Comparing and Contrasting (quoted from Jim Stover, “Writing About Literature”)
One of the best methods to help us clarify our thoughts about a character, an event, a poem, a story—nearly anything—is to compare and contrast. (To compare can mean to find similarities and differences. Coupled with contrast, however, to compare means to point out similarities, while to contrast means to point out differences.) Many of us, feeling weighted down by cares, have happened to see someone coping with a much greater burden or handicap—and suddenly our problems become insignificant in comparison. Seeing how our situation relates to another’s, we have gained perspective. The only way to have that perspective is by viewing things in relation to one another—by comparing and contrasting. Considering two characters, for example, can help us think more effectively about each. (Authors frequently invite such comparison by including a character foil in a story—a character who serves to emphasize the attributes of another character because the two are so different.)
Let’s consider, specifically, Rainsford, the protagonist of Richard Connell’s story “The Most Dangerous Game,” and the unnamed protagonist in Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” How are the two men comparable? Each confronts a life-threatening situation. Rainsford is chased by the fanatical Zaroff, and London’s protagonist combats the extreme cold of theYukon. Each fights down panic and acts swiftly and decisively. Rainsford sets traps for his pursuers and finally tricks Zaroff; the man in theYukon quickly builds a fire after his feet are soaked. Each denies the suggestion of an acquaintance: Rainsford tells Whitney that hunted creatures have no feelings, and London’s protagonist ignores the old-timer’s advice. And each man learns, as a result of his ordeal, that he has been wrong.
On the other hand, the men are different in several ways. London’s protagonist does not have sufficient foresight to realize, in the first place, that he shouldn’t be out alone in such cold, and second, that he shouldn’t build his fire under a tree. He fails to overcome the crisis that he brings on himself, and as a result, he dies. Rainsford, however, falls into his ordeal quite by chance, by tumbling from the ship. He refuses to sacrifice his principles to extricate himself from the crisis: he tells Zaroff that hunting men is murder pure and simple. Once he realizes the game he must play, he plays it with great cunning, and he triumphs.
As illustrated in the two preceding paragraphs, there are two ways to write a paragraph of comparison or contrast. As in the first of the paragraphs, we can shuttle back and forth: A is similar to or different from B in one respect; A is to B in a second respect; A is to B in a third respect; and so on. On the other hand, as in the second of the paragraphs, we can write in a block about one of the items under consideration (A) and then about the other (B). Neither way is better, though the shuttle method is a bit more demanding since it requires that we have matching statements about the pair under consideration. Even if we use the block method, we should try to list corresponding details in the same order in both parts of the paragraph; we also need to be sure to provide a link between our discussion of A and B. In any case, a well-organized comparison, whether focusing on literature or something else, is a powerful way to illuminate both the items that we are considering.
--An Addendum to Jim Stover’s Discussion about Comparisons (Bob Fulton)
Sometimes it is helpful to indicate to your reader what you feel is more significant, the similarities you have discovered between the two things you are comparing or their differences. Consider now two other fictional characters, Goodman Brown from Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” and the narrator from Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” After you have listed as many similarities and differences as...
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