The Meaning of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Objective Correlative’ Explained

Contrary to popular belief, T. S. Eliot did not come up with the phrase ‘objective correlative’. However, he did co-opt that expression to describe one of his most famous and influential theories of literature, specifically in relation to Shakespeare’s work. What did Eliot mean by ‘objective correlative’?

In short, the phrase ‘objective correlative’ means a situation or set of events which act as the ‘formula’ for evoking a particular emotion in a play (or other work of literature). But there’s a little more to it than this, and the idea of the objective correlative has its roots in one of Eliot’s most contrarian literary-critical positions.

The theory of the objective correlative, as Eliot uses the term, has its roots in ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, one of T. S. Eliot’s most important and influential essays. It was first published in 1919. In ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, Eliot makes the bold claim that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, far from being a triumph, is an artistic failure. Why? Eliot is being provocative with such a statement, but he does provide some reasons for this position.

Eliot argues that Shakespeare’s play is a ‘failure’, but the play has become so familiar and ubiquitous as a work of art that we are no longer able to see its flaws. This bold revisionist claim is founded on several points, not least of which is the fact that Shakespeare inherited the original play-text of Hamlet from another writer (probably Thomas Kyd, who also wrote The Spanish Tragedy).

This earlier play contained many of the ingredients that appear in Shakespeare’s later rewriting of the story of Hamlet, but is a cruder example of the revenge tragedy. Shakespeare rewrote this rather rough and ready source material and updated it for a later, more refined theatre audience. Okay, it was only around ten years later, but English poetic drama had come on a long way since the days when Kyd was dominating the London theatre scene. First Christopher Marlowe with plays like Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta, and then Shakespeare with his numerous early plays, had rapidly turned Elizabethan theatre into a place where poetic language could flourish and reach new heights.

But for Eliot, there is one major problem when it comes to Hamlet. Shakespeare’s gifts exceed the rather crude revenge plot which forms the basis of the earlier Hamlet play. Kyd’s Hamlet (if we assume Kyd wrote the original) was probably a primitive and psychologically uninteresting figure. We say ‘probably’ because nobody knows for sure: the original Hamlet play has not survived. But we know from comparing some other works from that period before Marlowe, including other plays by Kyd (such as The Spanish Tragedy), that the UrHamlet was probably a less polished study of psychology, masculinity, and revenge than Shakespeare’s version.

But this doesn’t mean Shakespeare’s version is an artistic success: not for Eliot, anyway. Eliot argues that Shakespeare’s rendering of the character of Hamlet is too ‘big’ for the plot of the play and the ‘intractable material’ Shakespeare is being forced to work with. It’s as if a master analyst of the human mind, such as Dostoevsky, tried to rewrite the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a psychologically complex novel. (That’s our analogy, not Eliot’s, but you get the idea.)

So, far from being a literary masterpiece, Shakespeare’s reworking of the Hamlet story fails, according to Eliot, because Shakespeare attempted to do too much with the character and, as a result, Hamlet’s emotions in the play seem unclear. He lost control of his source material, and his ambition and scope exceeded the rather narrow confines of the revenge plot. There is a gulf between the emotion felt by a character like Hamlet from the medieval chronicle and the way this is worked up into drama in Shakespeare’s play.

Eliot justifies his analysis of Hamlet by referring to what he calls the ‘objective correlative’ of the play: the ‘only way of expressing emotion in the form of art’, Eliot tells us, is by finding an ‘objective correlative’. This term predates Eliot’s use of it: it was an American painter and poet named Washington Allston (1779-1843) who had first used it, in his 1840 Lectures on Art:

No possible modification in the degrees or proportion of these elements can change the specific form of a plant, – for instance, a cabbage into a cauliflower; it must ever remain a cabbage, small or large, good or bad. So, too, is the external world to the mind; which needs, also, as the condition of its manifestation, its objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end, – the pleasurable emotion.

So Eliot’s theory clearly owed more than just its name to Allston’s work in art criticism. But Eliot expanded it by applying it to literature, and specifically, to drama. In his Hamlet essay he defines the ‘objective correlative’ as ‘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.’

The term sounds more complex than it actually is: ‘objective’ means universally applicable or relatable, while ‘correlative’ simply denotes ‘something with correlates’ or, if you prefer, corresponds. So a situation in a Shakespeare play must objectively suggest corresponding emotions in the audience, which they then experience thanks to the situation and events they are witnessing. The action of the play evokes or inspires these emotions within the play’s audience.

Eliot provides an example from another Shakespeare play, Macbeth, arguing that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep is ‘communicated to [the audience] by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions’. There is an air of ‘inevitability’ about Lady Macbeth’s fate, thanks to the careful accumulation of images, stage-effects, and emotional details which precede her death.

This idea of the ‘objective correlative’ would prove to be hugely influential on mid-twentieth-century criticism, which was often concerned with interpreting the symbols and images employed by writers to convey the emotional ‘life’ of a character. But the term’s origins in nineteenth-century American art criticism are less well-known, and show that Eliot seized upon this useful term and transformed its fortunes, through applying it to the action of a play’s drama.

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