Comparative Literature is a rich, interdisciplinary field, affording students the opportunity to study literature across national borders, languages, cultures, time periods, genres and social fields, and to engage with disciplines as various as history, translation studies, philosophy, psychology, critical theory, religious studies, sociology, politics, and the creative arts. With such an intoxicating mixture of cultural forms and academic fields to study, it is all too easy to lose focus, and to neglect the fundamentals of good essay writing.
Comparative Literature allows you to study literature beyond the confines of particular languages, cultures and periods, and to explore literature in conjunction with many other fields of cultural and artistic production. Precisely because of its heady eclecticism and emphasis upon individual creative initiative, however, there are many pitfalls to be avoided. One of these is spreading one's studies too thinly, failing to do justice to any one subject or area, and thus risking dilettantism. Another is that one becomes so caught up in the creative adventure that one neglects the basics of sound scholarship and essay writing.
There are two effective ways to structure a comparative essay. This organisation of structure can be carried out through one of the two methods, the block or the alternating methods. The block or the summary method allows the writer to write about one particular text first and create a small summary of the entire text and the inferences drawn from it. This is followed by the same writing for the second text and then finally both are compared. This theme is applied for all papers in writing comparative literatures.
In the alternating method, you divide your discussion points by your comparative texts and alternate between the two on the basis of these points.
Example: A comparative literature essay using American and Spanish genre fiction might examine the cultural influences that drove specific genres. So you might structure your essay like this:
This lays out your comparisons based on topic, allowing you to sum up your points gradually.
Tutors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your cultures between genres. In cases where it is easy to define your differences, the alternating method is helpful.
In the block method, you discuss all of one culture or group, then all of another. Continuing our example, in this method, you discuss genre fiction in all its types for Spanish, then American. This gives you two complete summaries of the issue.
The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
Every essay you write in Comparative Literature should include detailed analyses of the literary text or texts you are discussing. Close, careful and critical reading is essential in order for you to develop nuanced readings and interpretations, to bring out similarities and differences between the texts you are comparing, and to demonstrate your awareness of the forms, patterns, textures, resonances and ideological purposes of language.
While reading and taking notes, try to explore the relationships between form and meaning, text and context. Pay close attention to structure (symmetries, contrasts, asides, digressions, repetitions); language and register (lyrical, elevated, earthy, rhetorical, religious); rhetorical features (metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, metonymy); tone (comic, homiletic, anxious, melancholy, ironic); punctuation (parentheses, enjambment, parataxis, indirect speech); and allusions and references (to e.g. Biblical or classical myths, local folklore or contemporaneous events).
Beyond all this, you will also need to explore how both the form and meaning of the texts relate to the particular concerns, trends and fashions (artistic, literary, ideological and philosophical) of their time and context.
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