Objective correlative

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An objective correlative is a literary term referring to a symbolic article used to provide explicit, rather than implicit, access to such traditionally inexplicable concepts as emotion or color.

Theory of the objective correlative[edit]

The theory of the objective correlative as it relates to literature was largely developed through the writings of the poet and literary critic T.S. Eliot, who is associated with the literary group called the New Critics. Helping define the objective correlative, Eliot’s essay "Hamlet and His Problems",[1] republished in his book The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism discusses his view of Shakespeare’s incomplete development of Hamlet’s emotions in the play Hamlet. Eliot uses Lady Macbeth's state of mind as an example of the successful objective correlative  : “The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion….” , as a contrast to Hamlet. According to Eliot, the feelings of Hamlet are not sufficiently supported by the story and the other characters surrounding him. The objective correlative’s purpose is to express the character’s emotions by showing rather than describing feelings as discussed earlier by Plato and referred to by Peter Barry in his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory as “…perhaps little more than the ancient distinction (first made by Plato) between mimesis and diegesis….” (28). According to Formalist critics, this action of creating an emotion through external factors and evidence linked together and thus forming an objective correlative should produce an author’s detachment from the depicted character and unite the emotion of the literary work. The "occasion" of E. Montale is a further form of correlative.

Origin of terminology[edit]

Popularized by Eliot in his essay "Hamlet and His Problems", the term was first used by Washington Allston around 1840 in the "Introductory Discourse" of his Lectures on Art:[2]

Eliot used the term exclusively to refer to his claimed artistic mechanism whereby emotion is evoked in the audience:

It seems to be in deference to this principle that Eliot famously described the play Hamlet as "most certainly an artistic failure": Eliot felt that Hamlet's strong emotions "exceeded the facts" of the play, which is to say they were not supported by an "objective correlative." He acknowledged that such a circumstance is "something which every person of sensibility has known"; but felt that in trying to represent it dramatically, "Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him."

Criticisms of the objective correlative[edit]

One possible criticism of Eliot’s theory includes his assumption that an author’s intentions concerning expression will be understood in one way only. This point is stated by Balachandra Rajan as quoted in David A. Goldfarb’s “New Reference Works in Literary Theory” [2] with these words: “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.”

See also[edit]


  • Barry, Peter: Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 2nd ed. New York: Manchester University Press, 2002.
  • Eliseo Vivas, The Objective Correlative of T. S. Eliot, reprinted in Critiques and Essays in Criticism, ed. Robert W. Stallman (1949).
  • Witkoski, Michael. “The bottle that isn’t there and the duck that can’t be heard: The ‘subjective correlative’ in commercial messages.” Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education. Vol. 3. Toronto: Toronto Press, 2003. 9 April 2007. http://www.utpjournals.com/simile/issue11/witkoskifulltext.html.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11391/11391.txt Lectures on Art

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