Writing A Good Comparative Essay
Quite often in English (especially Literature) nowadays, students are being asked to write detailed essays – “controlled assessments” comparing themes in two books. I am quite enjoying writing these How-To’s whilst I am reading books, and I think that they can be beneficial and useful. I know last year I had to write an extended piece on ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘An Inspector Calls’. This post is inspired and based on my work for that.
Here are my three main points on doing a good job.
~ Know the books
~ Know the quotes (relevant ones)
~ How to analyse a quote
Know the Books
Whatever books you are comparing, you need to know them inside out, upside down and underwater. Honestly, I had an A4 exercise book dedicated to OM&M, and one to AIS. You need to know the plot line in great detail, the characters, their roles within the book, their responsibilities, their personalities, the way they change throughout the books, the backgrounds and it’s always helpful to know the number of hairs on their head. You need to know when and why the author wrote the books, and what message he or she was trying to give. I had pages dedicated to Arthur Birling, and the way George treats Lennie.
In my opinion, you should read the books through so you get an understanding of the plot and characters. Then you should re-read the book chapter by chapter, making notes on all the characters and all the major events in the books (and any minor ones that are relevant). Write down how the characters progress, and what impression they seek to give. By now, you should be getting pretty hot on these books. So now, you should go through the book making lists of quotes you like and think you could use. Every quote has something to say, and you need to get a feel for the best ones. More on this next.
Quotes are the heart and soul of your essay. Literally the whole thing is based around them. When making lists of quotes, you must be diligent in grouping them usefully. List them by character, by theme, by chronological order and anything else that may be of use to you. You need to know your quotes off by heart. This is no mean feat, but it makes the whole process far easier, especially if you are writing for an exam (it saves you wasting time seeking out the quotes in the book and copying them out that way). Quotes are your means of backing up what you’re saying in your paragraph.
How To Analyse a Quote
In school, we used the ‘seven steps to success’ method of analysing quotes. I know it sounds cheesy, but it works very well, so here they are.
1. Find a relevant quote.
2. What is the suggested meaning of the quote.
3. Individual words within the quote.
4. Alternative interpretation.
5. Writers’ purpose.
6. Key words.
7. Social historical context.
Find a relevant quote: Whatever point you are trying to prove, you need to choose a quote that has a lot to say about it. Once you’ve analysed a lot of quotes in practice (which you should do lots of!) you’ll be able to choose quotes like a true professional. This one comes with time.
Suggested meaning: Here, you should write the basic meaning of the quote, and what it is saying about the character (if it is a speech quote of course. Not all of the best quotes are speech quotes). You should go into quite a lot of detail here. A quote is teeming with information, you need to pick it apart and lay it out on the page.
Individual words: This is a great part of it, you can really show off here. Pick a really interesting word,maybe something unusual. I can’t remember the exact quote, but Curley’s Wife wears ostrich feather shoes in OM&M. The fact that they are ostrich feathers is fairly ostentatious, as if she is trying to put herself across as a more classy type. It is also a large, strong bird, but being flightless it will never fly away nor escape, just as CW is trapped on the ranch. Finally, an ostrich will stick its head in the sand when in trouble, instead of trying to avoid its problems. So you see? That’s just an example for you.
Alternate interpretation: This is another place where you can really show how clever you can get. If you can come up with a really good alternate interpretation of a quote that shows another aspect of things, then that’s some serious points. Try for an analogy or such like, or even try to link it to another quote.
Writers’ purpose: It’s really good to be able to talk about what you think the author wants to get from his audience by using that particular quote. Is he or she trying to bias you against a certain character, or shock you in some way? In OM&M for example, the author has the characters talk about Curley’s Wife in a negative manner before we even meet her, so we tend to think badly of her from the off. Read into the quote!
Keywords: I don’t really know why this one comes in at number six, as you must be using key words and phrases all though your analysis. Sure, you could say ‘on the other hand’, but why say that when you could say ‘juxtapose to this’ – be flamboyant with your language.
Social Historical Context: This is the hardest one of them all in my opinion. It is very impressive if you can weave Social Historical Context (SHC) into your quote analysis. You’ll need to research what was going on in the time that the book was set. For example, in AIS, womens’ rights was starting to happen. It’s pre-WWII, and Birling voices his opinion on this. Thirdly, it’s also roundabout the time of the titanic. The Titanic can be used an analogy: the Birling family, like the Titanic, are unsinkable. That is until the iceberg of the Inspector crashes through them, and they all start to fall apart. In OM&M, it is set in dustbowl America, where George and Lennie are bindlebums. Try and link things like this in your analysis.
You don’t need to use every one of these in your analysis, but it’s best to try. Maybe you can’t think of an alternative interpretation for a quote, or you’re struggling to link it to SHC. Don’t sweat it, it’s okay. Neither do you have to do this in order. As long as you try to incorporate those elements you should get some good analysis down.
It is likely you’ll have to compare to books relating to a common theme. Say “Compare How The Theme of Loss is Portrayed in OM&M and AIS” might be an exam question. Thus, you must have quotes relating to loss in each book. Since you should have a list of ‘loss’ quotes, use these. There are many different models you can use in writing an essay like this. You could have paragraphs on how they are similar and how they differ, or you could dedicate your paragraphs to a pair of characters (there are often a pair of characters, one from each book, that are similar enough to compare). The most important thing is the comparison. Each paragraph should have at least one quote from each book.
Introduction and Conclusion
The introduction doesn’t have to be too impressive, just a few lines. Rephrase the question, name both of the book title and authors. Give a very brief summary of each plot if you like. If you can, insert an interesting quote here. You might like to write how you are going to compare the books, too.
The conclusion however, must be top notch. You need to come to a conclusion (this may be obvious, but some people are very vague. Be forthright!). You should sum up and revisit your better points. It’s good to put your own opinion in, say which book you preferred the way whatever it is being portrayed in. Definitely get some quotes in here, don’t analyse them of course, just weave them in. I think if you can finish with a really good quote, that’s very impressive. For example, if you were comparing it, you could finish with “and it really was ‘much ado about nothing'”. Bang.
I hope I have given you enough information on how to write a good essay comparing two books. I doubt this post will be as popular as the ‘How To Write A Book Review’ post, but I believe it could be invaluable if a student happens to come across it. Comment with any questions.
I am plowing my way through ‘Going Postal’ right now, but I am rather busy. I might put another review up first.