46 pages 1 hour read

Patricia Highsmith

The Price of Salt

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1952

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Summary and Study Guide


Patricia Highsmith published The Price of Salt in 1952 under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, because of the lesbian relationship between the two main characters—Therese and Carol. The Price of Salt is a romance, mystery, and coming-of-age tale. Highsmith wrote many short stories and over 20 novels. Like her other works, The Price of Salt contains autobiographical elements; like Therese, Highsmith worked at a department store, became captivated by a woman she met there, and was also a lesbian. The novel confronts themes like The Consequences of Love, Atomization and Alienation, and Love, Obsession, and Learning to Let Go. In 2015, Todd Haynes turned Highsmith’s novel into an Oscar-nominated film, Carol, starring Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol.

This guide refers to the edition published in 2004 by W. W. Norton & Company.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide include depictions of anti-lesbian bias.

Plot Summary

Therese is a 19-year-old young woman living in New York City. She wants to design sets for the theater, but set-designing jobs don’t come easy, so she works in the toy department—specifically, the doll section—of Frankenberg’s department store. Therese feels alienated and isolated, but she connects with an older coworker, Ruby Robicheck, who works in the sweater department. However, when she visits Ruby’s room in a brownstone, she sees that Ruby is lonely and despondent, and the experience terrifies Therese.

Therese has a boyfriend, Richard, who wants to take her to Europe in the spring. Richard paints, but Therese doesn’t think of much of his artistic abilities. He loves Therese, but she doesn’t love him, and the sex is far from pleasurable. Nevertheless, Richard wants to marry Therese, and he thinks she’ll eventually come around.

A few days before Christmas, a beautiful, graceful woman in her thirties, Carol, enters the store. Therese and Carol’s eyes meet, and it’s practically love at first sight. Therese sells Carol a doll’s valise and then a doll—both for Carol’s daughter, Rindy. Mesmerized, Therese finds Carol’s information from her purchase form and sends her a Christmas card.

Intrigued by Therese’s bold gesture—sending a strange customer a Christmas card—Carol calls Therese at work and invites her to lunch and then to her home in the country. They drive to Carol’s home in New Jersey together, where Therese tells Carol her dad died when she was young, and her antagonistic mom put her in an Episcopalian boarding school. Harge, Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, arrives, creating an awkward, “disagreeable” atmosphere.

Though Therese doesn’t have much money, she uses her savings and pawns a silver medallion Richard gave her to buy Carol an expensive handbag. Carol thinks the handbag is beautiful, but the gift is “too grand.” Carol buys Therese a valise and brings it to her apartment, where she meets Richard. Therese doesn’t want Carol to like Richard, and she doesn’t like how Richard creates “dull” dialogue with her.

At a park near Richard’s family home in Brooklyn, Richard and Therese fly a kite before Richard cuts the string and lets it vanish into the sky. Therese asks Richard about men who love men and women who love women. Richard has heard of such people but doesn’t know any, and he doesn’t think Therese could ever love a woman.

Therese won’t go to Europe with Richard, but she decides to go on a cross-country car trip with Carol. Before they go, Therese spends the night at Carol’s house (in a separate bedroom). She leaves a dramatic love letter she wrote but didn’t give Carol in a book, along with a check Carol wrote her for $200 that she feels uncomfortable accepting.

In Waterloo, Iowa, Carol and Therese have sex for the first time—their bodies go together perfectly. In the lobby of the hotel, Therese spots a man watching her over the newspaper. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Therese sees the same man. Carol gets a series of telegrams from her friend and former lover, Abby, who has discovered that Harge hired a detective to follow Carol and Therese. Carol wonders if the detective is putting recording devices in their rooms and if he recorded their sex in Waterloo. She also worries that Harge will find the check and the letter. Abby gets the check, but Harge has the letter.

Carol has a gun and thinks about confronting the detective with it, but she doesn’t. Instead, Carol buys some of the tapes from him—though the detective is upfront about having already sent most of the tapes to New York. Harge plans on using them to get full custody of Rindy.

Carol flies back to New York to deal with Harge, and Therese stays in Sioux Falls until a scary picture in the public library compels her to flee to Chicago. There, she gets a job and earns some money before returning to New York.

In New York, Therese meets a producer who can help her find work. Carol wants to meet, but Therese postpones the date. When they meet the next day, Carol expresses her love for Therese, but Therese isn’t sure if she still loves Carol. Carol has to see someone else, and Therese must attend a cocktail party for an actor “like Carol,” but Therese leaves the party and goes to Carol. Essentially, they wind up together.

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