Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Crosstalk: The Price of Salt

With Oscar season just around the corner, Hollywood has provided us with another crop of films based on books. Todd Haynes’ Carol inspired two librarians, Meredith and John, to read its source novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which they discuss here:

Meredith: Hoo, boy. Where to begin? First of all, I was just absolutely blown away by The Price of Salt (or Carol). For those of you not familiar with the plot, Highsmith’s 1950s novel is told from the point of view of Therese, a young, New York shopgirl working in a department store around the holidays and the intense love affair she begins with Carol, a wealthy older woman. Patricia Highsmith is an absolute phenomenal talent; I can’t believe she isn’t more widely read. I’d argue she’s one of the great female contemporary authors alongside Shirley Jackson and Carson McCullers. Highsmith has a way of capturing small moments with a vividness that really brings her novel to life. But that’s getting a little bit ahead. One of the most surprising and influential factors of The Price of Salt is the circumstances of its publication. John, would you be so kind as to give a little bit of background context?

John: It’s actually pretty amazing that this book was published at all. She originally had the idea in 1948 (there’s an autobiographical element with Highsmith as Therese working in a shop). When she submitted it to her publisher Harper & Brothers in 1951, with whom she’d already published Strangers on a Train in 1950, they were spooked. Not surprising really, given that the book is very open about what (in those days) was seen a real transgression. It was eventually published by two other publishers (Coward-McCann in 1952 and Bantam in 1953) and sold something like 7 million copies, but even then Highsmith didn’t use her own name (originally published under "Claire Morgan"). Then it was out of print until the 1980s, at which point Highsmith republished it under her own name. There are so many remarkable things about this book. What did you find most striking?

M: Probably how unapologetic it is about the relationship between Therese and Carol; especially, as you pointed out, given its time period. When Therese sees Carol for the first time, it’s as if the final piece of her life, a piece she didn’t even know was missing, snapped into place. Suddenly, the reason for all of her disappointments and loneliness she felt in life came into focus. There’s no fear or hesitation or confusion with Therese, she knows she loves Carol and pursues her with an obsessive fervor. This, I think, is an important distinction. In reverse, it could easily be seen as lurid pulp story, or cautionary tale of an older woman preying on the naïve ingénue. However, as the novel is told from Therese’s limited 3rd person point of view, the reader gets a clear picture of her desire to be with Carol. In fact, most of what we know about Carol is filtered through Therese, which gives Carol an otherworldly demeanor. Here’s one of my favorite examples of Therese observing Carol.
“‘I let it boil and it’s got a scum on it,’ Carol said annoyedly. ‘I’m sorry.’ But Therese loved it, because she knew this was exactly what Carol would always do, be thinking of something else and let the milk boil.”
What do you think about the relationship between Therese and Carol?

J: First of all, what courage it must have taken for Highsmith to write this and have it published at that time. At the most basic level Therese and Carol’s relationship is the illustration of a possibility, the possibility that there are other lives beyond those that the mores of society tell us are on offer. In that sense it’s a very liberating book for anyone who reads it. But it’s also a book about the capacity of a young woman to assert control over her own life (especially in terms of sex), however it might turn out, and without some guy telling her what to do. That’s something American society began coming to terms with in the 1970s. In the 1950s that would have been viewed as ridiculous and very dangerous. And then, ultimately, neither Therese nor Carol is punished for transgressing with anything like the severity that settled opinion would have expected.
Speaking of agency, what do you think is the significance of Therese’s moves to seduce the actress?

M: What a great scene! It comes at the very end after Therese and Carol have returned from their road trip and I think it’s important for illustrating a couple of ideas. First of all, there’s the belief that Therese’s relationship with Carol could be seen as a youthful indiscretion. Therese’s boyfriend, Richard, certainly seems to think so. He tolerates her crush until it starts to impede his plans for their future. As for Therese, being with Carol has opened up a new world to her, but there’s also sort of an unspoken prospect that Therese’s feelings are solely for Carol. By beginning a seduction of the actress, she’s testing her wings, so to speak. She’s excited, as you’ve mentioned, by the possibilities that are now available to her, but when it comes down to it, she realizes her great love will always be with Carol. In her afterward to the 1989 edition of The Price of Salt, Highsmith writes, 
“Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.” 
What do you think about the ending?
J: You’re exactly right about the importance of Highsmith not punishing her characters for their “indiscretions.” Carol does have to pay a price in terms of her custody battle with Harge, but that’s important too. For a mature woman in this period the so-called maternal instinct would have been expected to cancel out everything else. It’s as if Highsmith is mooting the possibility that Carol might be subject to some legitimate human impulses other than simply mothering (and it’s certainly not like Carol's daughter, Rindy, is getting thrown out on the street). More generally, the ending of the book is really thrilling because it’s so open. Therese and Carol might be happy in the long run, or they might not. But the fact that they are getting the chance to explore life on their own terms is satisfying in a human sense. Of course, you know it’s going to be difficult for them, because society is built to punish people who go against the grain. But the opportunity to live a life less ordinary seems to make this a wager worth making. Okay, last question: Since you’ve seen the movie and I haven’t, do you think it does justice to the quality of Highsmith’s original?

M: Carol the movie is a feat in and of itself. For a novel so steeped in interiority, it would almost seem unfilmable. Without Therese’s narration, her motives have to be communicated through subtle body language – hands brushing here or a stolen look there. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett do a spectacular job bringing passion and intensity to understated roles. It’s a testament to the strength of everyone involved making this film that this novel was able to make the jump from the page to the silver screen so successfully. From Phyllis Nagy’s script which allows the relationship to build through wordless exchanges, to director Todd Haynes who created a work devoid of the male gaze; Carol is easily one of the best films I’ve seen in recent memory and is definitely a faithful adaption of Highsmith’s book. Hopefully it will be properly recognized this week at the Oscars, where the film has six nominations, including Best Screenplay. 


  1. Excellent discussion and analysis. I like this format - the back and forth. It'd be interesting to read you two having a go at a book one of you likes and the other does not. I can understand why the title got changed for the movie - that almost always happens, but what did the original title mean? What salt was being referred to and what was its price? Who paid that price?

  2. This New Yorker article (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/30/forbidden-love) suggests Highsmith was referencing a Bible passage (Matthew 5:13):

    “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”

    The first reference to "salt" comes late in the novel when Therese has been left behind by Carol who was forced to return to New York to deal with her divorce:

    “In the middle of the block, she [Therese] opened the door of a coffee shop, but they were playing one of the songs she had heard with Carol everywhere, and she let the door close and walked on. 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?”

    It's a fairly oblique reference, but I think salt can be seen as a metaphor for a requirement of life. And in this instance, when one brings up the "price" of something, you invoke the feelings of loss or longing. So, speaking more specifically in the case of this novel it suggests that there is a cost for Carol and Therese to be together. Is it that Carol loses custody of Rindy? Or something else down the line that comes after the novel ends?

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  4. I agree with Meredith and would only add that, salt being about flavor, the reference is probably meant to suggest something about the texture of Therese’s and Carol’s loves. Clearly, for both women things in life have become flat and flavorless. When they meet their relationship returns flavor to their lives, or adds savor, or something like that. But of course it comes at a price which is a lot of what the second half of the book is about. As we mentioned in the original piece, the price that they pay (at least in the part of their lives that we are allowed to see) is not as catastrophic as the society of the 1950s might have expected, but heavy nonetheless. What price they may have to pay in the future is left up to the imagination. But at the same time Therese and Carol have found a road into the open, and Highsmith clearly suggests that this is worth the price that they have to pay.