ENG208.002 -- Survey of British Literature: Beginnings to 1789

Prof. Eileen Joy (Fall 2006)

CRITICAL ESSAY #2 -- Comparative Analysis

Due: Monday, December 11th

Figure 1. Paul Klee, "Embrace"

For your second essay--a COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS exercise--develop a narrowly-defined argumentative thesis related to a comparison of some aspect, or aspects, of two of the works we have read thus far (ranging from Gawain and the Green Knight through Gulliver's Travels). Write a paper of approximately 5-6 typed (double-spaced) pages. NO outside sources are to be used for this paper, which should solely represent your own critical and analytical thinking. On the other hand, the online notes I have provided for you on the syllabus can be consulted in order to help you generate ideas and refine your thinking with respect to these works, and you may incorporate information from these notes in your paper if you feel it is relevant to your argument. I would really prefer that you develop your own thesis without my assistance, and therefore, for this essay I will not be providing broad questions for you to ruminate as I did with the first critical essay; rather, I would like for you to spend some time contemplating connections between the works we have read in order to develop your own, original thesis you want to argue.

Important Note: one of the pitfalls of the comparative analysis is that students will sometimes write a paper in which all they are doing is comparing "similar" and "dissimilar" aspects of a work. An example of this might be something like a paper that begins with, "Both Aaron the Moor and Edmund are evil," and is then followed by a list of attributes that the two character share as evil-doers, and also ways in which they differ as evil-doers. But where's the argument? [Plus, the fact that they're both malevolent "bad guys" is an obvious point.] In your comparison, you may want to outline points of similarity or difference (or both) between characters in different works, or between plot situations, themes, etc., BUT, the important thing to remember is to have a debatable point you want to argue. So, if you are interested, let's say, in some of the parallels, or even differences, between Titus's Aaron and Lear's Edmund, an arguable thesis might be, "Both Aaron the Moor and Edmund are agents of evil who are, moreover, seemingly unrepentant about their malevolent actions. However, whereas Edmund expresses regret about the course he took and wants his brother Edgar's forgiveness and even tries to stop the orders to ave Cordelia killed, Aaron never wavers in his intent to be evil. Therefore, Edmund is a more human character than Aaron." In order to really make this argument convincing, you would also need to begin by defining your most important terms: what it means to be "evil" & what it means to be "human." For an example of a comparative analysis paper from a former student that received an "A" grade, go here. I also append below the same "Guidelines for Writing" I provided on the first essay assignment, and I strongly recommend that you review them before developing a thesis topic and writing the essay.


(I would like to note here that the following comprises some of my own thinking, tips culled from The Holt Handbook [6th ed.; pp. 723-26], and from Professors DeLombard's and White's "Papers: Expectations, Guidelines, Advice and Grading," available online here.)

    First, Please keep in mind that when I ask you to do a close reading of a literary work in order to make an argument about what you see as one of the important aspects of that work, that you do not read to magically discover the ONE correct meaning the author has supposedly hidden between the lines. The "meaning" of a literary work is created by the interaction between a text and its readers, and therefore, most works of literature can convey many different meanings to different readers. Do not assume, however that a work can mean whatever you want it to mean; ultimately, your interpretation must be consistent with the stylistic signals, thematic suggestions, and patterns of imagery in the text. Therefore, in a close reading, whatever observation you want to to make about what you think the author/text is doing/saying, be sure to ALWAYS support your interpretation with direct reference to the text itself (both by providing brief summaries of key content and also by the use of direct quotation).

Here are some TIPS on how to go about doing a close, interpretive reading:

In order to become a good interpreter of literature, you will have to make the important distinction between summary and translation, on the one hand, and interpretation or analysis, on the other. When you summarize, you repeat what the text actually says; when you translate, you explain to your audience in some detail many of the points an astute reader would reach on his or her own -- think of translating something from French into English for a person who speaks both languages. Neither summary nor translation is really a worthwhile endeavor in that neither tells the reader anything he or she did not already know. By contrast, when you interpret or analyze literature, you produce your own ideas about how the text creates meaning. In order to produce these ideas, you will need to perform close reading, to look closely at the language of the text in order to demonstrate not just what you think the text means, but more importantly how it means what you think it does. See the difference? It's an important one.

How, then, do you go about interpreting and analyzing rather than merely summarizing or translating a text?

Summary and translation reproduce what the text says. Persuasive interpretation says what the text means by showing, through close reading, how the text means what you say it means.

    Second, I expect to see a thesis near the beginning of your paper. In other words, I want you to have some kind of point you would like to make/argue in relation to the topic you have chosen. A thesis is NOT a statement in which you simply point out the obvious; for example, "Antigone is a strong woman who stands by her convictions and won't give in to authority." A thesis needs to be ARGUABLE, and the more arguable the better. A better thesis statement about Antigone as a character might be, "Antigone is a strong woman who stands by her convictions to the death, and while this can be viewed as admirable, in this case, what Antigone is willing to die for isn't worth the sacrifice." Can you see the difference?

Here are some TIPS on how to develop a good thesis:

Your introductory paragraph should do two things: introduce your reader to your topic and present your thesis. It is important to distinguish in your mind between your topic -- what you will write about (say, the issue of arete in the Iliad, or male-female relationships in Medea)-- and your thesis -- what you will argue or attempt to prove in relation to your topic. A thesis may be defined as an interpretation that you set forth in specific terms and propose to defend or demonstrate by reasoned argumentation and literary analysis. Your thesis, then, is the position that you are attempting to persuade your reader to accept.

Your thesis may be more than one sentence long. If you have a good thesis, however, in most cases you will be able to articulate it in one sentence. If you require two, that's fine, so long as you make sure that the argument is coherent and that the transition from the first to the second sentence is clear and effective.

Please carefully consider this important hint: You do not need a refined thesis in order to start writing. If you begin with a provisional thesis and then do good and careful close readings, you will often find a version of your final thesis in the last paragraph of a first draft. Integrate that version into your first paragraph and revise from there. Do not worry too much about your thesis, therefore, until after you've written out your close readings! A good final thesis should emerge from, not precede, your analyses.

Below are five steps that will help you work through the process of developing a strong thesis. First, though, please think about these three guidelines:

  1. A good thesis is specific, not general. Avoid all sweeping generalities, about human beings, about poetry, about life, about anything "through the ages," etc. If you follow the five steps below, this should not be a problem.
  2. Your thesis should matter to you, and you should be able to imagine that your thesis would matter to any other member of our class. Does your thesis address important issues that the course has raised? Does it pass the "Who cares?" test?
  3. Finally, your thesis statement should give the reader some sense of what the structure of your paper will be. If your thesis contains two or three parts, then your reader will expect you to discuss those two or three parts in the order in which you've given them in your thesis statement.

Now that you've attentively read and considered these guidelines, here are five concrete steps that you can take to develop a thesis and start writing the paper. Note that we do not say "five easy steps." All of these steps require work, especially the fourth.

  1. Reread the texts you intend to discuss and take good, clear notes on passages that seem particularly relevant to the assignment.
  2. Keeping the topic in mind, look over these notes and then select the one specific thing that grabs you the most, the one particular image or metaphor, or limited set of images or metaphors, about which you feel in your gut that you have the most to say.
  3. Next, using your notes make a list of every instance of that image or metaphor, and then from that list choose the two or three passages that call out most loudly for interpretation.
  4. Following my suggestions on close reading above, write out your interpretations of the instances that you've chosen, dedicating one rough paragraph to each. Remember, your goal here is to say not just what you think your passages mean, but rather to show how they mean what you think they mean. What work do they perform, and how do they perform it?
  5. Finally, look at what you've written and let your thesis emerge out of your interpretations, out of your ideas concerning the work that your image or metaphor, or set of images or metaphors, performs in your texts.

    Other Considerations: