A sexual ‘deviant’ snatches a motherless teenager away from her normal life, and together they set off for a car ride across the country. This is the context of their (in those times) transgressive sexual adventure. There is a sinister man in surreptitious and tenacious pursuit of them, and his intentions are inimical to their happiness.
Perhaps this sounds familiar. It is clear that when he wrote ‘Lolita’,(published in 1955), Vladimir Nabokov purloined a sly fistful of leaves out of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’ published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan.
Though Highsmith’s terse style is antithetical to Nabokov’s lushly intoxicating prose and convoluted machinations of plot, her second novel, (the first being ‘Strangers on a Train’) is no less iconic for being the first piece of published lesbian fiction to have a happy ending.
The winter of ’48 found twenty seven year old Patricia Highsmith working in the toy department of Bloomingdales, when a beautiful woman dressed in a mink coat came in to buy a doll for her daughter. The cooly aristocratic woman was Kathleen Wiggins Senn. Highsmith was instantly stricken, and managed to memorise Mrs Senn’s name and address and send her a card. Senn never responded, and by the time ‘The Price of Salt’ was published in 1952, she had committed suicide. The two never met.
Highsmith, almost swooning from the brush with her potent Muse, and infected with the germs of both an incipient novel as well as an eruptive disease, rushed home, and in a state of physical as well as emotional fever (she was coming down with chicken pox) wrote the entire outline of her feverish fantasy of wish-fulfillment ‘The Price of Salt’. This kind of unsettling slipping away of the mind that leaves one looking foolish in the eyes of the enchanter when one would least wish it, often turns the lock of the secret door from which myths and inspirations emerge.
In Highsmith’s novel Therese Belivet is a nineteen year old sales clerk in the toy department of Frankenbergs, when Carol Aird comes in to buy a doll for her daughter. Therese sends Mrs Aird a card, and Mrs Aird responds by suggesting that they meet. The degree and intensity of Therese’s estrangement from her boyfriend Richard runs parallel to the emergence of her developing affair with Carol. That the affair is excruciatingly slow to take shape, should not surprise us, coming from a writer who found engrossing the copulation of snails.
Carol is in the process of divorcing her husband Harge, and enmeshed in a custody battle for her young daughter Rindy, when Therese and Carol impulsively decide to leave together and drive across the country in Carol’s car. In the midst of their travels they become aware that they are being tailed by a detective (hired by Harge) The detective has bugged their motel rooms with what Highsmith refers to as ‘a dictaphone’, and of course the evidence he has collected is harmful and incriminating. Incriminating too is a letter addressed to Carol Therese had placed in a book of poetry she was reading at Carol’s house and inadvertently left behind.
The chastity of the relationship remains unchallenged until Carol and Therese are halfway through their travels, in Waterloo Iowa, but even after the abrupt interjection of sex, (implausible because until it happens there is no hint of it) the passion in this affair seems chilly, and fraught with the undercurrent of an ever present sense of incipient rejection. Carol acts superior to Therese, patronising her and alluding to her love as an ephemeral artifact of her youth and immaturity, and something which she will outgrow with age. Therese in turn exasperates Carol by frequently ignoring Carol’s questions, and communications between them are weighted with an underlying tension. Carol calls Therese insensitive – but is she really? or is this some of Highsmith’s almost autistic tin ear for sentiment which makes of this book that strange concoction – lovers who truthfully requite each others love, but express it with a marked insufficiency of warmth.
Curiously, this love has none of the unguarded openness which frequently emerges in the liquid depths of ‘falling in love’: There is no evidence of the repairing of damage and healing of wounds that accompanies mutual love. If there was tenderness here, I missed it, and both the falling in love, as well as the sex that finally accompanies it are fiats with no preamble. Sex between the two though intense and erotically charged, and described in almost hallucinatory terms, has no hint of yearning, and none of the ‘reluctance to let go’ which is love’s aftermath. Like the women themselves, it is abrupt both in beginning and end.
The reason for this otherwise inexplicable coldness could be a fascinating dynamic: Therese, the victim of an absent and rejecting mother, has fallen in love with another ‘absent mother’.
But Carol loves her daughter Rindy.
So, inevitably,in order for this love affair to be viable for Therese, Rindy, the legitimate occupant of the nest must be expelled, or else Therese would be in danger of becoming a mere step-child in this oedipal contest.
There is often a real risk of chronic insecurity and uncertainty when one’s new lover already has a child. Only someone who has had good and adequate mothering, which Therese did not get, could survive playing second fiddle in the affections of a lover. The almost palpable disconnect in the affair is Therese’s anxiety over being loved less than Rindy, and Carol’s conflicting feelings about the likelihood of having to forfeit her child if she is to keep her young lover.
One wonders if the possible coincidence of Carol’s child’s name ‘Rindy’ resembling ‘rind’: Not ‘fruit of the womb’, but something to be peeled and rejected, is not altogether far-fetched…
Highsmith partially conceals the chemistry that holds these two women in their unlikely relationship, but she permits unexpected flashes of it. There is a moment during one of Therese’s visits to Carol’s spacious impersonal house, when Carol imperiously commands Therese to get into bed (by herself) and Therese’s emotional response is to completely submit herself to Carol’s will. In what might otherwise be a moment when it would be most natural to think of love, Therese thinks of being killed, and is willing so to be.
Later, there is another ambiguously violent scene in a motel shower a flashing moment of arm twisting and head pulling and the danger of a foot slipping ( whose?). There is an unavoidable suggestion that the core of this connection maybe tacitly understood by both Carol and Therese to be sado-masochistic.
One would not call Highsmith’s writing beautiful – in fact it is fair to describe it as dense and plodding, but if god can be said to be found in the details Highsmith’s writing is godly. One gets siphoned into the seething sea beneath the impermeable layer of crushingly detailed ordinariness. The ordinary is just a blanket beneath which all the suppressed impulses and compulsions of an awakening sexual identity are ceaselessly roiled. The outer reality of heterosexual assumption with its banal certainties is completely unremarkable, mundane and quotidian, and completely at odds with the inner world now being discovered – an unfamiliar world that as yet lacks reference points or guideposts. This still unknown inner world can only be sensed and felt – it is a terra incognita – hidden beneath a sea of liquid emotion. It is a world to which Therese longs to surrender, even as she wishes to surrender to Carol the very self that she is so newly discovering, along with her body and her will. Therese’s inner life is fraught with disquieting needs – but just as it is wrong for Carol to trivialise and dismiss Therese’s devotion as a phase she will outgrow, it would be wrong of us to forget that this is the real deal – it is love at first sight….
Even though Highsmith does not do dialogue – (it is unlikely as the improbable ‘green’ sapphire on Carol’s finger) and advances her plot in relatively sparse prose, there is a paradoxical pleasure to be found in the emotional dryness which somehow awakens the senses and the imagination to that mythical time between the ’40’s and ’50’s when despite the rough winds shaking them , the darling buds of authentic lesbian experience began to emerge in the writing of lesbians themselves. We now know, as our lesbian forebears perhaps did not, that women with whom other women love are not women who just happen to be women, and that women fall in love with women because it is a matter of their sexual orientation. The fact that the prelude to unexpected lesbian love is often unexamined heterosexuality does not change this fact.
No doubt Highsmith was familiar with this process, since during the late ’40’s she had been seeing a Freudian therapist in an unsuccessful attempt to alter her sexual orientation in order to marry her fiance at the time Marc Brandel. In fact, she had taken the job at Bloomindales in order to pay for the therapy! Prior to sorting through the fog of sexual confusion both Therese and Highsmith leave a trail of rubble of their male beaux, but once their inclinations become clear to themselves, neither one casts a backward glance.
For Therese, the predicament of not knowing what she really is only step by step slowly not so much discovering but stumbling over what she is not. Something of the cheerless seediness of Therese’s room and the echoing emptiness of Carol’s sprawling house seem to say the same thing. There is a strange disjointedness in the both womens’ psyches: One feels a horror at the uncomforting bleakness evoked in Therese’s propensity for opening windows and letting in the cold. The warm shelter of rooms is a confinement to be relinquished in order to experience the world: surely there is a significance to that, and in her anguished over-reaction to Richard’s severing the string of a kite in flight, regardless of who we think is being separated from whom – or what.
Despite the crushing weight of Highsmith’s propensity to deluge us with detail, Therese’s experiences all seems to originate too much ‘in the head’ and not enough in the heart or body. There is no earthiness to these women: They drink a considerable amount of alcohol, but they do not eat – and if they eat, even if they are hungry, it is without relish. They don’t toss and turn in their sleep – sleep brings only a silent oblivion. They are aversive to food, and nourishment. At her home, and because she finds it disquieting to leave it outside, Carol asks Therese to help her bring in the garden furniture for the winter, even though Harge says it is not necessary to do so. This may be Highsmith’s way of suggesting that even as she acted the part of the ‘Bitch Goddess’ there still was in Carol a susceptibility to loneliness: A nerve to touch.
And yet, a subtle ingredient missing in this novel is an awareness of pathos. Even the most terse of Greeks possessed it, but Therese does not. Even when, she unflinching describes the heart-breaking plight of pathetic Mrs Robichek, she seems to sense it without being able to feel. But this sense of pathos is an indispensable dimension in true art. Out of the corner of her unblinking eye Highsmith catches and passes on to us glimpses of the post-war transition, and its pervasive seediness. She shows us a country full of those left behind who still seem to be stuck in the depression. Unforgettable are the worn out shoes of Mrs Cooper the older woman who ran the boarding house in Sioux Falls in which Therese stayed while Carol returned home to deal with her divorce and child custody dilemma. These scenes are are piercingly touching, and more than just a symbolic, but it is clear that Therese can observe these things without feeling any echo of empathy within herself.
The Russian writer and dramatist Chekhov observed that when there is a gun on the wall in the first act, it is bound to go off before the last – but what are we to make of it that Her lonely fellow sales clerk the lonely and ageing Mrs Robichek is trotted out and then left to flutter like a frayed flag in the wind? Perhaps this accounts for why other characters in the novel, like Abby, seem as if their separate parts were blowing away because the glue holding them together had dried up. Perhaps there is an unbearable irony here, That Therese, rejected by her own mother and forever lacking the tender nurturance of maternal love, would seek as her lover Carol, also a mother, but one who though she wavered, in the end would have to choose to sacrifice not just Therese, but her own happiness as a lesbian as well in order to have even a small part in her child’s life. Therese was cast aside by her mother. Therese may find that she chose as her lover a woman who might cast her lover aside in favour of her child…. Therese could be a two time loser.
It has been claimed that the preeminent function of love is to heal, but not before it inflicts a wound or two, and exacts its rightful price. While she is effectively abandoned by Carol in Sioux Falls South Dakota, far away from even the threadbare comfort of her rented room, Therese has an existential moment when she sees in the antique portrait of a lady, familiar to her from her childhood in an orphanage hanging in the public library a simulacrum of Carol. She perceives the Carol of his dual portrait as an archetype of betrayal and promptly has an intense attack of panic. Carol has written her a rambling letter to say that she is not contesting Harge’s claim for Rindy’s custody, and agreed to his terms in exchange for the hope of an occasional visit from Rindy. Harge’s terms are that Carol must stop seeing Therese, and in fact, cease being a lesbian.
After absorbing both the blow to her heart caused by Carol’s repudiation, as well as its disorienting effects Therese now decides to take control of her life. She abruptly gains a perspective of herself, and takes a temporary job in order to experience again the kind of life she intends to leave behind. She then secures a real job as a set designer in New York. She undergoes a dramatic transformation from passive girl to self-asserting adult, and returns to New York. She agrees to Carol’s request to see and speak with her. One senses again the glitter of fever which attended their first meeting. When they meet, Carol makes some important disclosures.
Sophisticated in her black dress Therese attends a theatre reception. When their mutual gaydar goes off, Therese recognises and is recognised as a lesbian by the leading actress of the play for which she is soon to be the set designer. The actress invites her for a private party with others whom she suggests are kindred spirits. Therese now knows that there is a personal as well as a professional world in which she can assert her independence and assume her established place among professionals like herself.
Here follows the denouement….
There is of course a biblical element to this novel, in which Highsmith (who was a regular reader of the bible) preaches a covert sermon, albeit with no trace of sermonising .
‘The price of salt’ is a biblical reference: Matthew 5 : 13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden underfoot of men”.
Also Luke 14:34 and 35 “Salt is good: But if salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land, not yet for the dunghill, but men cast it out “.
Highsmith is claiming some pretty high moral ground here But she is doing it in a very subtle way and perhaps not expecting most of her readers to catch it. A lesbian’s attachment to women and her identity are inextricably entwined. Take the lesbian out of such a woman and you have only ” Salt without its Savour”.
What manner of woman would choose to “Be cast out by men” and “Trodden underfoot”?
Because that is ‘The Price of Salt’.