T.S. Eliot's Objective Correlative: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Objective Correlative Defined
  • 2:34 Positive Example
  • 3:55 Negative Example
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

How does a poem make you laugh or a novel make you cry? Why might they have the same effects on others? Explore these questions and more in this lesson on the artistic device known as an 'objective correlative.'

Objective Correlative Defined

Most of us can identify when the people around us are happy or sad. Just look at this chart of children's faces - you can probably tell what each cartoon child is feeling, even without the benefit of captions. That's because we're innately good at reading facial and other non-verbal cues from those around us. But what about when we're reading literature, how do we know what people are feeling then?

Without authors coming right out and saying what emotions a character is experiencing (i.e. 'George was sad'), they rely on an artistic device called an objective correlative, or a set of objects, images, or situations combined to evoke a particular emotion.

Though not given worldwide attention by T.S. Eliot - the American-British author, essayist, and literary critic - until 1919 in his article 'Hamlet and His Problems,' the term 'objective correlative' was first used by American painter and poet Washington Allston to describe artistic relationships to emotion sometime around 1840. Eliot rediscovered the concept and popularized it throughout his career, though several critics over the years have opposed the notion as he conceived it.

In 'Hamlet and His Problems,' Eliot conceptualized the objective correlative like this:

'The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative;' in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that 'particular' emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.'

Think of it like this: Why do you suppose horror movies so frequently feature thunderstorms or mysterious messages, or take place at night, or in an abandoned cabin, or are driven by characters that can't seem to walk five steps without tripping? Screenwriters for the genre use these images, scenarios, and even character types because they're so readily accessible to audiences as representations of emotions like fear, dread, or panic.

A scene, then, involving a clumsy protagonist trying to fumble through a dark cabin on a stormy night represents a complete objective correlative made from combining all these elements to convey a sense of foreboding that the audience is immediately able to pick up on. Let's see how some others have merged evocative elements to paint their own 'emotional pictures.'

Positive Example of Objective Correlative

Although the title of Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' might do a pretty good job of setting the novella's general mood, it does have its brighter moments. Take, for instance, this passage excerpted from Chapter 4:

'Day after day now the god with the glowing cheeks, nude, steered his fiery team of four through the regions of the sky, his yellow tresses floating behind him in the east wind that was also vigorously blowing. . . But the evening was also delicious, when the plants in the park emitted a balmy fragrance, the heavenly bodies up above went through the paces of their round dance, and the murmuring of the benighted sea, quietly rising, cast a spell over the soul.'

Without even directly naming the sun or Apollo (the Greek god he's referencing), Mann was probably able to conjure up the image in your mind of a bright, breezy day with not much else to do but watch the clouds go by. As we continue reading, we encounter the clear night, full of stars and moonlight, and enchanted by the gardens' smells and the ocean's sounds. When we put all of these sights, sounds, and other experiences together, the correlation between them should evoke for us something along the lines of relaxed optimism, experienced by the vacationing protagonist and reflected in the sunny and leisurely descriptions of days at the villa.

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