The True Tale Of Obsession And Shame Behind ‘The Price Of Salt’

By Natalie Wilson

Published in 1952, The Price of Salt deftly examines the cost of living a life against the grain of what society asks of you. Contrary to the author’s well-documented jadedness, the book ends on a positive note — indeed, it is commonly cited as the first lesbian novel to have a happy ending. As noted by Frank Rich in his excellent piece “Loving Carol,” society’s growing acceptance of LGBTQ issues makes it “hard to appreciate . . . the impact Patricia Highsmith’s book had on gay women when it was first published.”

Highsmith first published The Price of Salt under a pen name, not wanting to be known as the author of a lesbian novel. Over 25 years later, she wrote an afterword for the 1990 reprint of the text, which retitled it Carol and named her as the author. The novel was the only one of her 22 publications that dealt in such detail with her own life and is based on the very type of transaction that opens the film: a purchase at a department store: Highsmith was working in the toy section of Bloomingdale’s in 1948 and sold a doll to a woman in a fur coat — a transaction she notes left her feeling “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.”

The Price of Salt was the heady result of this encounter, and, as in the movie adaptation, Highsmith got the name and address of the woman from the store receipt. Admitting to spying on the woman, Highsmith described her obsession with the beautiful stranger as feeling “quite close to murder.”

Murder and mystery are of course the mainstays of Highsmith’s writing — Carol is, ironically, the exception. Rather than stolen identities and devious strangers, it immerses us in the “crime” of lesbianism — something far more dangerous for Highsmith (and her writing career) than murder. Though she is often described as cantankerous, bitter, and rather unlikeable, what seems left out of many such characterizations is the likelihood her misanthropy was a result of the heteromonogamous world in which she lived and wrote.

As Carol does in the narrative, Highsmith tried to live by the rules. She intended to marry and saw a therapist who was unable to “cure” her penchant for affairs with women. Such facts become all the more poignant when compared to the rare happy ending the tale gives Carol and Therese. Unlike her fictional lovers, Highsmith did not end up with the woman from the department store, instead she had a string of tumultuous affairs. In contrast, Carol and Therese, as Sasha Stone puts it, proclaim “their right to live as they are” — they achieve what Highsmith, for whatever reason, could not. Sadly, Highsmith even questioned her own “place” as an author, saying “I never think about my ‘place’ in literature, and perhaps I have none.”

Rich hits the mark on her oft-cited jadedness when he asks, “Do the travails of both her life and career have anything to do with the fact that her sex life was condemned as a perversion and punishable as a crime in the country of her birth?” Indeed, her misanthropy is completely understandable thanks to what Rich calls the durable “misogynistic strain in America” which forces “gay women…to settle for the crumbs of mainstream culture” — and, more broadly, to have to fight for scraps of recognition in a publishing world where white heterosexual males are still the darlings.

Hopefully the critical acclaim the film garnered will not only inspire producers to greenlight more lesbian and queer focused films, but inspire audiences to read The Price of Salt and grant Highsmith her well-deserved place at the literary table. Her groundbreaking narrative of lesbian love will perhaps lead to the kind of societal ending the book is famous for — a happy one in which people that love one another are allowed to live their lives together, free from condemning gaze and punitive heteronormative laws.

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