Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).
In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.
Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.
Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.
Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:
Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.
Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.
Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.
- In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
- In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.
If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.
You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.
Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).
As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.
Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Comparison Essay Example – Principles of Art
Images (for sample essay):
Grant Wood, Parson Weem’s Fable, 1939Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant, ca. 1625
Amon Carter Museum, Dallas(Detroit Institute of Arts)
In comparing Wood’s Parson Weems’s Fable and Gentileschi’s, Judith and HerMaidservant with the Head of Holofernes, though the subject matter between both of them is very different, there some striking similarities in composition- looking at these elements yields a better understanding and appreciation of both works.
First, compositionally, both paintings are asymmetrical.While asymmetrical, both also seem balanced.In Judith…, the gazes and gestures of the characters suggest that there is something beyond the darkness on the left side of the composition- they suggest that there is more going on than what we see, providing a sort of implied balance.In Weem…, although the composition is asymmetrical, Wood creates a central focal point so deftly (as will be explained throughout) that the asymmetrical nature of the composition is not distracting, therefore it seems balanced.Additionally, Artemisia’s composition has a good example of tenebrism- it is overall, very dark, and Wood’s does not. Hierarchical scale helps Wood draw attention to George, the most important figure (and focal point).He is much smaller – by scale – than any other figure.Artemisia doesn’t use hierarchical scale.
Regarding viewpoint, Wood places viewers on the outside of a curtain that the Parson is drawing aside.It reminds me of a movie or theatrical production (which, indeed, the whole scene is a fabrication of Weem’s mind).This helps to portray the subject matter as just a fable.In Artemisia’s painting, viewers are in a very different position.It is as they are crouching near Holofernes’ heard with the maidservant- in a worm’s-eye-view perspective – thus adding to the sense of urgency in the scene- viewers become a part of the story, opposed to just looking at it.
Both artists, though using different techniques, create an illusion of depth in their works.Wood calls on strong diagonal lines (in the architecture) to draw viewers back into the picture plane.There is also a touch of atmospheric perspective (as the trees on the hillside see to get hazier as they recede into the background).Additionally, the background figures, (esp. the trees) get smaller as they go back – this suggests diminution in scale.One element that both artists use to create the illusion of depth is directional lighting. In Weem’s Fable, there are very obviously cast shadows created by the figures this suggests their three-dimensional quality and depth.The light seems to be coming from the lower left side in this painting.In Judith…, the light also seems to be coming from the candle on the left side of the composition.This illuminates any surface turned toward it, but leaves theirs in shadow, creating a strong chiaroscuro effect and sense of depth.Artemisia also calls on overlapping to create depth in her work – Wood uses it a bit where the cherry tree overlaps the father’s leg, but it much more prevalent in Artemisia’s work.
Both artists use line, both actual and implied, very effectively in their work.Wood uses strong curvilinear lines (in the curtain and the cherry tree) to frame the scene between George and his father- thus drawing attention to the central focal point.Similarly, there is a strong curvilinear line created by a curtain in the Artemisia work.Wood also uses implied line – through the parson and the father’s gestures to draw attention to little George.Again, Artemisia uses implied line as well to suggest that there is something or someone in the darkness on the left side of the composition.One use of line is evident only in Wood s the rectilinear line created by the building at the right side.
Finally, perhaps the starkest difference between the contrasts between these two works involves color.Artemisia uses a very limited palette for her painting.The rich gold and red hues are quite saturated and rich, whereas the purple worn by the maidservant is moredesaturated and less illuminated, and thus that figure is of secondary importance.The small amount of white on the women’s clothing create the brightest spots in the painting.Drastically different is the somewhat high-key palette used by Wood.He uses a range of color, from a very saturated red on the father’s coat, to desaturated shades and tints of the same color on the curtain and building. The dominant red and green tones, which are complementary colors, serve to intensify and unify the representations.George, in his stark white tunic, is the brightest character in the composition, again reminding viewers that he is the focal point.
When pulling all these elements together, viewers can begin to see how they can help the artist to convey their subject matter.In the case of Artemisia, the overall darkness, contrasted with the bright light from the candle lends to the dark, morbid subject matter, but the redeeming idea that the enemy captain is dead.In addition, the implied lines and gestures add to the sense of urgency in the scene.Finally, the white articles of clothing that each woman is wearing could suggest that even though they killed Holofernes, they are pure or innocent in motive.These are just a few of the ways that the art’s choices in technique and form help convey the subject matter.In Parson Weem’s Fable, the viewpoint (as discussed earlier) helps viewers to remember that the scene they are witnessing is fabricated.They are, in essence, watching parson’s fable unfold – I liken it to watching – a sit-com on TV.Also, Wood uses line very effectively to focus on young George – without the curvilinear frame and implied lines, one might not be drawn to the focal point.Finally, the generally high-key palette lends to a feeling of lightness 0 just as the Parson’s tale should be taken lightly.
Critically examining two works of art, and finding their similarities and differences allows viewers to better appreciate each piece and the choices that the artist made in its creation.
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