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.
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.
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