Dr. Hareshwar Roy


An objective correlative is a very popular literary term. It has now attained popularity as a literary concept. It refers to a literary description that depicts an emotion and hopefully evokes that emotion in the reader or viewer. It is employed in a literary work to describe a set of objects, a sequence of events, cluster of images and setting which shall be the formula of that particular emotion. If a work of art inspires the right emotion, the creator has found just the right objective correlative. If it invokes the wrong emotion that particular objective correlative doesn't work.


The term “objective correlative” was first used by poet and painter Washington Allston around 1840 in the "Introductory Discourse" of his Lectures on Art. By this term he described the process by which the external world produces pleasurable emotion.  In 1919, T. S. Eliot gave the term a new meaning. He is associated with the Formalist interpretation of literature. In his essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” he writes: ‘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, and 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. An example of this can be found in Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:  “Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:” One can see this description as an objective correlative signifying the loneliness and desolation of modern urban life.


            Eliot’s essay “Hamlet and His Problems” discusses his view of Shakespeare’s incomplete development of Hamlet’s emotions. In this essay, Eliot states: “The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion….” According to Eliot, the feelings of Hamlet are not sufficiently supported by the story and the other characters surrounding him.  These deficiencies are explained as the result of Shakespeare's inability to find an “objective correlative”  The objective correlative’s purpose is to express the character’s emotions by showing rather than describing feelings as pictured earlier by Plato and referred to by Peter Barry. The term may be considered a product of Eliot's creative preoccupation. It is related to his concept of ‘dissociation of sensibility’. Both expressions are suggested by Eliot's reference to ‘a few notorious phrases which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world’. Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative is closely related to the Imagist.


Eliot’s statements about objective correlative have garnered criticism regarding how "objective" an author and reader can be and caused Eliot's original idea to seem like a dated product of Modernism.One possible criticism of the objective correlative is expressed by Michael Witkoski. He says: “The objective correlative also allows for more abstract, less immediate connections…” Yet another possible flaw of Eliot’s theory includes his assumption that an author’s intentions concerning expression will be understood. This point is stated by Balachandra Rajan .He says: “Eliot argues that there is a verbal formula for any given state of emotion which, when found and used, will evoke that state and no other.”


The concept of the objective correlative and the criticism surrounding it make it an important consideration for writers even though literary theory has changed.


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