Monday, 19 May 2014

A Few Good Pairs for "Compare and Contrast" Essays

Let's begin with noting that the ever-popular "compare and contrast" essays that teachers love to give have a redundant name. "To compare" means to find both similarities and differences, so the "and contrast" is unnecessary.

That being said, some writings are better subjects for comparison than others. A really good pair of writings, to my mind, would have multiple similarities and at least one solid, significant difference. Here are a few that I enjoy assigning.

  1. Roch Carrier's short story "A Secret Lost in Water" and Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging." Both are about the relationships of fathers and sons; both are about the handing-down of some skill from father to son; both feature a skill useful in the countryside that cannot be passed intact to a son who makes his living from a predominantly urban profession, and so they both relate to the loss of tradition and identity during the influx of people to the cities, a fact of life since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The big difference between them is that Carrier's story has the tradition "lost," leading to regret, while Heaney's poem has the tradition adapted, so his emotion towards it (and his forebears) is pride. Both writings are short, so this is a wonderful pair of writings to give students a bit of quick practice.
  2. John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row and Leonard Cohen's song "Suzanne." Both works try to show that (in the words of Cannery Row) "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches" can be seen as "saints and angels and martyrs and holy men" if you look at them a little differently; "Suzanne" shows that ordinary tea and oranges are anything but ordinary: they come "all the way from China." Cannery Row shows that a tide pool is a marvellous tool for looking at life in general; "Suzanne," when she goes to "her place by the river" also sees "angels in the seaweed" and "children in the morning." To be more specific, Doc sees a dead girl in the seaweed, with a look of peace and relaxation on her face. Both works are full of religious references. The big difference is that Cannery Row is about a community that collectively makes Steinbeck's points for him; Suzanne is just one "half-crazy" woman who happens to be wise. 
  3. The play Antigone by Sophocles and the life of Ben Salmon. It was interesting to read Matthew Arnold imply that Antigone is not relevant to modern times: "An action like the action of the Antigone of Sophocles, which turns upon the conflict between the heroine’s duty to her brother’s corpse and that to the laws of her country, is no longer one in which it is possible that we should feel a deep interest." Instead, less than one hundred years after Arnold wrote, Antigone's theme that public and private morality, duty and conscience, can conflict, is alive and well and in the daily news. Look at Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who broke an oath to his country and a duty to his employers to bring to the public matters he felt were wrong. However, the Snowden affair is too recent, and Snowden's fate (through his foresight) has not been Antigone's, so a slightly older example of civil disobedience is a better one to compare with Sophocles' play. Ben Salmon was a Christian conscientious objector in the United States in World War I. He refused to be inducted into the army. Despite the fact that he was not inducted, he was court martialled and sentenced to death, a sentence that was reduced to twenty-five years' hard labour, beginning shortly before the war that he objected to reached its end. He began a hunger strike, which was interpreted as a sign of mental illness, so he was sent to a mental hospital (like Antigone locked up in a cave) where he wrote a 208 page rebuttal of the Catholic Church's doctrine that war can be justified. The Catholic Church, shamefully, refused to administer sacraments to him because it supported the war. His health broke. He died not long after he was released. I think the parallels between Antigone's story and Salmon's are clear. The big difference, to my mind, is that Antigone's religious duty was in the private sphere--she had to bury her brother properly--whereas Salmon objected to the broader actions of his government. (Alternatively, one could compare Antigone to a short poem by E.E. Cummings, "I sing of Olaf glad and big," also about a conscientious objector).


  1. When I am reading a story, comparisons between characters, plot and scenes cannot be avoided. Actually, it is one thing that makes me interested on the story. Reading is fun and learning is fun too even for education online that is now emerging.

  2. True enough. Comparisons do spring to mind as I read. However, the particular strictures of the "compare and contrast" essay mean that you need multiple points of comparison between two works. Even if you can say that two elements of The Lord of the Rings come from Macbeth, the character Gollum is based on Faust, Bilbo's sacrifice on Christ's sacrifice, and so on, you don't have the material for an essay. So, some pairs are better than others. (As a matter of fact, I think The Lord of the Rings could be compared to either Macbeth or Faust, but more than the obvious similarities would need to be teased out).


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