Carol, simultaneously atemporal as well as entrenched in the harsh social realities of 50s New York – a time that treated what might be only distantly alluded to as same-sex love hatefully and fatefully – strikes a chord with anyone who has ever fallen terrifically in love, anyone who has considered a human’s essential aloneness, anyone ostracised for a belief, behaviour, way of being; all those bearing the oft-heavy, otherwise ecstatic burden of being alive and desiring to be loved. This novel is a classic. All the more so according to Therese, the enchanting yet vulnerable protagonist’s surmise: ‘A classic is something with a basic human situation.’
Highsmith is writing ahead of her time. What we now, at large, consider a natural diversity of the human race and of the manifestation and ways of love, was then either a simple folly, a spat of insanity, or, with its continuation, an ogreish disgrace. The innocence of the speaker shows her courage-what she so admires in Carol, the elder object of her fascination, infatuation and, ultimately, vicissitude-defying love – in the face of unscrupulous, disbelieving and shattered men and societal values, in her barely questioning the rightness of what she is bravely but inexorably falling into. We witness a grand character change in the young yet strong and wise heroine. She starts alone, tossed around in a city that is not yet hers, a relationship that she’s not really a part of, old friends, memories and family from whom she has run, and new acquaintances that only unearth her nightmares.
She is laid naked and pale but gleaming when confronted more than once with Carol – a glamorous, cynical, independent figure – tumultuous between a numb gushing of the sad realities of her life former and present, and her utter helplessness in the unbound torrent of her lust for the elder woman. It is a beautiful lust, however; one that is only permitted to be indulged in halfway through the novel and is reciprocated. Reciprocated particularly profoundly, faithfully and wholesomely in the last few pages, and unequal to and beyond any other that futilely attempts to emerge.
Highsmith writes with such visceral language, with pace and tone so apt for each setting, each event, each sentiment and individual character. The atmosphere, particularly between the two central female characters, is so fluid, spanning every emotion genuinely. Highsmith expertly explores many different forms of love; unreturned but comforting and guilt-imbued, a long-burning one-sided then mutual desire, a slow and solid deep care for one another, one venomous that leads to a brutal and bitter spying and blackmailing (one that fully appeals to the time and its bigoted confusion and hatred towards same-sex love), and one returning, changing and growing according to each ghastly, entrapping and inescapable situation that arises, but the one that proves itself ultimately indefectible and indefeasible.
Deeply moving and relatable, also a poetic spyglass into a time vastly different to ours, the novel is radical in its happy ending, something unheard of in Lesbian Literature of the 50s and previously, where, as the enigmatic author herself describes in her afterword, ‘homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to homosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.’* Here, though Carol pays the price of not being allowed to see her daughter more than a few times a year thanks to her husband’s vicious wrangling of the American Justice system (in her deemed unsuitability as a parent for the crime of falling in love with another woman), Highsmith presents two pitiless and remorseless women who leap ahead of the contemporary scene to devise and design their own world in which they forge a chance to be light, in love and happy.
*Highsmith, Patricia. Carol. Bloomsbury 2014. Afterword 24 May 1989, pg 311.