In this post I want to try to explain, as clearly as I can, two things: 1) the proper focus of academic essays on literature (or other cultural texts, like plays or songs); and 2) how to achieve that focus in essays of comparison and contrast among two or more texts.
1. In your essays, talk about the writing.
The proper subject of an essay in literary criticism (here meaning criticism of any textual form) is the writing: the text as a composition of significant elements of form and style. (The analysis of how these elements work together to achieve artistic effects and cultural functions is what we call close reading, and it’s the core methodology, the critical practice of literary studies.) It’s a common mistake for students new to English studies to treat a text like a “window” rather than a “painting,” as U Penn’s Prof Jack Lynch puts it, in his excellent, short guide to Getting an A on an English Paper – a guide that I would advise as an absolute must-read for every student in English literary studies.
in an English paper, don’t talk about the “real world.” Talk about the writing … don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world — it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it. … this doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in the real world behind the text. … Just remember that you don’t have any direct access to that real world, only representations of it. Never lose sight of that fact.
If an English paper is about these representations, then its thesis is the reader’s interpretation – that is, your interpretation – of how a given play constructs these representations, using dramatic techniques, literary devices, and other elements of form. Lynch describes some of these elements at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/EngPaper/close.html – for instance, diction, word order, metaphors. The seven-point list of categories of dramatic form posted for Athabasca University’s Engl 303 world drama course assignment in scene analysis assignment is another useful catalogue of dramatic techniques; I’ve also posted a similar list of Categories for Textual Analysis of works in various media, including drama.
2. Compare texts, then, on grounds of common elements of form.
The key to writing effective English essays of comparison and contrast lies in identifying which such dramatic techniques or elements of literary form furnish the most interesting or distinctive grounds on which to compare two plays, and thereby to argue your own distinctive interpretation of these plays.
As well as “writing about the ‘real world’,” another error common among students new to comparative criticism in particular is not comparing plays directly with each other, but rather discussing how each addresses the student’s chosen theme or thesis. So an essay making that kind of error might argue something to the effect that two plays both represent an identified theme, and discuss how each one does so separately from the other, without considering what elements of form they might have in common. (Essays like this also tend to stay focused on “real world” type content – characters’ actions and events, as though they’re things that happen, not scripted constructions composed to convey specific artistic and cultural effects.) Instead, a stronger essay of comparison and contrast might argue that two given plays compare or contrast in their representation of a given theme – through the uses of two or three different dramatic techniques and/or elements of literary form that each uses in a way that’s significantly similar to or different from how the other does.
More about integrating the grounds of comparison for an essay of comparison and contrast is at this page I’ve created in the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network.
And if you’re still unsure about the whole “talk about the writing” thing, I’ve blogged more extensively about it.
And, lastly, in another blog post, I detail four specific steps to practice the close reading of texts, in order to focus on how they’re written and the implications of that writing.