little obstacle (a pivotal recommendation from Truman Capote is mentioned in one source, suggesting that even in the ‘50’s there was already a support network among New York’s gay community).

Another aspect of reading Carol today is power-politics, as seen in the seduction of a young innocent by an elder equipped with wealth, secret knowledge and the promise of instant belonging.  Therese is significantly older than Dolores Haze in Nabakov’s Lolita (19 versus 12), but she is still far from an equal to Carol.  Highsmith does address acknowledge this, through the doubts of Carol’s confidant Abby, and also seems to express as the novel winds to a conclusion that it is Therese’s very maturation over the course of their relationship that leads both women to decide they belong together.  Still, a touchy politics, which would be savaged in the current environment had Carol been cast instead as Carl (which was apparently the intent in a proposed 1950’s film adaptation).

Thankfully, that bastardization was never completed, but the 2015 film adaptation was, receiving six Academy Award nominations and nine British Academy Awards nominations.  With strong performances by Cate Blanchet and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, it is stylish and suspenseful, the romance completely convincing and appealing beyond idle curiosity or voyeurism, thus extending, 20 years after her death, Highsmith’s early progress in bringing non-hetero relationships out of the backwaters and into the mainstream of literature and entertainment.

In an added afterword, dated 1989, Highsmith notes with evident pride the number of letters she has received over the years thanking her for telling such a story and, especially, for ending it on a positive and hopeful note.  One wonders if this, of all her 22 novels, may have been the most precious to its author, for just that reason.  (Though the Ripley series arguably gained her more renown, and likely far more lucre.)

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