On Gardenias and Other Cathectic Objects

Last spring, I bought a new house with a landscaped front yard. By the end of summer, fifty percent of the boxwoods had died. Last weekend, we finally replaced those dead bushes with some blue hydrangea and daisy gardenias. (Yeah, I’m that neighbor.) The gardenia bushes were already flowering when we bought them even though it’s only mid-spring and they’re typically summer bloomers. On the way home from the nursery, the flowers’ perfume enveloped my car, bringing up images of my grandmother.

I could practically hear her stories about the good old days in the Bronx of her youth, her Os twisting into that tight “oi” sound as she set the stage for life in 1935. Gardenias were her favorite flowers. She wore them to high school dances, the blooms so sweet she didn’t need any eau’ de toilet. By the time I was born, my grandmother no longer left the house. This nostalgia was the only travel she allowed herself.

When I was invited to my first dance, I asked for a gardenia corsage. My nervous date had chosen a wrist arrangement, either fearing he’d stab me in the boob or touch one, probably a bit of both. Throughout the night, I smelled that flower and thought of debutants swinging to big band music in spring-colored taffeta. Afterward, I gave it to my grandmother so she could relive her debutant days. She showed me how to preserve it.

I’m a big fan of cathectic objects, or as T.S. Elliot calls them objective correlatives. An objective correlative is an object, place, or character that objectifies an emotion. Think Boo Radley in To Kill a Mocking Bird, or money in Junot Diaz’s essay of the same name. I also like to think of William Carlos William’s “Red Wheelbarrow”—when done well, so much depends on that object’s presence.

My favorite example of the objective correlative comes from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of linked short stories about an American platoon during the Vietnam War. Throughout the book, the objects soldiers carry reflect the weight of war and soldier’s hopes and fears. In the title story, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from Martha, a girl from New Jersey. Each night he reads them, imagining a life beyond the jungle. The meaning of the letters shifts over the course of the letters from a source of hope to one of betrayal even though the content of the letters remains untouched.

All effective objective correlatives evolve over the course of a story, though their meaning doesn’t need to be so dreary.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s backpack, Monster, feels like an homage to O’Brien. The pack is filled with both physical and emotional weight. As her hike progresses and the pack lightens, so does Monster’s meaning.

So, how do you create an objective correlative in your work?

• Read as much as you can and notice which objects stand out to you. Ask yourself what the object means and it functions in the story.
• Write as much as you can, organically and without purpose. If you start with the goal of creating a great objective correlative, it will feel forced. Instead, mine your work for diamonds sitting just below the surface. Trust that your subconscious mind is wise and will place the right objects for you.
• Once you’ve finished a piece, circle all the objects in it.
• Notice which ones repeat. Objects that repeat typically have some emotional meaning, even if that meaning is unconscious.
• Make a list of potential meanings and emotions associated with repeated objects.
• Once you’ve established your cathectic object, use precise details to convey that meaning or emotional resonance. For example, consider the associations one might make with a threadbare canvass wallet held together with duct tape versus a patent leather one.
• Examine your story’s narrative arc and how the narrator is transformed. Consider whether the details around that object change too. If they don’t, think about whether they should.
• Be careful not to overdo it. Readers don’t like to be hit over the head with symbolism. A good objective correlative works in the background. It’s meaning is subtle.

Like all craft techniques, this one takes practice. If you’re unsure where to start, go to a local florist or garden center and ask to smell the gardenias, or any flower that elicits a bit of nostalgia. If the clerks look at you funny, just tell them you’re a writer. It won’t change the look on their faces, but it might make you feel official.