Carol by Patricia Highsmith


Patricia Highsmith

In 1950s New York, Therese, a department store shop girl, is struck down with a confusing and all-consuming love.

The dusky and faint 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.

It’s 1950’s New York and department store worker, Therese, is trapped between the mundanity of her job and pressure from her boyfriend, Richard, who is increasingly pushing for marriage. She wishes she could love him in the way he wants, but she just doesn’t seem able. In her spare time, Therese works towards making her real dream come true, designing and painting model theatre sets in the hope of breaking into the theatre world.

One day, as Christmas approaches, a woman walks into the toy department to arrange for a purchase, and Therese is struck by the woman. A strange impulse comes upon her to send the woman a Christmas card with her number written on it. The two meet and become friends, but Therese knows her feelings for Carol are more than friendship, more than she can really bring herself to acknowledge. For Therese the stakes are high, but Carol has even more to lose…

What course do you think Therese’s life would have taken if she had not met Carol?

How much are we, as a reader, allowed access to Therese’s private thoughts? At what point do you think she acknowledges to herself her desire for Carol?

Therese and Carol are from very different backgrounds and classes – why do you think Highsmith chose to include this for her characters?

What do you think was the significance of the early scene with Mrs Robichek? And why do you think later the thought of Mrs Robichek is so hateful to Therese?

When Therese is in the car with Carol she thinks ‘They would sleep or not sleep, drive or not drive, whenever it pleased them. She thought of Mrs Robichek, selling sweaters this minute on the third floor, commencing another year there, her fifth year’. How much is Therese driven towards Carol and how much do you think she is being driven away from something else?

What role does Abby play in the story?

Patricia Highsmith is also a successful writer of thrillers, her most famous work probably being The Talented Mr Ripley. Do you find any elements of the thriller in the work of Carol?

The book was initially titled ‘The Price of Salt’. Why do you think it was called this and why do you think the name was changed?

If you have read Call me By Your Name by André Aciman, consider and discuss how these two books are similar and how they differ. Other than a relationship which must be hidden, what elements do they share?

At one point, during an argument with Richard, Therese thinks, ‘It was so easy for a man and woman to find each other, to find someone who would do, but for her to have found carol-‘. Do you agree with this belief of Therese?

Unlike Call Me By your Name, there is no epilogue, so we don’t know what happens next for Therese and Carol. Did you prefer this or would you liked to have had an insight into what the future held for them?


Arriving at a hotel after Chicago, and tired from the long drive, Therese confesses to Carol that she is in love with her and Carol replies to say that she is in love with Therese too; they make love for the first time.  After a few more towns, Therese spots a man she has seen before and realises he is a private detective.  Carol stops the car and after being challenged the man agrees to sell her tape recordings that he made of them in hotel rooms. Carol is summoned back to New York where her husband, Herge, has found a love letter Therese wrote to Carol. He also has other tape recordings of them together and intends to use them in a divorce trial. Carol tells Therese she has agreed never to see her again in return for being allowed to see her daughter a few weeks each year. Despondent, Therese drives back to New York.  There, she meets with Carol who explains she has been forced to entirely give up hope of seeing her daughter, as it would be impossible to live as the lawyers demand. She asks Therese to live with her.  Hurt and angry from the initial rejection, Therese at first refuses, but later after seeing a woman at a party she is attracted to, Therese realises Carol is the only for her, and goes to her.

Patricia Highsmith was a highly successful American novelist who wrote 22 novels and many short stories, with her first novel (Strangers on A Train) adapted for the movie screen by Hitchcock in 1951. Highsmith suffered periods of intense depression throughout her life, becoming an alcoholic and increasingly isolated as she grew older. When younger, she was forced to take therapy sessions to cure her of her homosexuality, which she paid for by taking a Christmas job in Bloomingdales. It was this that inspired her to write the semi-biographical novel, Carol (then called The Price of Salt). Highsmith died in 1995, aged 74.

Carol was made into a film, released in 2015, and directed by Todd Haynes. It achieved critical acclaim and received a nomination for the Palme d’Or, six Academy Award nominations, five Golden Globe Award nominations, and nine BAFTA Award nominations.

Latest from the Blog

What to read after you finish Mantel

Finished Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy? We’ve put together a list of historical fiction books you may want to read next.

Read More

How to Start an Online Book Club

Now is a great time to launch that online book club you’ve always wanted, but how do you start? Follow these simple guidelines to be up and running in no time.

Read More

Female Writers under Pseudonym

One of the techniques employed by women during the 19th century was the use of a pen name or nom de plume, often using initials or masculine names, to help conceal their sex.

Read More

The Last Page – 10 Posthumous Releases

Ever wondered which books were published after the author’s death? Here are 10 posthumous releases that have since achieved attention.

Read More