Monday, June 27, 2011

Props for Emotion: The Objective Correlative Unveiled

C. M. McCarthy
In an episode of Family Guy, main character Peter responds to someone calling him a “degenerate” with the following line: “A degenerate, am I? Well, you are a festizio! See, I can make up words too, Sister.” I’m only somewhat embarrassed to admit that this quote popped into my head the first time I heard someone use the term “objective correlative” in a writing workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It didn’t help that the person said it too fast, leaving this abashed writer to ask, “What’s an object of Cruella de Vil?”

As it turns out, the objective correlative is neither a Disney antagonist’s prop nor a phrase created to make fledgling writers feel like fools. The objective correlative (O.C.) can be a writer’s best friend, particularly in this precarious world of “Show, But Don’t You Dare Tell!” So what the heck is an objective correlative? T.S. Eliot (author, poet and in this writer’s opinion, a brilliant, brilliant man) investigated the O.C. in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems.” He wrote that it is “a set of objects […] which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion.” He goes further to say that the O.C. is “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art.” That seems a bit extreme, but the O.C. is a goldmine when it comes to illustrating sentiments without spelling them out. 

So what does an O.C. look like? My favorite example is taken from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, wherein the reader cannot escape the main character, Holden’s, red hunting hat. Holden’s focus on the hat makes it an endowed object, but Salinger goes further, using the hat to subtly evoke the pain of Holden’s brother, Allie’s, death. In the beginning, Holden tells the reader, “I’ll tell you the kind of red hair [Allie] had. […] I remember once, […] having a hunch that if I turned around all of a sudden, I’d see Allie. So I did, and sure enough, he was sitting on his bike outside the fence – there was this white fence that went all around the course and he was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off. That’s the kind of red hair he had.” Holden is not over his brother’s death, but instead of dragging down the plot with sad memories, Salinger uses the red hunting hat to keep Allie’s distinguishing feature, and therefore Allie, in the reader’s mind. In essence, the object, a.k.a. the hat, is correlating Holden’s unspoken grief. Hence the objective correlative. 

More than likely, you are already using the O.C. without realizing it. Whenever your character turns from a fight between family members to focus on a crack down the middle of a windowpane, you’re using an O.C. You’re showing that he’s divided without telling: an act which defines that great difference between creating an emotional reaction in the reader and relaying one.

C. M. McCarthy writes fiction for all ages as well as poetry and screenplays. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University, a grad certificate in screenwriting from UCLA and a MFA in Writing For Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts (Class of Jan. 2011). If you have any questions or comments about her post or VCFA, you can contact Cori at


  1. Thanks for this post and the great definition. I've been using the “objective correlative” for years without knowing the term. It never came up when I was at Vermont College.

  2. I'm going to astonish strangers when I use “objective correlative” in a complete sentence.
    Lupe F.

  3. I know... it sounds so um, grown up, doesn't it? Sheryl

  4. So I assume the little girl in a red sweater in Schindler's list is such an object? Thank you for the information.

  5. Never had a term for this before. It's nice to know what it's really called -- instead of "thingy". Thanks CM!

  6. Folk singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith uses the O.C. very well in his song "Water in the Fuel"--about a man whose heart is breaking from lost love while his big rig truck breaks down around him as he pushes on. "The light keeps coming on..There's water in the brakes are gone.. I got a left front tire throwing tread..and by tomorrow morning I could be dead.." Hitchcock used a similar device in just about every movie. He called it "The McGuffin". Usually it was an object that the whole film revolved around. Thought-provoking article. Your mother says "Hi".

  7. Great definition and examples. Thanks, C.M. It's such an effective device. You're right -- I think I've used it before without realizing what I was doing. It's amazing what pops up subconsciously while writing.

    This makes me even more delighted I'll be featuring some other great VCFA articles on my blog in August, at: On Beyond Words & Pictures

  8. What a great post! I never knew what that was, but guess what, you are right, I am using just such a device in my novel. Maybe even two! Thanks for being a guest blogger.

  9. By the way, I am anonymous, aka Hilde. I guess I am not a very good comment poster.

    Hilde of Pen and Ink!!

  10. I did not know this term. Thank you for the clear description of it.

  11. What's up, this weekend is good in support of me, since this time i am reading this great educational post here at my residence.
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