''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, miserable and shunned.”
- Patricia Highsmith
The influential lesbian work The Price of Salt published 1953, later re-released as Carol (perhaps because most readers, like me, don't understand what the original title means1), described itself in the blurb on the cover as "The novel of a love society forbids". Written by Patricia Highsmith, a lesbian writer, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, it was her second novel (the first being Strangers on a Train) and her first piece of lesbian fiction.
Highsmith accredits her inspiration for this novel to a woman she barely ever met. When Highsmith was 27 and working at Bloomingdale’s, she sold a doll to an attractive blonde woman named Kathleen Senn. Though it was only a brief encounter, Highsmith couldn’t forget Senn. Not long after, she got chickenpox. In her feverish dreams, the plot details of The Price of Salt started to come together.
Highsmith kept the details of Senn’s credit card to find her address in New Jersey and track her down. Twice, in June, 1950 and January, 1951, she spied on the woman. Unfortunately, Senn never read, or even heard about, the book she inspired. She had psychiatric problems and was an alcoholic, and a year before the book was published, she committed suicide.
The Price of Salt is basically a story of what could have happened if Highsmith had pursued Senn. It’s about a 19-year-old, Therese, who sends a letter to a 32-year-old, Carol, she meets after processing her transaction at a department store.
Carol is going through a divorce, but they develop a relationship regardless. Later, Carol’s ex-husband threatens to out his ex-wife and gain custody of their daughter. She is forced to choose between her daughter and Therese.
The book is significant because of its ending (spoilers follow). Although Carol loses in the court battle of the book, The Price of Salt is regularly seen as the lesbian novel with the happy ending. Why? Because this was a time of lesbian pulp fiction, in which all books with homosexual content "punished" the homosexuals in the end. Since neither Carol nor Therese "turns straight", or ends up dead, it’s a happy ending by gay literature terms. There remains the possibility of Therese and Carol living happily ever after, which was unheard of. (spoilers end here) The main characters were also unconventional for lesbian characters because they weren’t mannish or neurotic, as lesbians were often depicted in gay fiction.
It was not easy for Highsmith to get her soon-to-be-bestseller novel published. Her American publisher rejected it for the lesbian content, as many homosexual novels had been before by various publishers. Controversial books were not seen as good for business.
When Highsmith did find a publisher, The Price of Salt came out first in hardcover, an oddity in the pulp fiction era. It’s still often seen as a pulp fiction novel, however, because it did not become popular until it came out in paperback.
The author received mounds of letters from lesbians, as well as gay men, thanking her for the hopeful ending to her novel. It was popular with lesbians who had never seen people of their orientation cast in a positive light.
The Price of Salt went on to inspire Lolita’s cross-country chase, and there are even rumours of a movie version coming out soon. Highsmith’s second novel helped pave the way for others to give their lesbian novels a happy ending, and so, marks a significant point in classic lesbian fiction.