Study Guide

The Price of Salt, or Carol Setting

By Patricia Highsmith


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.