Thursday 10 May 2012

How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay

By Peter J. Francis, HGPublishing Editor
The key to writing a compare and contrast essay is that you must do two things. You must find similarities and you must find differences. Now, obviously there are going to be differences, but you must contrast differences that are significant. It's not going to fly if you say that one poem has different words than another poem. If you find that both poems have a similar theme, then you must say how the themes are handled differently.

Compare and contrast essays are standard fare for state and provincial exams at the high school level, so it's important to know how to handle them. Typically, we ask students to compare themes between two literary works--sometimes two poems, sometimes two novels or short stories, or even between two genres. It doesn't really matter. Compare and contrast essays are also given in social studies courses. I recently answered a question for a reader about comparing and contrasting the reasons the US got involved in WW1 and WW2.

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In that case, I suggested that in both cases the US only joined in the war after it had been attacked. However, it was clear before that point that the US was supporting one side with materials.
When you compare, you want to find similarities. For a literary essay, the similarities might be thematic, they might be symbolic or they might be historic. Perhaps both works were written as a response to some event, either public or privately within the life of the writer. In any case, an outline is a useful starting point. I'd make two lists, for brainstorming purposes. Obviously, one list would be similarities and the other list would be differences. It's not helpful to say one work is a poem and the other is a short story, nor is it helpful to say WW1 started in 1914 and WW2 started in 1939.

You could compare and contrast two characters in the same novel. You might compare and contrast Napoleon and Snowball in Animal Farm. They both begin by promoting the benefits of the revolution; however, Napoleon becomes corrupted and forces Snowball to flee. Snowball was an idealist and Napoleon was a cynic.

You might compare and contrast how the theme of racism was dealt with in To Kill A Mockingbird--exposed through the eyes of a young white girl--and how it was depicted through the eyes of a black girl in The Color Purple. You might look at greed and lust for power in Macbeth and compare/contrast it with how power is depicted in Lord of the Flies.

The thesis of your essay includes the statement that generalizes how the two works are both similar and different. What you want to do for the reader is show an interpretation that creates a relationship between the two works and leads to a greater understanding of both.

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