The Queer Gaze and the Ineffable in THE PRICE OF SALT
By Candace Walsh •
I almost didn’t read Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, one of the most influential, relevant, and exquisite novels I’ve ever encountered. Why? I felt like it would be dated. I thought that I should read it. I saw the movie. And I had reason to believe that it would end in predictable tragedy.
Published in 1952, The Price of Salt, about a lesbian love affair, was made into the 2015 film Carol, and (spoiler) the ending is realistic, but decidedly not tragic. In the book, nineteen-year-old stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird, a wealthy woman in her early thirties going through a divorce, fall in love. Given that the novel was published seventeen years prior to Stonewall, I was expecting a lot of coy, plausible-deniability-ridden allusions, and a tragic ending, required at the time to avoid censorship. Instead, I found the book to be rich with frank expressions of desire—descriptions refreshingly different from the expressions of heterosexual desire that I am used to reading in novels with straight characters.
Woman-identified readers and writers have recently expressed a vast dissatisfaction with how male novelists describe female characters, through a problematic male gaze that zeroes in on secondary sex characteristics, in a way that almost decapitates the subject of the gaze.
I examined The Price of Salt’s expressions of desire to see how, using craft elements, Highsmith created her own lexicon of courtship, and how she built erotic tension. This would be useful to all kinds of (conscious, interested) writers writing about all kinds of love, who want to write more effectively about desire and love. I suppose I could call Highsmith’s approach a kind of queer gaze, or a queer mapping of desire, but I feel that instead of it being an either/or, binary thing, all writers could learn how to more movingly and fully describe compelling characters (all along the sexuality spectrum) by studying the craft of Highsmith’s descriptions.
Lines on Lines
The Price of Salt feels contemporary in part because of its un-tortured discussion of sexuality, but also because nineteen-year-old Therese is refreshingly obsessed with her career, as a talented stage design apprentice. Highsmith uses this aspect of Therese as a way to deepen her characterization, and it also affects the way Therese sees and describes Carol: as a whole person, as if seen on a stage, with an eye toward the lines of her figure. The first time Therese sees Carol, she notes, “She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist.” Carol’s form is described from head to toe—“tall,” with a “long figure.” She’s both dynamic in the scene, and whole. This contrasts with a style of description that might depict a character in respect to the parts of her body, zooming in on breasts, waist, or legs, descriptions that emphasize parts over whole.
After Therese and Carol’s first encounter at Frankenberg’s department store, they meet over lunch in a restaurant. Seated opposite Carol, Therese again describes her with an explicit acknowledgment of the lines of her form: “There was a long line from the waist of her fitted black suit up to the widening shoulder, and then the blond head with the fine, unruly hair held high.”
When Therese is not with Carol, she thinks about her, feels veritably infused by her. As a stage designer, Therese’s practice is to sketch stage designs, to summon the worlds of plays from pencil and paper. She also connects to Carol by drawing lines, as in this passage:
But there was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol…She flung herself on her bed and drew a line with a pencil on a piece of paper. And another line, carefully, and another. A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves.
This passage shows how Highsmith strengthens the character development of Therese as a stage designer, a well-rounded, creative human with agency, while also strengthening the depiction of Therese’s feelings for Carol.
Using simile, Highsmith reaffirms the use of the line to describe Carol: “Carol reached for her coat on the armchair, and again Therese noticed the long line from her shoulder to the wide leather belt, continued in her leg. It was beautiful, like a chord of music or a whole ballet.” One of the qualities Therese admires about Carol is what she perceives as her wholeness. Carol appears self-contained, complete, a “whole ballet.” This is likely especially attractive to Therese because she is only nineteen, and just learning who she is becoming.
Looking at Gazing
The male gaze involves an active person looking at a passive, objectified person: a one-way ogle. This differs from Therese and Carol’s dynamic mutuality of looking. When Highsmith describes Carol looking back at Therese, she describes Carol’s eyes as “gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire.” This paradox of a gray color that evokes kinetic fire, together with the rarity of gray eyes, creates a strong image of Carol’s eyes that is reinforced over time.
Highsmith doesn’t establish that Carol’s eyes are gray and leave it at that. During the same initial restaurant lunch, across the table, Therese “wanted to look at the woman’s mouth, but the gray eyes so close drove her away, flickering over her like fire.” The gray fire animates Carol’s eyes, creating a situation where Carol’s gaze gets into a kind of fencing match with Therese’s gaze. The tunnel of their mutual looking complicates, blocks, marks territory.
Highsmith further evokes the magic-infused limerence Therese feels by showing the contagious, alchemical interplay of light with Carol’s eyes and her pearl earring: “The lamp on the table made her eyes silvery, full of liquid light. Even the pearl at her earlobe looked alive, like a drop of water that a touch might destroy.” Her gray eyes turn to silver, and they contain light, a liquid iteration of light. The light transforms her pearl earring into something fragile, fleeting, luminous: a drop of water. This use of imagery, “like a drop of water that a touch might destroy,” shows how tenuous, and yet passionate, this encounter is. Therese wants what we all want when we are in this state—more, more, more—in the midst of the distinct possibility that the connection is fragile, nascent; they might never see each other again. If she isn’t careful, she might destroy its potential just as a touch would destroy the shape of a drop of water.
After Carol and Therese sleep together, Highsmith’s description of Carol’s eyes communicates the transformational nature of their carnal experience: “Therese lay still, looking at her, at Carol’s face only inches away from her, the gray eyes calm as she had never seen them, as if they retained some of the space she had just emerged from.” Carol’s eyes have been described many times in the book up to this point, but for the first time, they are serene.
Their consummation also instantly transforms Therese’s gaze, bringing her interior desire to an externally noticeable level, so much so that Carol encourages her to be more discreet: “The sight of Carol went through her like a spear…. Carol looked at her from the bathroom, holding the comb suspended over her head…. ‘Don’t do that in public,’ Carol said.” Therese has crossed a threshold. She now looks at Carol with a dangerously frank level of desire. They have gone from having the freedom of passing as straight, to the strictures of obscuring the truth of their love.
The complexity of the queer gaze, in contrast to the traditional male gaze, is not just a decision about aesthetics. The risks of acting on same-sex desire, which still exist today, heighten the stakes of looking. The context of this looking is on a far more level playing field, eliminating a traditionally heterosexual power differential that lends itself to defining two people as subject and object. Basking in the full humanity of characters—as Highsmith does—builds iridescent, textured, highly dimensional, and luscious fictional worlds, unforgettable to the reader.
CANDACE WALSH holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. She’s the author of Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press), a NM-AZ Book Award winner, and co-edited Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women and its sequel, both Lambda Literary finalists. An excerpt from her novel in progress made the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages contest longlist. Her essays have been published in Cactus Heart, Into, and various anthologies. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @candacewalsh.