Make Readers Feel: The Magic of the Objective Correlative

As you watch the clip from Badlands above, think about the images, the voiceover, and how they work together to evoke a complex emotional response. Film operates on so many cylinders–image, sound, music, words. What can we do to bring this horsepower into our writing?

Enter the objective correlative, a literary device deployed in an amazing variety of ways by writers to build an emotional connection with readers.

According to T.S. Eliot effective use of the objective correlative is what sets an artistic success apart from an artistic failure. In a famous essay, Eliot goes so far as to call Hamlet an “artistic failure” because Shakespeare was unable to use elements of the objective correlative—dialogue, images, objects, etc—to provoke the audience to feel what Hamlet was feeling. The words are beautiful, the dilemma in many ways universal, but according to Eliot, we just aren’t feeling it.

What exactly is the objective correlative? Here’s the original definition:

…, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of … [a] particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (qtd. in J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms, page 647)

This sounds very dry and technical and formulaic, but when authors use the objective correlative well it is anything but. Let’s look at some examples.

The Objective Correlative in Action

 Example One

I begin with a snippet I wrote especially for this post. It may never make its way into a complete story, but it has emotional weight just the same. As you read, consider the following: Is this passage about washing dishes?  Something else? What feelings come through, what possible conflicts does it point to?

I am standing at the sink.  I am washing a dish, mindlessly at first, then more intentionally as I notice that some bits are stubbornly adhering. I scrub harder, turn off the running water so as not to waste it, and begin picking at the bits with my fingernail.

 In the next room I hear my husband, coughing, clearing his throat, and scraping his chair.  I had forgotten he was home.

Example Two:

Or take this passage from the winner of The American Literary Review’s 2016 fiction contest,  A Peanut Is Not a Nut by Courtney Zoffness.

The story begins with a question posed to high school student Pam by various concerned adults: “Did anything happen between you and Mr. Peebles.”

Ostensibly, the passage below is about Mr. Peebles, what he looks like, things he has said.  But we know that’s not what it’s really about. Consider what we learn about Pam and her feelings by what she chooses to focus on, as she reflects on that question initial question.

What did she do with Mr. Peebles? The man hired to help her prepare for the Biology SAT II, so she’d be admitted to a prominent college and acquire a prominent job and have a prominent life? Flow charts. Molecules. Membranes. Mr. Peebles with his woolly mammoth moustache and peppermint breath. Mr. Peebles, who knew answers to all her life questions. How it was possible that humans shared 60 percent of their DNA with a banana. Why some earthworms had ten hearts. He even knew the proper way to say legumes. Legg-youms. Until the word came out of his mouth, she’d thought it was pronounced Leg Gums. You have to learn your legg-youms, he said, after she’d failed to identify which item on the list was unlike the others: A. soybeans B. peas C. peanuts D. pistachios. (Answer: D. pistachios.)

 In this passage, the author uses references to biology and the body evoke a number of complex responses on Pam’s part, such as her conflicted attitude about her emerging sexuality, as well as her fascination with someone different and unusual, someone who diverges from the norm, someone who represents the multiplicity and diversity of life that defies categorization. These are not neat symbols, but features that create an ecology for the story, its own language.

Example Three

Finally, let’s look at a passage from “Hills Like White Elephants” by that master of the objective correlative, Ernest Hemingway.

A couple sits at a bar at a train station in Barcelona, waiting for the train that will take them to Madrid, where the woman will have an abortion. The whole story consists only of conversation and a bit of action and description. Abortion is never once mentioned, only alluded to. The setting, the interaction between the landscape and the characters, and what is mentioned and not mentioned are the elements shaping our emotional engagement with the story. This passage is very brief but it speaks volumes.

The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

Like a good poem, “Hills Like White Elephants” draws on imagery to convey meaning, but also like a good poem it goes beyond simply making metaphors. The hills, evoking the shape of pregnancy, are white, parched and barren. In the woman’s mind they are more than hills, they are white elephants, traditionally associated with a kind of gift that has good and bad implications. Notice how her observations about the hills gives meaning to dialogue that might otherwise be unremarkable.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, I would urge you to try something.  See how much about this couple—where they are in their relationship, their respective feelings about the pregnancy—that you can glean just from reading this brief passage.  Then read the whole story here. For those of you who know the story well, the link takes you to a great annotated version with lots of blow by blow analysis and exploration of references.

Are Writers Consciously Using the Objective Correlative?

Yes and no.  It often just happens without us knowing it often through trial and error. We write about the real world of things, people, situations, actions, doing our best to build in feeling, sometimes triggering the magic of the objective correlative when we least expect it. Suddenly it is there, on the page and it is working beautifully.

So while writers may not be making a conscious choice to integrate the objective correlative in their writing, there are things artful writers do that increase the likelihood that this magic will find its way onto the page.

First, they are careful about labeling feelings too often and too clearly, whether that label be in the form of an adjective, noun, or adverb (think: joyful, joy, joyfully) Of course, many fine authors name emotions, and many have other tricks up their sleeves. But it is guaranteed that your writing will get stronger if you challenge yourself to avoid naming the feeling.

Second, they mine the richness of the concrete world.  I’ve referred to this before in other posts, where I encourage writers to find inspiration in things, thinks like Mr. Peebles’ woolly mammoth moustache, a multiple choice question on the AP Bio test, a dirty dish that won’t come clean, the color and shape of the hills in the distance.

Try This: Techniques for Training Yourself in the Objective Correlative

First, chose an action from the list below (or make one up)

  • Driving a car
  • Carrying a heavy box
  • Gardening

Or, choose an object

  • Lake
  • Curtains
  • Dresser
  • Shoe

Next, choose a feeling

  • Confusion
  • Frustration
  • Sadness
  • Relief
  • Contentment
  • Despair
  • Dread
  • Joy

Finally, write a brief passage where you describe either the action or the object with the purpose of       evoking in readers the feeling you chose.

Note: If you have chosen an action, of course you will mention objects and would have to include someone performing the action, but try to keep a narrow focus on the action itself. If you choose an object, of course you could also include n a character who is viewing the object or engaged with it in some way, but you might also want to challenge yourself to write simple description devoid of people.

Enjoy! Find your way into the world of feeling.