Comparative Criticism

Over the last half century there has been an increasing number of “Comparative Lit” professors, comparative being a comparison between literatures, as for example Japanese versus American. Since people live by stories, comparing the stories of two peoples is a key way of understanding another culture and developing an appreciation of other cultures. Foreign language instruction normally has a comparative literature component, at least as a subtext. English Departments in America have had an implicit comparative literature component, a comparison and contrast of British and American literary works and practices.

Coming to decisions based on literary comparisons, then is Comparative Criticism. The decision may be as simple as “Virginia Woolf has more feminist attitudes than does T. S. Eliot.” But even such simple conclusions should be based in careful rules and procedures for making such a judgment. The Woolf-Eliot decision is essentially practical comparative criticism. Determining rules and procedures for making such comparison-and-contrast decisions is at the heart of Comparative Literary Criticism.


Counting as a Comparative Criticism Technique

Simple counts—not advanced statistics—can move comparative criticism forward in great strides.


For example, has Japanese literature focused on capitalism in ways reminiscent of the United States? This is a rather vague question that will almost certainly not be resolvable unless it is more precisely restated.

But imagine a scholar going back in the MLA Bibliography to the 1968 issue and finding that there was very little still being written in American literature about Sinclair Lewis as the great satirist of American entrepreneurial spirit. But in the same year of MLA, there were considerably more articles being written in Japan on Sinclair Lewis, especially about Babbitt. For Japanese scholars, this may be a major indicator of Japan following American entrepreneurial interests in literature with a time lag of thirty or forty years. It isn’t conclusive evidence. It is a very good place to start looking for real answers.


Finding the Right Question

In literary studies, finding the right, precise question is an overlooked step in finding something worth writing about. Comparative criticism is often useful here.

Consider the question:  Which is a more complexly plotted play, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors or his Twelfth Night? That’s a comparative criticism question, a big step up from standard assertions that both plays are complicated. But when we try to answer the question, we find that there are values issues that keep us from a definitive answer. Comedy of Errors has doubled twin plots of the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios. Twelfth Night has a dozen or more distinct plots, admittedly with some doubling in the Viola-Sebastian plotting. How we value this difference may change the answer we give to the question asked.

So it seems we have failed to answer the question asked. But in the failure, we have a far better answer to probably more than one more sophisticated question, like What is the difference between twin plotting and multiple plotting? Our original failure is well on the way to answering a more precise and more interesting question.

Such comparative questions are effectively infinite. For example, we can ask the question whether William Saroyan’s Time of Your Life is more or less optimistic than Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. This is a good question for learning what one values and how to articulate and argue for it. But it may not lead to indisputable truth by trying. It will be much less a matter of debate if, having failed to get an indisputable answer, we change the question to whether Time of Your Life or Skin of Our Teeth is more realistic about contemporary issues in American culture.



Comparison is a basic way of understanding the world. But we bring assumptions to our comparing, and the assumptions can get us in trouble.

What if we assume that we can determine authorship or at least difference in authorship by comparison of lexical items? A well-known example is a comparison of the biblical book of Philippians with other biblical epistles written by Paul. Philippians uses a vocabulary quite different than the standard Pauline epistolary style. 

The conclusion is that, despite many centuries of counter-assertion, Philippians was not written by Paul.

The conclusion is often rehearsed. But the assumption is hardly ever discussed. Do I write the same way here as I would write a technical document? If I am writing overseas, would I use the same vocabulary writing to someone in Britain as to someone in France or Germany? And if I seek help in the writing to both, will such help (for example, an amanuensis) lead to differences in final style?

Philippi was a very unusual city located on the strategic main road around the Mediterranean into the Middle East. Because of its location, it had been specially chosen as a Roman colony and as such had a special Roman mission perhaps not nearly so well shared by the Romans themselves in their cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean world. What about a counter-assumption that work written to a very special audience will often require very special vocabulary?


(The comparative argument in Philippians can be mirrored in many biblical controversies, for example the contention that a new writer, “Second Isaiah,” is responsible for a new style and tone in Isaiah 40ff. There can be no doubt about the new tone and style. But isn’t that new style easily accounted for by a shift in subject from the sin of Israel and inevitable punishment to redemption and salvation?) 

Running a similar argument, a comparison of Shakespearean rhetoric in, say, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, and King Lear will find profound differences. We, however, normally go with many attestations that a single author wrote these plays.

So comparison can live or die by assumptions. Checking one’s underlying assumptions is part of good comparative criticism.



Invidious Comparison

Everyone knows that envy is bad for health. Everyone should know not to engage in invidious criticism, because invidious, in Latin, means envious.

Nevertheless, invidious criticism abounds. It is a form of hostility. The technique is simple. Compare two things on some basis, but “prioritize” the basis. That is, make sure that being more of the basis is also better. Then, having established that one is better than the other, make a big deal about the worse being bad.

A famous example of this invidious criticism was Ben Jonson. Although a friend of William Shakespeare, he was forever taunting Shakespeare because Shakespeare wasn’t enough of the right kind of good—whereas Jonson’s plays like Everyman in His Humor,Volpone, and Sejanus obviously were the right kind. 

Jonson’s comment on Shakespeare knowing “little Latin and less Greek” is another of his back-handed, invidious compliments—to be good as a writer, in other words, is to know Latin and Greek well. Shakespeare was thus bad-- certainly inferior, but perhaps something fraudulent as well. (Sejanus failed in production at the Globe in 1604.)

Instead, for good comparative criticism, choose a basis that is simply descriptive and doesn’t prioritize one side or the other as good. Hawthorne and Melville are both giants of the American Literary Renaissance of the 1850’s. We could ask which one was more anti-slavery, with an obvious prioritization of anti-slavery being good. Both writers actually show real compassion for marginalized people, so invidious criticism is likely to create a “good guys/bad guys” dichotomy which is less elucidating than considering the different marginalized figures of House of Seven Gables and of Moby Dick.


Straw Horse Criticism

Straw Horse criticism can be invidious but is more often simply ridiculous. The “technique,” if it can be considered seriously, is to compare something with obvious credentials to something without credentials at all. Mirabile dictu, the credentialed beats the uncredentialed.

In Jane Austen a Straw Horse comparison can be made by asking which is the more romantic figure, Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Mr. Elton in Emma.  Mr. Elton is not in the running, and the comparison is likely to be ridiculous and almost as likely to be a waste of any reader’s time.

It should be noted that the fact of the Straw Horse does not necessarily mean that the idea has no academic merit. In Austen, any paper on Romanticism is an interesting issue, especially starting from the perception that Romanticism with a capital R means a sensibility that developed in the arts in the very late 18th century and blossomed in the early 19th century. Romanticism with a small r is of course entirely separate and concerned with personal attachments.

While a comparison of romantic (note the small r) traits between Darcy and Elton is likely ridiculous, the contrast between the two isn’t. Moreover, comparison of Darcy and Elton as Romantic (note the capital R) might be rather arcane but interesting. And a comparison that left Darcy out altogether and substituted in Mr. Knightley, also from Emma, against Mr. Elton as a romantic (small r) figure could come close to the novel’s central interests.


Moral: a poor idea for comparative criticism can often become a progressively better and better idea for a strong essay.

For discussion of other negative criticisms, see also Advanced Comparative Criticism


Comparing Great to Other

It is prudent to compare great to great, popular to popular, and the like in an attempt to avoid insidious or derogatory criticism. These need to be avoided, but that does not preclude comparing great to popular and the like if the critic is self-controlled about potential biases. And sometimes such disparate comparison can be the source of powerful insight.

For example, Jacqueline Winspear’s Masie Dobbs series of mystery or detective novels has gained wide praise and popularity. And the series is, moreover, of intense psychological and historical interest in that its basic theme is Britishers attempting to regain stability and viability a decade and a half after the disaster of the First World War. 

In that basic theme, Maisie Dobbs novels like Among the Mad and An Incomplete Revenge are a novelistic equivalent of the dark comedy that took European theatre by storm after the Second World War in Anouilh, Camus, Sartre, Giraudoux, Durrenmatt, Frisch, and Ionesco. There are profound differences between the stark, war-torn realism of Winspear and the philosophic abstraction of the later absurdist playwrights which can be profitably explored in comparative critical terms of dark comedic variation.

The Lion King and Hamlet have been casually compared for similarity of situation. The difference between the two is popular against classic, and moreover of comedy against tragedy. Perhaps there are important insights, nevertheless, for a comparative criticism that is serious, non-judgmental, and aimed at establishing deeper truth than the merely casual resemblance.

Those interested in comparative criticism might also like:

Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation 

Comparative Criticism: Representations of the Self Volume 12  

Saroyan--American Dark Comedy

A comparison between the characters Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park and Darcy of Pride and Prejudice


Comparative Literature: Definition and Examples