Patricia Highsmith published The Price of Salt (or Carol) in 1952 during a period of popularity for lesbian pulp fiction novels. Because the characters were lesbians and the plots followed love connections between women, it was most common for the story to end with one of the women committing suicide, being murdered, or going insane. During this time in history homosexuality was not accepted, so the unfortunate endings seemed to be the only option for lesbian fiction. Patricia Highsmith changed that patterned with The Price of Salt. Because this novel pushed the boundaries of lesbian fiction, Patricia Highsmith used a pseudonym when the novel was first published. The Price of Salt was one of the first lesbian pulp fiction novels that depicted lesbians in a positive new light and gave them the opportunity for a happy ending.
The novel opens with Therese working seasonally at Frankenberg’s, a department store in Manhattan. Therese is a young struggling artist trying to make it in New York (sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?). She is juggling her job, set designing, and her boyfriend, Richard, when she meets Carol at Frankenberg’s. Carol is an elegant, classy married woman who catches Therese’s attention the second she steps onto Therese’s vision. Therese cannot get Carol out of her mind, so she sends her a Christmas card without knowing what to expect in return. Carol finds the card endearing and decides to meet with Therese. The two women spend the next few weeks spending time together and getting to know one another. As Therese becomes closer with Carol, she loses interest in her relationship with Richard, and he struggles with the growing bond between Therese and Carol, eventually ending the relationship. When Therese visits Carol’s home she learns that Carol is going through a terrible divorce and custody battle. As Carol waits for her dates in court, she decides to take a road trip and asks Therese to go with her. They head west, away from the drama that they have been facing at home. It is not until they get to Chicago when their relationship goes to the next level and they spend their first night together, as lovers. As their blissful travels continue, Carol’s best friend (and former lover) calls to inform Carol that her husband hired a detective to follow Carol and Therese on their trip. The mood of the novel immediately shifts to panic and the women’s paranoia is translated through the pages. Therese and Carol cannot lose the detective, so Carol decides to return home to face her divorce and custody battle. While Therese waits patiently for Carol’s return, she receives a letter from Carol informing her that she has lost custody of her daughter due to her relationships with Abby and Therese. In order to see her daughter, Carol must not see Therese anymore. The tragic news sends Therese on an emotional downward spiral and eventually, she heads back to New York. The lovers decide to meet one last time. When Carol invites Therese to move in with her, Therese refuses only to realize hours later that she cannot picture living her life with anyone but Carol. The anticipation of a happy ending builds through the last few pages ending with Therese walking towards Carol with an open heart ready for a new beginning.
The main conflict of the novel, Carol’s custody battle, shows the harsh stigmas that were placed upon homosexuals at the time, the stigmas that may have caused Patricia Highsmith to use a pseudonym. The only factor that played into the court’s decision in Carol’s custody battle was her sexuality. She was forced to choose between her daughter and her lover. Her husband’s violation of privacy and spying proved to the court that Carol was a lesbian, and therefore an unfit mother. During this time period, if one parent was queer, custody was automatically given the to straight parent, regardless of parenting capability or attentiveness to the child. Carol’s pain was felt by many at the time.
Today, courts are not allowed to make custody decisions based on a parent’s sexual orientation. Rightfully, courts are making decisions based on what is best for the child. Feminist advocates helped make this change in our judicial system. These decisions that directly affect people’s lives should not be based on bias like they have in the past. Since The Price of Salt was written, the familial structure has reformed to incorporate the diversity of people. Marriage equality, adoption rights, and custody battles are evolving. This shift in “where to draw the line,” as Gayle Rubin says, is part of the reason these situations are changing. The idea that lesbians were not fit mothers has crossed the line and is now on the side along with all other acceptable things. Non-normative family structures are becoming common and accepted; therefore, if Carol was going through her custody battle today, it probably would have had a different outcome.
The Price of Salt is a beautifully written novel that explores sexuality and makes readers think about the evolution that has occurred since the novel was written. Catch it in theaters starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara soon!