The Old Man and the Barn

Published July 12, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Using the Objective Correlative

The objective correlative is a rhetorical device (writing strategy) where a description of an object (or objects), a situation, or a chain of events is utilized to evoke a particular emotion. The object, etc., becomes a sort of symbol for the emotion it evokes. Objective correlatives can help create mood and reveal the emotions of characters.

“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, 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.” –T.S. Eliot

Here’s an exercise from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner:

“[1] Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then [2] describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.”

My attempt at part 1 of the exercise:

Situation: A lonely old man goes out for a walk after learning of the untimely death of his estranged son.

The old barn was still there — an exclamation point in the center of the dry, wasted meadow. Derelict and forlorn, with all windows and doors boarded up, it offered no clue to the stale and rotting emptiness inside. Its dark red boards were cracked and discolored; its sides tilted precariously. It was nothing but a pathetic blocked heart in the middle of nowhere.

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