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Hester Blum on Comparison Essays

Hester Blum on Comparison Essays Comparison Essays

by Hester Blum


In writing a paper in which you compare and contrast two novels, or two characters, or two ideas, it in not sufficient or useful to compare Anse in As I Lay Dying to Culla in Outer Dark, or to contrast Amanda in The Glass Menagerie with Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Such a comparison would be too broad and not tied to any interesting, specific point of difference or similarity between the elements. Instead, you should focus on a narrow, illustrative trait or situation. Some good techniques:


  1. Pick a provocative quotation and pose a question that centers on that quotation. In "Dave's Neckliss," Uncle Julius observes, "the ham had be'n on his neck so long dat Dave had sorter got use' ter it" (131). How can the ham as grim "accessory" be compared to either Hulga's prosthetic leg in "Good Country People" or Laura's brace in The Glass Menagerie? What choice does each character have in the wearing of such a prop? How permanent a fixture is each prosthetic?


  2. Compare two characters' attitudes toward a specific issue, or their specific behaviors. For example, for what reasons do the townspeople of As I Lay Dying and Outer Dark help the Bundrens and Rinthy Holme, respectively? Do they inspire pity, or scorn, and why would these reactions create a desire in others to help them?


  3. Compare metaphors or themes. Both The Golden Apples and A Streetcar Named Desire seem to sanction male sexual violence. Why is sexual violence rewarded in these texts? Are there ways in which the texts are critical of either the violence or the conditions which produce it?


  4. Compare vocabulary or diction. Why is the speech of many characters in these southern novels presented to the reader in dialect form? What is the difference between the way that Chesnutt represents Uncle Julius' speech and the way in which Cormac McCarthy excises the very punctuation marks that make Chesnutt's brand of dialect representation possible? In other words, what is the difference between McCarthy writing "they just now bringin em in" and Chesnutt writing "dey tole 'im how Dave be'n gwine on"?

There are different ways to organize a compare and contrast way. The easiest, of course, is play by play, character by character; this format, however, should not result in two separate works connected by a transitional sentence. It may be more difficult to do a point by point comparison, but such a format makes for a far more logical and persuasive paper. You should not merely make a list of how elements are alike or different, but instead should emphasize the argument behind the list: what is the point of the comparison? what is interesting and relevant and exciting about the comparison, and what does the comparison mean in the larger context of the text?