Sunday, May 2, 2010

T. S. Eliot: Objective Correlative

Cover of "Horror of Dracula"Cover of Horror of Dracula


The Objective Correlative is a literary device that novelists use to their advantage. The label was coined by poet and critic T. S. Eliot: in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism:
… the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative;” in order words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion,”

Notice that the passage emphasizes “expressing emotion,” or a “particular emotion,” by means of objects of the outside world, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

Although all the credit goes to T. S. Eliot, we find that an earlier scholar had used a similar description. In his discussion of prepositions, in the last section of his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith used the term ‘correlative object’ to refer to concrete things.

When the narrator of Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, foreshadows the unrequited and doomed love that is the theme of the novel, what the narrator focuses on are objects rather than the emotions of the character:
Fermina Diaz did not raise her eyes to him, but she looked all around her and saw the deserted streets in the heat of the dry season and a swirl of dead leaves pulled along by the wind (61).

The ‘deserted streets,’ the oppressive ‘heat of the dry season,’ and the ‘swirl of dead leave,’ are all objective correlatives of the abject desolation that Fermina Diaz feels in that instant.

With objective correlatives the character’s interiority can be laid out with outward symbols which the reader is expected to connect. Note how Bram Stoker in his horror novel Dracula handles the outward images to depict the narrator’s interior turmoil:
Something made me start up, a low, piteously howling of dogs somewhere far below in the valley, which was hidden from my sight. Louder it seemed to ring in my ears, and the floating motes of dust to take new shapes to the sound as they dance in the moonlight. I felt myself struggling to awake to some call of my instincts; nay, my very soul was struggling, and my half-remembered sensibilities were striving to answer the call. I was becoming hypnotized! Quicker and quicker danced the dust, and the moonbeams seemed to quiver as they went by me into the mass of gloom beyond (66).

And notice how Shakespeare uses ‘air’ as a correlative of Hamlet’s anxiety:
Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly. It is cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.

With a different twist but expressing the same idea, Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer, voices subjectivity by the adroit use of adjectives:
“the useless cry of a bird,” “the silent handkerchief of the strangled.”


  • Oxymoron in Action

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  • Orwell's Rules for Writing

  • How to Use Similes

  • What is an Allegory?

  • StephenKing vs StephenieMeyer

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