The Ears and Noses of Beholders in THE PRICE OF SALT
By Candace Walsh •
As thousands of tweets and several articles attest, women have grown weary of the way many male writers describe female characters: zooming in on their body parts with a Porky’s-gaze, to the exclusion of describing the whole of them. The solution is not to stop describing our characters, or to sidestep the erotic. As novelist and Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Lan Samantha Chang explained to me, “People are worried that physical description is objectifying or, God forbid, racist. The fact is that we look at people constantly; and people’s appearance is a big part of who they are and choose to be.”
Expanding the scope of “appearance” to include characters’ other sensory impressions, like hearing and smell, broadens the scope of description and counteracts problematic, reductive characterization tendencies. In The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith employs the senses of hearing and smell to simultaneously characterize Carol and represent Therese’s erotic attraction to her, two areas in which writers often fall prey to the use of problematic sexist tropes.
The Sense of Hearing
In Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, nineteen-year-old stage design apprentice Therese Belivet and Carol Aird, a wealthy woman in her early thirties going through a divorce, fall in love. They meet in Frankenberg’s, an upscale department store where Therese works as a holiday season temp. When Therese first sees Carol, she experiences love at first sight. One of the qualities she notices during their first encounter is Carol’s voice. Highsmith uses descriptions of her voice, not just as something to indicate Therese’s affinity, but also as layerings of characterization for both Carol and Therese: “Her mouth was as wise as her eyes, Therese thought, and her voice was like her coat, rich and supple, and somehow full of secrets.” Carol’s voice is also described as “soft, distinct.” A soft yet distinct voice is a confident voice. Carol expects people to tune in to her.
As Carol walks away, Therese “was conscious, too, dimly now and with a different horror, of the old, unceasing voices of customers at the counter calling for assistance, calling to her, and the low, humming rrrrr of the little train, part of the storm that was closing in and separating her from the woman.” Sound itself is a force that cleaves Carol from Therese.
Relief comes when Carol retraces her steps. “‘Yes, I’ll get this, too,’ she said in the quiet slow voice that made a pool of silence in the tumult around them. She gave her name and address again, and Therese took it slowly from her lips, as if she did not already know it by heart.” Therese subjectively attributes to Carol’s voice the power to mute the toy department’s unholy din. In fact, Therese’s own listening filters out everything else. Highsmith renders the dry act of jotting down an address into something sensual, a fine example of how infatuation transforms the everyday into the erotic: Therese’s listening “took it slowly from her lips.”
When Carol walks away, “Therese watched her go away with a step as slow as when she had come, saw her look at another counter as she passed it, and slap her black gloves across her palm twice, three times.” Carol hypnotically slapping her gloves against her palm becomes the last sound Therese hears Carol make in the scene; it’s a quirky detail that both characterizes Carol and shows Therese’s keen observation.
At the end of the novel, there’s a switch from Therese noticing things about Carol’s voice to the opposite. Carol says, “My little big shot. Now you look like you might do something good. Do you know, even your voice is different?” This shows the arc of Therese’s character development. Therese’s love affair with Carol has altered her, right down to her voice.
The Sense of Smell
Katy Kelleher acknowledges the heady relationship of smell and attraction when she writes, “It’s not always about simply smelling good: We want to smell complex, so that others will be compelled to keep coming back, like bees to a flower, to sniff us again and again, to revel in our scents, and draw ever closer to our warm, damp parts.”
During Carol’s and Therese’s first meeting after their Frankenberg’s encounter, over lunch in a secluded restaurant:
The dusky and faintly sweet smell of her perfume came to Therese again, a smell suggestive of dark-green silk, that was hers alone, like the smell of a special flower. Therese leaned closer to it, looking down at her glass. She wanted to thrust the table aside and spring into her arms, to bury her nose in the green and gold scarf that was tied close about her neck.
The color green, the flower image, and Carol’s perfume are scent-related extended metaphors in the novel, as further examples will show.
Highsmith employs synesthesia to grasp at the ineffable, comparing Carol’s smell to “dark green silk,” which doesn’t intrinsically have a smell. Kelleher notes, “We have so few words for scent that we borrow from the lexicons of our other senses.” Given that paucity, Highsmith brings in the senses of sight and touch by comparing Carol’s scent to green silk. Therese also mentions the smell wafts from a “special flower,” a unique-to-Carol flower that attracts her, as bees are drawn to lilacs and lavender. Carol’s smell literally drives Therese wild; she fantasizes about flinging the table out of the way and jumping on her.
Scent and the green and gold scarf come up again when Therese visits Carol at her New Jersey home. “Her short fair hair that made Therese think of perfume held to a light was tied back with the green and gold scarf that circled her head like a band.” This time Highsmith links the visual with references to scent, and repeats the green silk reference, to describe Carol’s hair.
Later during that visit, the connection between Carol’s hair and perfume synthesizes. Carol “slipped her hands under her shoulders, and bent her head down to Therese’s throat, and Therese felt the tension go out of Carol’s body with the sigh that made her neck warm, that carried the perfume that was in Carol’s hair.” As their physical intimacy deepens, Carol’s hair goes from only looking like perfume to also smelling of perfume. And when Therese wonders about the nature of love—whether it’s intrinsically fleeting—she thinks about it in terms of Carol’s perfume. “She tried to imagine Carol’s face, the smell of her perfume, becoming meaningless.”
The color of the silk scarf resurfaces as the dark green of holly and fir branches Carol and Therese buy in the New Jersey countryside right before Christmas. Highsmith describes the associative power of scent, as the associations are being formed and recognized by Therese:
Therese pressed her face into [the holly and fir branches] and inhaled the dark-green sharpness of their smell, their clean spice that was like a wild forest and like all the artifices of Christmas—tree baubles, gifts, snow, Christmas music, holidays. It was being through with the store and being beside Carol now. It was the purr of the car’s engine, and the needles of the fir branches that she could touch with her fingers. I am happy, I am happy, Therese thought.
As Therese smells this moment, we feel the cohesion of disparate things as one memory. It’s almost like she’s already remembering it. She is within memory’s alchemy. Memory, of course, is hardwired with the sense of smell. It lights up our brains to powerfully bring us back to a past moment the way nothing else does.
Just a few pages later, at Carol’s home, Therese notices that “she could find Carol’s perfume like a fine thread in the stronger smell of evergreen, and she wanted to follow it, to put her arms around Carol.” She describes the scent as a siren’s path in this evergreen scent forest. Like the earlier restaurant scene, Carol’s scent inspires Therese to transform her privately felt attraction into a shared embrace.
The extended metaphor of the mutability of Carol’s perfume recurs when they meet again some weeks after Carol has ended their relationship in an effort to regain custody of her daughter. Carol hopes to win Therese back, but after experiencing extreme heartbreak, Therese is wary. “Therese could smell Carol’s perfume faintly, that familiar sweetness that was strangely unfamiliar now, because it did not evoke what it had once evoked.” Therese has gone from heedlessly falling in love with Carol to feeling the misery of love lost. The pain has tainted both the way she feels about Carol, and her experience of the perfume.
But there is hope and potential in the change, in the unfamiliarity. “Therese thought of Carol’s perfume that today meant nothing. A blank to be filled in, Carol would say.” This hope and potential blooms into something expansive and deliciously requited on the book’s last page, all the more because it defies the traditional “one story” of lesbian love stories ending in tragedy.
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.