What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (or 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 Hamlet and 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. Your list 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 and will argue that one of them (either the similarities or the differences) outweighs the other.
Come up with a structure for your essay
Alternating method: Point-by-point pattern
In the alternating method, you find 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 (body paragraphs 1 and 2), military strategy (body paragraphs 3 and 4), and the administrative system (body paragraphs 5 and 6).
Two notes about the alternating method:
- The two entities may be dissimilar in the themes you identify. To use this method, they need not be similar; you just need to have something to say about both A and B in each area.
- You may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method?
The alternating method generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences between 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 pattern
In 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, make sure they are connected! The B block should refer to the A block 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.
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.