Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Price of Salt

When I went to see the movie Carol, I thought I had read the 1952 novel it was based on by Patricia Highsmith, but I quickly realized I had not. The movie was disappointing to me. I thought the dialogue was superficial and the relationship unconvincing.  Perhaps the book would be better.  It was, but only because Highsmith is a good writer, who makes it worthwhile, despite the same unconvincing relationship.

The Price of Salt is presented from the point of view of Therese, the young, naive shop girl, who falls in love with the older, married, sophisticated Carol, and who, by the end, is well on her way toward a professional career. Though it is largely Therese's story, the emotional focal point is Carol, which somehow justifies the book being later republished as Carol. But that change sacrifices a unique and powerful metaphor, which captures what is best about both the movie and the book.

The novel is both a coming of age narrative and a coming out story. Therese is just 21, working as a store clerk while trying to build a career as a theater set designer. (In the movie she is just 19 and has not yet seriously begun to pursue a career in photography.) She has a boyfriend who wants to marry her, but she is unenthusiastic, to say the least. When Therese waits on Carol in the store, it seems to be her first same-sex attraction experience, and it's a powerful one. The two women begin to see each other, and Therese slowly begins to acknowledge that her connection with Carol is romantic. Carol, who is in the midst of a divorce and child custody dispute, is more experienced, but it is actually Therese who makes most of the explicit verbal advances, perhaps only half knowing what she is doing. (In the film Therese is more reserved but is clearly more interested in Carol than in any man.)

On a car trip west the two women eventually become sexually intimate. (In the film Carol is the initiator, but in the novel it is clearly mutual.) This relationship is a sexual awakening for Therese, but for Carol it becomes an undoing.  Her husband has had them followed by a private detective, who gathers enough incriminating evidence to use against Carol in court.  The love story hits the rocks as Carol returns to New York, leaving Therese behind, and ends up promising never to see Therese again, or any woman romantically, in order to have visitation rights with her daughter. (The film depicts the legal dispute somewhat differently, but in both cases Carol gives up the joint custody fight.)

Meanwhile, Therese begins to come to terms with her self-discovery, her loss, and her future. At one point, mourning Carol's absence, she questions. " would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?" (The film makes no mention of this metaphor.)

But it is Carol who pays the highest “price of salt.” In the end she refuses to agree to all the terms of the divorce, sacrificing some of her visitation rights in hopes of being reunited with Therese, or, at the least, being able to live an authentic life. Therese, having returned to New York to pursue her career, at first spurns Carol's offer to live with her, but finally, perhaps having both come of age and come out to herself, perhaps feeling on more equal terms with Carol, perhaps simply unable to resist, perhaps all of that, returns to renew the relationship, knowing that there will no doubt be more price to pay in a world that is hostile to them.

So why do I find this relationship unconvincing? It isn't just the age, class, and experience differences; it's the superficial dialogue and seemingly superficial interactions. As good a writer as Highsmith is, she expects us to take the narrator's word instead of dramatizing any depth in the relationship. If we read a biography of Highsmith, we learn she didn't really experience a successful relationship herself. Could that explain her inability to make a fictional one believable?

Highsmith is better at description and narration than she is at dialogue.  Some passages are admirable as poetry. Others are striking in their unique word choice. In the following passage she captures the fragility of relationships, perhaps based on her own experience:

“Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder's foot.”

But, to what extent does that sense of instability in human relations derive from the realities of same-sex relationships in the fifties?  A primary value of the novel, and of the movie, is the way it represents the price historically exacted by society for same-sex love.

Although the novel is unusual for lesbian fiction in the time period by portraying a "happy ending," it's hard not to wonder whether Therese and Carol can sustain their relationship with so little social and institutional support.  In any case, there will no doubt be more price to pay for a world with salt.