Study Guide

The Price of Salt, or Carol Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This is one of the rare books where the title isn't mentioned in the book aside from the cover page. We're talking about the original title, of course, which is The Price of Salt, not the re-release title and the title of the film, Carol. That one is self-explanatory.

    The Price of Salt is a lot more ambiguous. Therese mentions salt a handful of times. Richard picks up a saltshaker. Therese and Carol look at Salt Lake City on a map. After Carol leaves her, Therese mourns, "How would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?" (22.2). But later, when Dannie shows up, she says he brings "a little salt" (22.73) to her life, leading us to wonder if she'll choose Dannie over Carol. It seems romance is the seasoning Therese's life needs.

    So salt is like a little spice of life, something Therese lacks in her boring department store job at the beginning of the book. But what about the "price" part? Therese does often worry about the literal price of things, paying the bill when Carol isn't looking and refusing loans from her.

    But perhaps we shouldn't take things literally in this case. Maybe the "salt" is simply the spice of life, which Carol and Therese find in a taboo relationship with one another. And the price? It's the price they have to pay to society, where their same-sex relationship is forbidden. In this case, Carol is the one who pays the price—she loses her family to be with Therese.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Movin' On Up

    Most road trips end with the road trippers reaching their destination, whether it's Walley World in National Lampoon's Vacation or the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Thelma and Louise. But in The Price of Salt, our two heroines simply return home. How anticlimactic is that?

    It depends on whose perspective you're looking at. The characters may return to New York, but they are not the same. There's a bit of a role reversal involved, too. For most of the trip, Carol is in charge—she is older, she has the money, she drives the car, and she has the map. Therese is along for the ride.

    However, Carol envies Therese's freedom. Therese has no family, but Carol is caught in a bitter divorce and custody battle. Her husband is like a long chain that eventually drags her back to the city, while Therese has the freedom to stay out West.

    Therese does a lot of soul searching, and after looking at a weird painting that reminds her of Carol, she realizes that she doesn't have to let Carol lead the way all the time. Therese can make decisions for herself. She returns to New York, and it's Therese who decides when to see Carol again, not Carol. In fact, Therese almost doesn't see her. This small action is a revelation for Therese: "When had she ever refused Carol when Carol wanted to see her?" (23.27). The answer, dear Shmoopers, is never before.

    Back in New York, everyone says that Therese has changed, that she looks older, more adult. But the one thing Therese is really known for is that she changes her mind a lot. Richard remarks on it, and so does Carol. And what does Therese do at the end? She changes her mind. When Carol asks Therese to live with her, she says no—but within a few pages, and only a couple of hours in book-time, Therese changes her mind and says yes. It's romantic for Therese: "It was Carol she loved and would always love" (23.156).

    What about Carol, though? She seems happy. She smiles at Therese when she enters the restaurant. But has Therese changed at all? And even though she agrees to live with Carol, how long before Therese changes her mind again?

  • Setting

    New York and the Western U.S., the 1950s

    All You Can Eat Buffet

    The setting of The Price of Salt starts small and quickly grows to cover almost the entire U.S. It's like starting inside a salt shaker, unscrewing the top, climbing out, and realizing there's an entire smorgasbord on the table.

    When we first meet Therese, she works in a department store: "The store was organized so much like a prison, it frightened her now and then to realize she was a part of it" (1.3). Anyone who's ever worked retail can relate to this claustrophobic feeling. The weather also adds to the sense of dread: "January. It was all things. And it was one thing, like a solid door" (12.1-12.2). Winter is coming, a la A Game of Thrones, and in New York City, winter can be harsh. That's why many people flee the stifling snow blanket, which is exactly what Carol and Therese do.

    A Whole New World

    Who hasn't imagined going on a magic carpet ride? Carol is like the Aladdin to Therese's Jasmine: "You'll travel, too," she tells her, "the way you do in imagination" (9.40). Carol wants Therese to get some real world experience, so she takes her on a trip across the country. They follow in the footsteps of famous explorers like Lewis and Clark, and they spend the night in a town called Waterloo, which calls to mind Napoleon Bonaparte.

    These are all places defined by powerful men, yet it's in these places that these two women find their own power. They're more like Lois and Clara than Lewis and Clark, exploring their sexuality in the Wild West and spending the night together in Waterloo. Therese thinks it's special, but Carol says, "There's a couple Waterloos in every state" (15.102). Ouch.

    To be clear, Carol isn't saying that what she and Therese have isn't special, but she is letting Therese know there are other women like them out there in the country. They're just living secretly, where they can't see them.

    In this time period of the 1950s, there is no safe haven for Carol and Therese, who would be labeled sexual deviants. By going their road trip, though, they're not really searching for a safe haven—they're seeking themselves on the open road.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    In one scene of The Price of Salt, Therese reads A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Don't worry, though—this book is no James Joyce novel (dude's known for writing Ulysses, one of the most difficult books of all time). Because this text is semi-autobiographical, it's like the portrait of the artist as a young woman, and she writes with a clear accessible voice for all ages.

  • Set Design

    Paper Towns

    Therese often makes cardboard sets for her portfolio as she looks for a set designer job in ballet or Broadway. A set is an imitation of real life, and Therese's models are imitations of imitations—whoa—which is kind of like how distant from real life Therese is.

    Carol insults Therese's designs, saying, "That's amateurish, isn't it?" (13.102). She thinks Therese needs to actually see the world before she can replicate it, which is one reason she takes Therese on the road trip.

    On the trip, Therese falls for Carol and says, "I wonder if I'll ever want to create anything again" (16.110). This offers a key insight into what drives Therese to create the mock sets in the fist place. It seems her creative drive comes from a place of wanting to create a world for herself—and she finds this world with Carol. Therese doesn't need her little models anymore when she has the real thing.

    The real thing doesn't last, though, and Therese continues her stage metaphors when Carol returns to New York:

    She felt like an actor […] as if she had been playing in these last days the part of someone else, someone fabulously and excessively lucky. (16.125)

    Therese feels like an actor in her life with Carol because her new identity is only temporary—Carol leaves her in hopes of maintaining custody over her daughter. This, too, is temporary, though: Carol loses the custody battle and winds up working and living alone. She invites Therese to join her, and while Therese initially declines the offer, it doesn't take long for her to return to Carol. Perhaps their first go round was simply a dress rehearsal, and after a bit of practice, Therese is now ready for the real deal.

  • Letters

    Return to Sender

    Carol and Therese's relationship begins with a letter, and Carol's marriage ends with a letter. In between are a lot of letters that Therese writes but never sends.

    Remember, this is the age before e-mail, so letters are a primary form of communication. For her part, Therese often uses them to work out her thoughts and feelings to Carol. She writes, "I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me" (13.4). Maybe it's a good thing she never mailed that one—it's so cheesy.

    However, for all the letters she writes but never sends, Therese takes a risk when she sends Carol the Christmas card that starts their relationship. She signs her employee number instead of her name to protect herself a little bit, but it's still a bold move. Perhaps this is what Carol means when she says to Therese, "I remember your courage that I hadn't suspected, and it gives me courage" (20.50). It's a lot easier to not send a letter than to send it, especially to a complete stranger.

    Unfortunately, one of the letters Therese doesn't send becomes Harge's "strongest weapon" (20.49) in his divorce from Carol. In an ironic, though, if Therese had given the letter to Carol—and told her how she felt earlier on—they might not wind up together because Carol might have stayed married. Without the letter, Harge's case against his wife is much weaker. Go figure.

  • Kites

    Go Fly a Kite

    Kites are usually happy things. They fly in the sky, dip, twist, and soar. But there's that pesky string holding them back. In one scene of the novel, Therese makes an elaborate obvious metaphor out of kite flying, as if we've never seen a kite before. She thinks, "the kite meant something, this particular kite, at this minute" (8.59). In case you hadn't guessed, yes, despite being in Richard's company, she's thinking of Carol in this moment. Appropriately, the kite soars—you know, just like her heart.

    Until Richard cuts the string. "I can make another kite!" (8.92), he says, but still, this is the moment when Therese and Richard's relationship is cut, too. Richard may be able to make another kite, but Therese can't—there's only one person who makes her heart soar, and that's Carol. Wait, are we still talking about kites? Because Richard is heterosexual, there are dozens of kites in the sky, but for Therese, her selection is much more limited. She cherishes the kite she has, and she can't cut it (er, her?) loose willy-nilly.

  • Dolls

    Baby Doll

    While it's not quite Black Friday, at the beginning of the book, Therese is overrun by a rush of women wanting to buy dolls for Christmas.

    The customers of Frederick's are picky, forcing Therese to hunt for the exact doll they want, whether it has hair that grows or it pees itself. It's a lot like dating: Therese tells us, "If people came for a doll, they didn't want anything else" (1.43).

    Carol comes shopping for a doll, and it turns out she does want something else: Therese. But she treats Therese as a doll instead of as a person for a long time. "You're a very pretty girl" (4.29), Carol says to her, and Therese thinks at that moment, "She might have been speaking of a doll" (4.30).

    The doll imagery is dropped about halfway through the book, as Carol starts to see Therese as a real person instead of a plaything. But there is one unsettling image late in the novel, when the detective appears and his eyes are "like a doll's blank and steady eyes" (19.35). Perhaps Carol and Therese are starting to see how creepy dolls are. They're like Therese's mock sets: imitations of real things. And instead of dolls, Carol realizes she needs real people in her life.

  • Body Temperature

    Hot and Cold

    There are more obvious body temperature metaphors in The Price of Salt than in your average Katy Perry song, but we have to mention them because there are so many. Therese talks about how hot or cold she is all the time. Hot usually means romantic or lustful, and cold usually means "ew, get away from me," like when Richard's hand is describes as "moist, which made it icy cold" (5.40). Moist and cold? No thank you.

    Here are a few more notable examples.

    • "Abby? My best friend. […] Aren't you cold with this window open?" (7.56). As soon as Carol mentions Abby, a gust of cold air blows into the car. In case it wasn't clear, Therese is instantly jealous of this other woman.
    • Their hotel room becomes "so overheated" (16.100) after Therese and Carol talk about love. Looks like things are heating up for these two…
    • "She walked until she was cold, and the library was the closest place to go and get warm" (21.55). Therese is cold after Carol leaves her, but she warms up by going to the library and thinking quiet thoughts. Thank goodness for libraries.

    The last one is actually the most significant because Therese is able to warm herself up. Teach someone to make fire, and they're warm for life. Light someone on fire and… Okay, we messed up that little proverb, but the point is that Therese is able to act with more confidence once she realizes she can be her own fire.

  • The Train

    Choo Choo Choose Her

    In the book's first chapter, Therese observes a toy train. It's not a big train, "but there was a fury in its tiny pumping pistons that the bigger trains did not possess" (1.28). All aboard!

    She mentions the toy train again to Carol, once, much later in the novel. But it's up to us to analyze why Therese is so drawn to this train. Does she think she is like the train? Does she possess a fury? And is she like the train? Or has her train of thought gone off track here? Over to you, Shmoopers— make your case.

  • Gloves

    Poor Little Kitten Has Lost Her Mitten

    The first chapter is full of metaphors and images that are never mentioned again. One object Therese ponders is a pair of gloves a nun gave her:

    Therese had kept the green gloves at the bottom of her tin locker at school. […] Finally, they were too small to wear. (1.12)

    Thinking of the gloves is what eventually inspires Therese to take action and send Carol a card. She may be young, but Therese realizes things don't last forever—and the memory of something isn't that good if that object was never used, or in the case of Carol, the subject was never pursued.

    What else in Therese's life is like these gloves?

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person Limited

    Although the novel is written in third-person, we only get one point of view: Therese's (hence the limit). Through Therese, we get to explore the country and Therese's sexuality as she learns she can love a woman more than she can love a man. However, because we never get inside Carol's head, she sometimes remains inscrutable. What does this woman see in Therese, when she is almost old enough to be her mother? Carol is both mentor and lover, and her motives remain a bit of a mystery. This is fitting since she remains a bit of a mystery to Therese, too.