How to Write a Comparative Literature Essay | How to Guide | EWS UK

How to Write a Comparative Literature Essay

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.

Pitfalls to Avoid

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.

How to Structure a Comparative Literature Essay

Method #1: Alternating method

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:

  • Paragraph 1 Spanish Science Fiction
  • Paragraph 2 American Science Fiction
  • Paragraph 3 Spanish 18th Century Fiction
  • Paragraph 4 American 18th Century Fiction
  • Paragraph 5 Spanish Crime Thrillers
  • Paragraph 6 American Crime Thrillers

This lays out your comparisons based on topic, allowing you to sum up your points gradually.

When do I use the alternating method?

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.

Method #2: Block method

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.

When do I use the block method?

The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:

  • You are unable to find points that are closely related to each other.
  • Your ideas about American genre fiction build upon or extend your ideas founded on Spanish fiction.
  • You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two. After two subjects, the alternating method becomes hard to read fluidly.

The Importance of Close Reading

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. 

The Essentials of a Good Comparative Literature Essay

  • Devote time to thinking about the question and how it relates to ideas and themes explored in your lectures and seminars. Rather than simply presenting a series of loosely related themes or personal responses, think about how you can construct a coherent and compelling argument.
  • Always keep the your main thesis in mind as you read and write, and make sure that everything you include in the essay contributes to it. Avoid introducing digressions, however interesting you may happen to find them.
  • The introduction is often the most difficult part to compose, but it is always worth devoting time to getting it right. A strong introduction should grab the reader's attention, clarify how you will tackle the question, provide a clear outline and set the tone of the essay to follow.  
  • Your writing should be analytical rather than descriptive, and be structured around your main argument rather than the narrative of the text. In most cases you can assume that your reader is already familiar with the text, so do not attempt to summarise it.   
  • If the essay question includes literary terms of art that can be used in different ways, be sure that you understand them in the sense intended. If you not entirely sure about their meaning, be sure to discuss this with your tutor.
  • Devote attention to how the argument develops between paragraphs. Each paragraph should form a step forward in your argument and build on the point made in the one previous to it.
  • Try to think for yourself and cultivate your own critical voice. Be respectful of the views of other critics, but not overly deferential, and avoid adopting their arguments or interpretations wholesale.  
  • Use your conclusion to recapitulate your main thesis and demonstrate how it provides an answer to the question. While it is advisable to explore a range of arguments in the main body of the essay, your conclusion should not introduce any new material or ideas. 

Consult an Expert

If you want to learn how to write a Comparative Literature essay that will get you the grade you want, there's no better way than to consult an academic expert in the subject. At Essay Writing Service UK we will assign to you an academic mentor who can assist you with every aspect of your essay, from initial draft to final submission.

To find out how Essay Writing Service UK can help you with your Literature essay, take a look at our essay writing page. If you are looking for help with a dissertation, we have a variety of solutions available to assist you, from dissertation proposal to conclusion.

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