What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare
- positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
- theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
- figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
- texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
- events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)
Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.
Make sure you know the basis for comparison
The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.
- Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
- Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.
Develop a list of similarities and differences
Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.
For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.
The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.
Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences
Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:
- Differences outweigh similarities:
While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.
- Similarities outweigh differences:
Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.
Come up with a structure for your essay
- Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
A Paragraph 1 in body new technology and the French Revolution B Paragraph 2 in body new technology and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 3 in body military strategy and the French Revolution B Paragraph 4 in body military strategy and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 5 in body administrative system and the French Revolution B Paragraph 6 in body administrative system and the Russian Revolution
Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.
- Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
A Paragraphs 1–3 in body How the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation B Paragraphs 4–6 in body How the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
- You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
- Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
- You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.
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A common essay assignment for a literature class asks you to compare several works by the same or different authors. Your essay, by extension, would be an example of a comparison analysis essay. Comparing works of literature–or philosophies, or scientific theories, or economic structures, or anything else–allows us to draw conclusions based on commonalities and differences.
A friendly warning
Beware: comparison discussion can be deceptively simple. Because we compare things all the time, and note similarities and differences all the time, it can seem a pretty straightforward task to compare theme (or setting, or character, etc.) in several works of literature. A simple descriptive comparison, however, would NOT be an effective or successful response to the assignment. Such an essay should address a meaningful, coherent focus that goes beyond a superficial comparison or discussion to a thoughtful examination of the works. What, you may be wondering, is the difference between a “superficial comparison” and a “meaningful, coherent focus”? Think of it as the difference between simple comparison and comparison analysis.
An example or two (or three)
Imagine you had reason to write about poetry and had found interesting material in a comparison of the W. H. Auden poem “Stop All the Clocks” and selections from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Examine the potential focuses below, each expressed as a thesis statement:
- There are ways in which the two poems are similar, but they also have many differences.
- Auden’s and Whitman’s poems are mostly different: Auden’s rhymes, and is about a lover who has died, while Whitman’s is free verse and addresses a multitude of ideas.
- Though significantly different in form and in focus, both Auden’s and Whitman’s poems communicate their ideas chiefly through imagery of the commonplace and the everyday.
(Quite) a few words about the examples
Only one of these potential theses is actually an effective response to the assignment.
There are ways in which the two poems are similar, but they also have many differences.
- Thesis number one is really not a thesis at all. It might seem like a waste of time to mention this here, but, it’s actually a common response to comparison assignments.
- The example should seem weak to you. It not only merely describes the comparison; it is completely unspecific. In effect, it repeats the assignment, which was to compare the two works. To be different but have the potential of being similar is a requirement of comparison; we can’t compare otherwise. Essentially, thesis number one just says, “Hey, I compared these two poems.”
Auden’s and Whitman’s poems are mostly different: Auden’s rhymes, and is about a lover who has died, while Whitman’s is free verse and addresses a multitude of ideas.
- Thesis number two is vastly superior to number one in terms of its specificity, but it, too, fails to effectively analyze its comparison. Imagine the discussion that would support this thesis: it would describe each of the pieces in terms of subject matter and in terms of rhyme/free verse, but in the end we would only be able to say what each poem is about and what form it takes; we would have learned nothing significant from the comparison. It leaves the reader in what writing teachers call the “so what?” position. It would be comparison, but not a meaningful comparison; comparison, but not comparison analysis.
Though significantly different in form and in subject matter, both Auden’s and Whitman’s poems communicate their ideas chiefly through imagery of the commonplace and the everyday.
- Thesis number three is an example of an effective focus for comparison analysis. Notice that it not only indicates some specifics about similarities and differences (different in form; different in subject matter; similar in use of imagery), but it articulates a significant conclusion that the writer has drawn as a result of the comparison: though the poems seem quite different, it turns out that they “work” in a quite similar way. Not just comparison; comparison analysis.
- Notice, too, that the difference can be subtle. It would be merely descriptive to say, “The poems are quite different in form and subject matter, but both use everyday imagery.” Well, okay—but so what? But isn’t it interesting, isn’t it a point of analysis, to note that despite their apparent differences, both poems “communicate their ideas” in chiefly similar ways? We hope you can see the difference.
A (final) word on the subject
Please undertake comparison analysis of literature thoughtfully and with care. You should absolutely examine the works in which you are interested by taking note of all the important ways in which they are alike and different. This, however, is just the beginning of the process of seeking significant meaning in the comparison. Push yourself beyond that description; ask yourself “So what?” so that you won’t leave the reader asking it of you.
 (To do so is called “comparing apples and oranges,” which is supposed to mean “foolishly trying to compare two things that have nothing at all in common; comparing things that can’t be compared”—confusing, since most people immediately identify apples and oranges as inarguably similar: small, tree-borne fruits with peels, seeds, etc.)