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
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 288 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN 978-0-393-32599-7
OCLC 55121342

The Price of Salt (later republished 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 psychological thriller Strangers on a Train – used a pseudonym due to the story's lesbian content. Its relatively happy ending was unprecedented in lesbian literature and 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:

Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light. With the same thoughtful air, she purchased a doll, one of two or three I had shown her, and I wrote her name and address on the receipt, because the doll was to be delivered to an adjacent state. It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision. As usual, I went home after work to my apartment, where I lived alone. That evening I wrote out an idea, a plot, a story about the blondish and elegant woman in the fur coat. I wrote some eight pages in longhand in my then-current notebook or cahier.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3][4] She placed her younger character in the world of the New York theater with friends who are "vaguely bohemian, artists or would-be artists" and signaled their intellectual aspirations by noting they read James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, the latter unmistakably lesbian. All are struggling to find a place for themselves in the world, not only Therese.[5]

She found encouragement from one of her Barnard College teachers, Ethel Sturtevant,[6] who read some early extracts and said: "Now this packs a wallop!"[3]

Highsmith's publisher, Harper & Bros, rejected the novel.[3] Coward-McCann published it in hardcover in 1952.[7] The 25-cent lesbian pulp edition[8][9] by Bantam appeared in 1953 followed by another edition. Sales totaled more than a million copies.[3]

The Price of Salt fell out of print and was re-issued by lesbian publishing house Naiad Press in 1984;[5] and republished by Bloomsbury as Carol in 1990 under Highsmith's name.[10][11] As for the original title, the phrase does not appear in the text, but Highsmith used salt as a metaphor just twice within a few pages. Late in the novel, separated from Carol, Therese muses: "...they were playing one of the songs she had heard with Carol everywhere.... The music lived, but the world was dead. And the song would die one day, she thought, but how would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?" Shortly thereafter, Therese explores her feelings for two men: "She felt shy with him [Danny], yet somehow close, a closeness charged with something she had never felt with Richard. Something suspenseful, that she enjoyed. A little salt, she thought."[12]

Because of the new title and her acknowledged authorship, the novel received another round of reviews, thoroughly favorable, almost forty years after its initial publication. Highsmith submitted to a round of publicity interviews as well, though she resented questions about her sexuality and personal relationships. When Sarah Dunant of the BBC asked her if Carol constituted her "coming out", she replied without answering: "I'll pass that one to Mrs. Grundy", referencing the character who embodies conventional propriety.[13]

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 theatre 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.

Social 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.[14] When Highsmith allowed her name to be attached to the novel in 1990, she wrote in the "Afterword" to that edition:[2]

The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality, or by collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell.

The novel's representation of its lesbian characters also departed from the period's stereotypical representation of lesbians, both in popular literature and in professional medical literature, that expected one member of a lesbian couple would be "noticeably masculine in her affect, style, and behavior". Highsmith depicts Therese as puzzled when her experience does not match that "butch-femme paradigm": "She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that."[5]

The marketing of the novel in successive editions reflected different strategies for making the story of a lesbian romance attractive or acceptable to the reading public. The first edition's jacket copy called it "A Modern Novel of Two Women". The jacket copy for the 1953 Bantam edition balanced the words "The Novel of a Love Society Forbids" with a reassuring quote from the New York Times that said the novel "[handles] explosive material... with sincerity and good taste". A Norton edition appealed to highbrow tastes by announcing that the novel "inspired Lolita", a claim that has not been documented.[5]


A radio adaptation titled 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.[15]

A 2015 British-American film adaptation of the novel, titled Carol, was directed by Todd Haynes from a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy.[16] The film stars Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese.[17][18] Carol was an Official Selection of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and won the Queer Palm award.[19][20]


  1. ^ Patricia Highsmith (November 11, 2015). "Happily ever after, at last: Patricia Highsmith on the inspiration for Carol". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved 3 January 2016. 
  2. ^ a b 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.
  3. ^ a b c d Dawson, Jill (May 13, 2015). "Carol: the women behind Patricia Highsmith's lesbian novel". The Guardian. Retrieved June 1, 2015. 
  4. ^ Talbot, Margaret (November 30, 2015). "Forbidden Love". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 2, 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c d Carlston, Erin G. (November 22, 2015). "Essay: Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, The Lesbian Novel That's Now A Major Motion Picture". The National Book Review. Retrieved January 2, 2016. 
  6. ^ Highsmith named Sturtevant as one of the dedicatees of her 1958 novel A Game for the Living.
  7. ^ Rolo, Charles J. (May 18, 1952). "Carol and Therese". New York Times. Retrieved June 1, 2015. 
  8. ^ Castle, Terry (May 23, 2006). "Pulp Valentine". Slate. The Slate Group. 
  9. ^ Fonseca, Sarah (January 7, 2015). "Patricia Highsmith's Lesbian Pulp Classic The Price of Salt Is Coming To A Theater Near-ish You In 2015". Autostraddle. The Excitant Group. Retrieved January 3, 2016. 
  10. ^ Jones, Nick (September 25, 2015). "Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1990); Orig. The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (Coward-McCann, 1952): Book Review". Existential Ennui. Retrieved January 3, 2016. 
  11. ^ Peters, Fiona. Anxiety and Evil in the Writings of Patricia Highsmith. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 93, 127. ISBN 1409478912. 
  12. ^ Highsmith, Patricia (2004). The Price of Salt. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 260, 268. ISBN 978-0-393-32599-7. 
  13. ^ Wilson, Andrew (2003). Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. New York: Bloomsbury. p. 441–42. Retrieved January 29, 2016. 
  14. ^ Cotkin, George (December 10, 2015). "Carol and What It Was Really Like to Be a Lesbian in the 1950s". Time. Retrieved January 3, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Carol: 15 Minute Drama". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved May 31, 2015. 
  16. ^ The Frame Staff (January 6, 2016). "Phyllis Nagy and the long road to writing 'Carol'". The Frame (KPCC). Southern California Public Radio. Retrieved January 8, 2016. 
  17. ^ Fleming Jr., Mike (May 28, 2013). "The Weinstein Company Acquires U.S. Rights To Todd Haynes-Helmed 'Carol'". Retrieved May 28, 2013. 
  18. ^ Siegel, Ed (January 6, 2016). "Todd Haynes' 'Carol' — Somebody Finally Gets Patricia Highsmith Right". The ARTery (WBUR). Boston University. Retrieved January 7, 2016. 
  19. ^ Festival de Cannes (April 15, 2015). "The 2015 Official Selection". Festival de Cannes. 
  20. ^ RFI (May 24, 2015). "US film Carol wins Queer Palm at Cannes". RFI. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • BBC Radio Adaptation Carol