The Price of Salt

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The Price of Salt
First edition
Author Patricia Highsmith
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Coward-McCann, W. W. Norton & Company
Publication date
1952, 2004
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 288 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN 978-0-393-32599-7
OCLC 55121342
Preceded by Strangers on a Train
Followed by The Blunderer

The Price of Salt (later published under the title Carol) is a 1952 romance novel by Patricia Highsmith, first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The author – known as a suspense writer based on her one earlier novel, Strangers on a Train – used a pseudonym due to the story's lesbian content. Its relatively happy ending was unprecedented in gay fiction.


According to Highsmith, the novel was inspired by a blonde woman in a fur coat she saw shopping at a department store while working as a temporary sales clerk selling dolls shortly before Christmas in 1948. She recalled completing the book's outline in two hours that night, likely under the influence of chickenpox which she discovered she had only the next day: "[Fever] is stimulating to the imagination." She completed the novel by 1951.[1] For the plot she drew on the experiences of her former lover, Virginia Kent Catherwood, a Philadelphia socialite who had lost custody of her child in divorce proceedings involving taped hotel room conversations and lesbianism.[2]

She found encouragement from one of her Barnard College teachers, Ethel Sturtevant,[3] who read some early extracts and said: "Now this packs a wallop!"[2]

Highsmith's publisher, Harper & Bros, rejected the novel.[2] Coward-McCann published it in hardcover in 1952.[4] The 25-cent Bantam paperback edition appeared in 1953 followed by another edition with jacket copy that announced "The novel of a love society forbids." Sales totaled more than a million copies.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Therese Belivet is a lonely young woman, just beginning her adult life in Manhattan and looking for her chance to launch her career as a theater set designer. When she was a small girl, her widowed mother sent her to an Episcopalian boarding school, leaving her with a sense of abandonment. Therese is dating Richard, a young man she does not love and does not want to have sex with. On a long and monotonous day working in the toy department of the department store, Therese becomes interested in a customer, an elegant and beautiful woman in her early thirties. The woman, Carol Aird, gives Therese her address to have her purchases delivered. On an impulse, Therese sends Carol a Christmas card. Carol, who is going through a difficult separation and divorce and is herself quite lonely, unexpectedly responds. The two begin to spend time together. Therese develops a strong attachment to Carol. Richard accuses Therese of having a "schoolgirl crush" but Therese knows it is more than that: she is in love with Carol.

Carol's husband, Harge, is suspicious of Carol's relationship with Therese, whom he meets briefly when Therese stays over at Carol's house in New Jersey. Carol had previously admitted to Harge that she had a short-lived sexual relationship years earlier with her best friend, Abby. Harge takes his and Carol's daughter Rindy to live with him, limiting Carol's access to her as divorce proceedings continue. To escape from the tension in New York, Carol and Therese take a road trip West as far as Utah, over the course of which it becomes clear that the feelings they have for each other are romantic and sexual. They become physically as well as emotionally intimate and declare their love for each other.

The women become aware that a private investigator is following them, hired by Harge to gather evidence that could be used to incriminate Carol as homosexual in the upcoming custody hearings. They realize the investigator has already bugged the hotel room in which Carol and Therese first had sex. Carol confronts him and demands that he hand over any evidence against her. She pays him a high price for some tapes even though he warns her that he has already sent several tapes and other evidence to Harge in New York. Carol knows that she will lose custody of Rindy if she continues her relationship with Therese. She tells Therese that she cannot continue their relationship. Carol leaves Therese alone in the Midwest and returns to New York to fight for her daughter.

The evidence for Carol's homosexuality is so strong that she capitulates to Harge without having the details of her behavior aired in court. She submits to an agreement that gives him full custody of Rindy and leaves her with limited supervised visits.

Though heartbroken, Therese returns to New York to rebuild her life. Therese and Carol arrange to meet again. Therese, still hurt that Carol abandoned her in a hopeless attempt to maintain a relationship with Rindy, declines Carol's invitation to live with her. They part, each headed for a different evening engagement. Therese, after a brief flirtation with an English actress that leaves her ashamed, quickly reviews her relationships–"loneliness swept over her like a rushing wind"–and goes to find Carol, who greets her more eagerly than ever before.

Literary significance[edit]

Because of the happy ending (or at least an ending with the possibility of happiness) that defied the lesbian pulp formula and because of the unconventional characters that defied stereotypes about homosexuality, The Price of Salt was popular among lesbians in the 1950s. The book fell out of print but was re-issued by Naiad Press and a number of other feminist and lesbian publishers.[5][2]

Radio adaptation[edit]

A radio adaptation named Carol was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in December 2014 with Miranda Richardson as Carol and Andrea Deck as Therese. It comprised five segments of approximately 15 minutes.[6]

Film adaptation[edit]

Main article: Carol (film)

A film adaptation of the novel, titled Carol, was released on November 20, 2015 in the United States. It is directed by Todd Haynes, with a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, and stars Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese. The film is produced by Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films, Christine Vachon of Killer Films and Tessa Ross of Film4 Productions. It is distributed in the United States by The Weinstein Company.[7]


  1. ^ Highsmith, Patricia (2004). The Price of Salt, or Carol. W.W. Norton. pp. 289–91. Retrieved June 1, 2015.  Highsmith's account of the composition of the novel dates from the Naiad Press edition of 1984.
  2. ^ a b c d e Dawson, Jill (May 13, 2015). "Carol: the women behind Patricia Highsmith's lesbian novel". The Guardian. Retrieved June 1, 2015. 
  3. ^ Highsmith named Sturtevant as one of the dedicatees of her 1958 novel A Game for the Living.
  4. ^ Rolo, Charles J. (May 18, 1952). "Carol and Therese". New York Times. Retrieved June 1, 2015. 
  5. ^ Añó, Núria (2014). "Carol, Claire Morgan versus Patricia Highsmith." In: L'Ull crític no. 17-18, UdL, pp. 267-279.
  6. ^ "Carol: 15 Minute Drama". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved May 31, 2015. 
  7. ^ Fleming Jr., Mike (May 28, 2013). "The Weinstein Company Acquires U.S. Rights To Todd Haynes-Helmed 'Carol'". Retrieved May 28, 2013. 

External links[edit]