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.
"I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity". To what extent can it be argued that torture and insanity are integral elements of The Prussian Officer, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart?
Insanity could be defined as “the state of being mentally ill; madness”, thus it is no surprise that writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and D. H. Lawrence beauteously integrated aspects of insanity into their stories in order to chisel the perfect piece of gothic literature, simultaneously luring the reader in to a world carved by madness and drowned in an eerie atmosphere. Portraying one as insane is a powerful gothic literary device that has been used throughout the era of the gothic, notably in Matthew Lewis' “The Monk” and Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”. One way in which writers complement and enhance the insanity of their sadistic characters is through the psychological and mental torture that is often inflicted upon the victims of the novel or story, a prime example being Hindley in Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”. Although many deemed Edgar Allan Poe as “insane” himself, in the words of C. Chauncey Burr in 1852, “that perfection of horror which abounds in his writings, has been unjustly attributed to some moral defect in the man”; indeed it could be suggested that Poe simply embedded his writing with the “unnatural” to enhance its gothic nature. Lawrence, on the other hand, was perhaps influenced by real life events, as, as stated by Keith Cushman, “the temporal, biographical and cultural context of this short story is connected with Lawrence's stay in Germany in the early summer of 1913.”
Extensive use of repetition within “The Tell-Tale Heart” reflects the sheer extent of insanity; the narrator is undoubtedly psychologically unstable and such madness simply heightens the terror the story inflicts upon the “unfortunate” reader. This is clear in the opening sentence when the narrator says “TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” The enhancement of his insanity is conveyed through the repetition of “nervous” and “very”, which evidently portray his unstable state of mind and thus the likeliness for him to commit such a brutal and sadistic murder. Furthermore, the language and syntax used by Edgar Allan Poe has the ability to lure the reader to believe that the narrator is anxious and uneasy; a character whose insanity shines through his speech. Unlike the narrator of “The Tell Tale Heart”, the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” maintains the capacity to recount faithfully and rationally his surroundings while also describing his own emotional turmoil and the burden of emotional distress does not hinder his account of the event.
Insanity is similarly expressed through repetition whereby the victim of torture expresses “the deepest slumber -- no! In delirium -- no! In a swoon -- no! In death -- no!” The repetition of the word “no!” radiates a feeling of madness as a result of the brutal tribulation to which the prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is subjected, or perhaps the determination the prisoner has to prevent himself from going insane. "I became insane with long periods of horrible sanity" perfectly defines his state of mind, reflecting that the prisoner extensively dreads the anticipation he is left to endure, anticipation that appears to be far worse than completely losing his mind due to the encroaching insanity. This could, however, be deemed a form of mental entrapment wherein the victim is confined to a certain state of mind. The gothic trope of madness expresses this form of entrapment; the insane are trapped in their own mental universe; a universe which no one else can enter, emphasised to a greater extent when the protagonist says “down -- steadily down it crept…Down -- certainly, relentlessly down…Down -- still unceasingly -- still inevitably down”. The entrapment of characters in gothic literature effectively mirrors the entrapment faced by individuals in the Victorian society; individuals were entrapped as they were forced to repress certain desires in order to observe strict Victorian social decorum whilst working towards an ordered society. Just as Edgar Allan Poe does, D. H. Lawrence uses the literary and language device of repetition in “The Prussian Officer” to express the mild insanity of the Officer that may be present as a result of his pessimistic and mundane life. The Officer not only shows his insanity in his repetition of the sentence “Why have you a piece of pencil in your ear?", but the psychological torture and intimidation that he inflicts on the orderly.
“I do not suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it” - Edgar Allan Poe perfectly defines the opinions of the characters used in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Prussian Officer”. The narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” appears to thrive off his own insanity, evident in the way that he says “Hearken! And observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story”; no sane person could recount for their murderous and torturous actions “healthily” and “calmly”. Furthermore, the way in which he constantly reassures the reader of his sanity ultimately has the counter effect of expressing the insanity which he possesses as shown by his rhetorical questioning of “how, then, am I mad?”, “Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this?” and “If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body”. If the protagonist was in fact sane, why would he feel it were his duty to constantly remind the reader of the fact that he is not “mad”? Further evidence of the narrator “enjoying every minute” of his insanity is notable from the way he claims the reader will “have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” and how he “smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done.” Enjoyment of insanity is also a gothic element integral to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, however rather than the enjoyment being expressed by the protagonist and victim, it is enjoyed by those enforcing the brutal torture upon him. Evidently, the fact that the torturers appear “thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness” as well expressing “stern contempt of human torture”, they “enjoy every minute” of their insanity. This also plays a pivotal role in “The Prussian Officer” as it becomes apparent that the Officer seeks pleasure in torturing the orderly, thus seeks pleasure in his minor insanity. This is notable when “he had felt at once a thrill of deep pleasure” after brutally attacking the orderly with his belt. Furthermore, after psychologically tormenting the orderly, the Officer expresses a “sickly smile”, showing that his regrets are minimal and he thrives off both his insanity and the discomfort of others.
Torture, “to inflict extreme pain or physical and mental punishment on somebody” often plays a pivotal role in gothic texts; it has the manipulative ability to inflict terror on the reader, much like the victims within the texts themselves face. Since the alleged first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, the human body has been a prominent topic of uncertainty, disruption and transgression, such qualities becoming magnified throughout the texts in question, with torture further enhancing the insanity. Those who enforce torturous acts upon the innocent clearly have a degree of insanity whether it be major or minor. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” provides a fine example for such an analogy as he takes pleasure from psychologically tormenting the old man, evident when he says “it was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.” That the narrator can hear the beating of the old man’s heart suggests the stress and psychological torture that has been inflicted upon him and becomes an inevitable part of his “downfall” due the heart’s weakening. This is further supported as it is clear that “the old man's terror must have been extreme” as the heart beat “grew louder…louder every moment”. However, the beating could also be expressed in a metaphorical sense; a sign of the protagonist’s guilt or, in contrast, his desire to kill, the heartbeat representing his mind encouraging him. The narrator not only lures the old man into psychological torture, but also physical during and after the inhumane murder. The way in which he “dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him” and afterwards “dismembered the corpse” and “cut off the head and the arms and the legs” conveys the idea that torture is a vital component of gothic texts in order to create a sense of terror, despair and disbelief for the reader. This also reinforces the idea of the body being an integral topic of focus within gothic literature, similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein whereby the human body is often conveyed in a disturbing, dehumanising manner as “[Victor’s] limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering.”
Edgar Allan Poe adopted a similar strategy of engraving torture into the allegory “The Pit and the Pendulum” in order to intensify the gothic nature of the text which is solely based around the prisoner’s account of torture during the Spanish Inquisition. The text opens to the severe degree of torture the prisoner is facing; he is “sick unto death with that long agony”. Furthermore, the prisoner “felt every fibre in [his] frame thrill as if [he] had touched the wire of a galvanic battery”. “Galvanic battery” suggests immense pain, thus conveying the cruel horrors to which the torturers had previously subjected him. Moreover, it conveys the idea that the actions of the torturers become effectively mechanical and consequently the ‘norm’. Of course, the aspects of torture are of high frequency within “The Pit and the Pendulum” much like they were during the Inquisition; an institution of the Catholic government in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain that persecuted all Protestants and heretical Catholics. Despite the fact much of Poe’s perception of such historical fact is misrepresented, he transforms the theories into enhanced destruction in his gothic pieces; he thrives off the misrepresentation.
Infliction of pain can also be seen to enhance the story’s gothic qualities. The prisoner states “I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me”. Poe’s language Poe, notably the word “species”, alienates the methods of torture and enhances the fact that the prisoner remains distant to what he is facing, disregarding them for what they are and providing the methods with a perhaps “gentle” name in order to blind himself from the cruel reality. The prisoner is also “consumed with intolerable thirst”, suggesting that the torturers lack any form of sympathy; they deprive and weaken him, luring him closer to his demise. He continues to say how “entrapment into torment, formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths”, integrating both the gothic element of torture as well as the traditional implementation of entrapment. This is much like the physical entrapment found in Stoker’s Dracula as, when Harker is driven to Dracula’s castle, he is subjected to physical entrapment in the landscape of Transylvania, as is evident when “[it] seemed to me that we were simply going over and over the same ground again; and so I took note of some salient point, and found that this was so.”