The Price of Growth: Childhood and Maturity in Highsmith’s Carol

Today’s book is Carol, the second novel by Patricia Highsmith. It was published in 1952 as The Price of Salt by a small press in New York. Harper’s published her first novel, the classic thriller Strangers on a Train. They declined to publish The Price of Salt because of its lesbian content. To protect her reputation, she used the pseudonym Claire Morgan. In her 2010 foreword to the Bloomsbury edition, Scottish author Val McDermid writes that “it didn’t fill a niche so much as a gaping void. Back then, the only images of lesbians in literature were as miserable inverts or scandalous denizens of titillating pulp fiction” (Highsmith v). These stereotypes persist, of course, and so works like this still have an important role in the development of younger queer people’s understanding of what it was like to be queer in that period.

In 1984, the book was republished as Carol, with Highsmith’s name on the cover for the first time. The afterword she wrote in 1989 for a new edition provides useful contextual information. She writes that “those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual” (Highsmith 311). Queer people existed then, as they always have, but went to great lengths to live safely in a hostile society. The atmosphere of suspicion Highsmith describes reminds me of American fears of the Soviet Union during the same period. 50s America has always seemed an incredibly suspicious place, where Americans who deviated from societal expectations endured the same distrust as foreign agents.

The novel’s reputation as a landmark lesbian romance, though much-deserved, meant it took me a while to realise that it’s a coming-of-age story too. The name of that genre conjures its own images to 21st-century readers, especially film fans. I use the term here, not because the novel fits many of the conventions of that genre, but because it accurately describes Therese’ arc. She just hasn’t yet learned to think of herself as an adult, which makes her susceptible to stronger personalities, or weaker personalities whose outward conviction masks their weakness. Her relationships with the novel’s major characters all contain some degree of antagonism. There is, in each, a conflict to be resolved so that she can face each person on equal terms.

She meets Carol’s friend Abby at the house in New Jersey. It’s important that Carol has another person in her life besides Hargess and Therese. She and Abby are old friends and Carol is relaxed around her in a way she isn’t always around Hargess or Therese. Their friendship lacks the tension present in these other relationships. By introducing Abby, Highsmith gives us a baseline of comfort for Carol, against which we can measure her behaviour around others.

But Abby’s history with Carol goes beyond platonic friendship. She’s perfectly friendly towards Therese, but from the moment they meet, Abby seems possessive of Carol, as if trying to to get the measure of a rival. She looks at Therese “as if to include her in something it was impossible she could be included in” (Highsmith 90). She drops Therese home to the city from Carol’s house, where Therese gives Abby a present to bring to Carol that evening:

“‘You’re going to see her tonight, aren’t you?’

Abby nodded, slowly, and Therese sensed the ghost of a challenge in Abby’s curious black eyes, because she was going to see Carol and Therese wasn’t, and what could Therese do about it?”

(Highsmith 91-92)

They later have lunch in the city, without Carol. This sequence is excellently written. Every other detail reveals something about Abby’s personality, like how she calls up waiters “with a snap of her fingers” (Highsmith 118). This may have been common in the 50s, for all I know, but here it serves to emphasise her assertiveness compared to Therese. This is a person used to getting her own way. She is one of the ‘stronger personalities’ I mentioned above, and Therese holds up well under her scrutiny. She catches on quick: “Abby knows, she thought. And perhaps she was in love with Carol too. It put Therese on guard with her” (Highsmith 117). It’s an accurate assessment that gives rise to “a curious exhilaration, a sense of certain superiority over Abby” (Highsmith 117). Carol creates within Therese a sense of awe, almost in the divine sense, but Abby does not intimidate her. Her assuredness in this situation gives rise to “emotions consequently revolutionary in themselves” (Highsmith 117). This line is important to me because it indicates that Therese is experiencing a revolution of self-discovery as her teenage years come to an end.

It is Abby who first openly alludes to the lunch as some sort of duel. Right before they leave the restaurant, she invites Therese to a cocktail party later that evening, probably so that she can continue to scrutinise her. Therese refuses because Carol won’t be there, thereby shutting Abby down and depriving her of any opportunity to continue the conversation on terms that she dictates. Therese realises that “she was tired of Abby now. Abby with her cocksureness, her blunt, careless questions, made Therese feel she had gotten an advantage over her” (Highsmith 121). She’s wrong. It’s Abby who has lost the advantage, despite her attempts to maintain it, and she recognises it while Therese doesn’t.

“Abby stopped walking. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, turning to her. ‘I think I understand better now.’

‘Understand what?’

‘Just- that you win.’

‘Win what?’

‘What,’ Abby echoed with her head up, looking up at the corner of a building, at the sky, and Therese suddenly felt furiously impatient.’

(Highsmith 122)

Therese doesn’t understand what Abby and, I hope, the audience does. It seems obvious to me that Abby has waited a long time for Carol, and likely hoped that the divorce might make her available at last. It’s difficult, I imagine, for her to watch Therese, so young, come in out of nowhere and steal Carol away, without even realising that she has stolen her. This is all conjecture on my part. As ever, the stories I enjoy the most are those which allow the reader to take what the author provides and fill in the gaps between those details. I love Therese and Carol, but I do feel sorry for Abby, and that she has to lose out so that they can grow.

Richard poses a diffrent challenge. If Abby was operating on a level that Therese didn’t understand then Richard is the inverse: Therese operates on a level that he doesn’t understand. He attaches an unrealistic value to their relationship. He says often that he loves her and he may well believe it, but he can’t accept that she does not love him. He has an immature, idealistic view of their relationship, paying little regard to how Therese’ inner life might exist apart from him.

In chapter eight, for example, she broaches the topic of queer relationships while they fly a kite on his birthday. His reponse is absent-minded, disinterested: “Richard’s face looked the same as it might have if they had been talking about politics” (Highsmith 99). She asks him if he thinks that she could fall for a woman and he says

“‘What!’ Richard smiled. ‘Fall in love with a girl? Of course not! My God, you haven’t, have you?’

‘No,’ Therese said, in an odd, inconclusive tone, but Richard did not seem to notice the tone.”

(Highsmith 100)

This is typical of Richard. He has his own myopic view and can’t entertain any alternative unless he’s forced to. He listens but he does not hear. Therese says to Carol “He does treat me like a person instead of a girl he can so far with or not” (Highsmith 81). This is not true. He treats her as a girl with whom he can go exactly as far as the limits of his own ambitions.

His actions arise mainly from boyish whims. He grows bored of his kite, for seemingly no reason. When Therese protests, he says

“‘It’s only a kite!’ Richard laughed, craning up at the nothingness.

Therese looked in vain, even for the dangling string. ‘Why did you do it?’ Her voice was shrill with tears. ‘It was such a beautiful kite!’

‘It’s only a kite!’ Richard repeated. ‘I can make another kite!'”

(Highsmith 101)

This scene takes place in one single, fairly short chapter, but for me, it’s the best illustration of why their relationship is doomed. He makes grand artistic statements and then cuts them away without a thought. Carol displays an accurate understanding of the man, even though they’ve never met: “‘Your friend Richard sounds like the kind of man who needs a woman around him to work for. Whether he marries her or not,’ Carol said” (Highsmith 85). She’s right, and Therese just happens to be that woman for the time being. She spends the novel learning, developing, adapting and growing, but he stays just the same.

Carol is the subject of the book’s eventual title but I consider her its secondary protagonist. She’s the character who occupies the most narrative space after Therese. By focusing our perception of Carol through Therese’ eyes, the novel keeps her distant from us. Therese interests Carol from the start, but it takes time for them to become close. Through most of the first part of the book, Carol seems distant, aloof. She makes teasing comments that belittle Therese, calling her “‘child’… like a reproach” (Highsmith 65). Having already dealt with Richard’s inadvertent insensitivity, I was worried that Therese might replace him with someone who also belittles her, albeit deliberately.

Over time, however, it becomes clear that Carol’s feelings for Therese have developed faster than she knows what to with, and she simply struggles to express those feelings in a way that makes her feel safe. Therese grows to understand Carol more fully the more time they spend together, and Carol grows to trust Therese to the point that she can express her love without burying it under her instinct to be defensive. All the while, we come to understand both characters better. I always appreciate when a writer uses a limited perspective to create an empathetic connection between a character and a reader, since empathy and the ability to create it is something I prize quite highly in writers in any medium. Highsmith’s prose keeps us incredibly close to Therese, so as Carol becomes more vulnerable and towards her, she becomes more vulnerable towards us. It’s often the small interactions that lead to unexpected moments of emotional intimacy:

“How nervous I was the first time I held this cup. You brought me coffee that day. Remember?’

‘I remember.’

How’d you happen to put cream in it that Day?’

I thought you’d like it. Why were you so nervous?’

Therese glanced at her. ‘I was so excited about you,’ she said, lifting the cup. Then she looked at Carol again and saw a sudden stillness, like a shock”

(Highsmith 184-185)

Therese frequently surprises Carol with casual expressions of affection. The long, cold years with Hargess have inclined her not to expect genuine warmth, so she has grown into a shell of detachment and low-key belligerence. Therese eases her way through these defenses and becomes an agent of change for Carol, just as she has become an agent of change in Therese’ life. The pair spend most of the latter half of the book on the road. Where before they saw each other only at intervals, they now spend weeks together in Carol’s car and in various motel/hotel rooms from Ohio to Utah.

With access to each other unfettered, their relationship develops quickly. The change each brings to the other accelerates. Richard sends increasingly desperate and cruel letters, which Therese ignores. Carol eventually has to leave Therese in South Dakota and fly back east to face Hargess and finalise their divorce. When they meet again in New York, they have their last conversation in the novel. Carol comments on how much Therese has changed. She tells her “‘now- you’re all grown up- with grown-up hair and grown-up clothes… You’ve come out all of a sudden'” (Highsmith 294). Therese’ appearance reflects the change she has experienced since the beginning of the novel. No longer stuck with a boyfriend she doesn’t love, she is free to pursue a relationship with Carol, who is herself free of her husband and living in an apartment big enough for two.

Despite the limits of their time, I am optimistic for the future of their relationship, though Highsmith doesn’t leave us with any firm assurances. Therese’ decision to return to Carol at the end of the novel carries an emotional and thematic resonance that encourages a positive reading of their future. In the afterword, Highsmith comments that “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” without having to “pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists (or) drowning themselves in a swimming pool” (Highsmith 311). What was a revolutionary ending in 1952 now fits comfortably with other romance stories. Therese and Carol aren’t immune to the prejudices of their society but the book makes it clear that, though their society might have a problem with them, they have no problem with themselves.

Publication details for the edition of Carol I used:

Highsmith, Patricia. Carol, Bloomsbury, 2015.

While I haven’t seen the 2015 film, I would look to talk briefly about my reaction to the cast. I used a tie-in edition of the novel with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara on the front, so obviously I pictured Carol and Therese as those two. I looked up the rest of the cast the other day. I hadn’t specifically pictured Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson as Hargess and Abby, but I think those two were perfectly cast. Chandler just has a 50s look, and before I knew he played him, I pictured Harge as a big, broad-shouldered man in a grey 50s suit. According to his driver’s license in the novel, Hargess is 5′ 8″ 1/2, but I feel that given the threat he constitutes in the narrative, someone of Chandler’s stature totally fits (putting aside the difference in average height between now and the 1950s). I haven’t seen Paulson in much, but I’ve liked her whenever I’ve seen her and I do think she was the right person to play Abby. I wrote about the character at length in this, and though I’d read her scenes before I knew Paulson played her, I couldn’t write the Abby section without picturing her.

I’d also like to say that if I had a pick for an interesting fanfiction pairing, it would be Hargess and Richard. It’s not that I’m especially invested in their happiness, since both reveal themselves to be fairly petty and cruel later in the novel (especially Hargess). I just think that the two of them discovering their own sexualities and developing a relationship together would make for an interesting parallel to the story of Carol and Therese.


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