Comparing and contrasting

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.)

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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 you can in preparing to write a comparison paragraph between these two characters, you may decide that the differences you have found are far less significant or interesting than the similarities. Because you are developing a comparison, you are obliged to acknowledge that there are, indeed, differences between Goodman Brown and Poe’s narrator. (If you were to focus exclusively on the similarities these characters share, your reader might suppose that you had entirely overlooked their differences and that, as a consequence, your essay or paragraph must be flawed and therefore without merit.) But you also want to make clear to the reader your sense that the similarities outweigh the differences. What’s the solution? Here is a suggestion.

Start your paragraph with a topic sentence:

Although there are striking differences between Goodman Brown, the central character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown,” and the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the similarities between these two figures suggest a central point about protagonists in nineteenth-century American fiction: they tend to isolate themselves from others through their obsessive behaviors.

Then go on to introduce differences:

At first inspection, Goodman Brown and Poe’s narrator appear to be quite unlike each other. The narrative “I” of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a crazed murderer with no apparent friends or acquaintances other than the old man he kills and butchers. Goodman Brown, by contrast, is a member of the community, married, with children, and, at his worst, a silent grouch. Murder never crosses his mind. The narrative “I” of Poe’s story seems eager to share the fact of his murderous crime with the police who come to his apartment, whereas Goodman Brown has no desire to tell anyone in his village what he thought he saw and did on the night he ventured into the woods.

Now get to the central issue, how these two characters share very important similarities:

Nevertheless, these two characters are twin brothers at heart. Each is desperately concerned with sin and evil. Poe’s narrative “I” cannot resist the pull which draws him to the old man’s bedroom. He cannot resist the urge to illuminate “the vulture eye.” Likewise, Goodman Brown will not put off his journey into the woods, even though his wife of three months begs him to remain at home. He must press on to face wickedness itself. The behavior of each is absolutely determined by this concern to uncover the mystery of evil and deal with it. And this obsession isolates Poe’s narrative “I” and Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown from their fellow creatures. In their obsessive behavior these characters are linked with other figures in nineteenth-century American fiction—Captain Ahab, for instance, in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Bartelby in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels, and Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.

If you were to write an essay comparing these two stories, the topic sentence I have written for the paragraph above would serve as your thesis statement for the comparison essay. Put your thesis statement at the top of your introductory paragraph—that’s right, the thesis statement is your first sentence—then go on to write a topic sentence for each of the paragraphs in the body of your essay. These topic sentences become the second, third, fourth, etc., sentences of your introductory paragraph In the last sentence of the introduction, sow a seed for the final paragraph of your essay, a “so-what?” paragraph. This paragraph IS NOT A CONCLUSION. Instead, it answers the question “So what?” Imagine someone asking you to explain why you wrote the comparison you did. Your response is to put your analysis in a context. Using the above example, I might say: “In their obsessive behavior these characters are linked with other figures in nineteenth-century American fiction—Captain Ahab, for instance, in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Bartelby in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels, and Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.”

To avoid repetition, when you write the body paragraphs, paraphrase the topic sentences which you have already placed in your introduction to avoid repeating them verbatim in the body of your essay. Each of these paraphrased topic sentences should govern what goes into their paragraphs in the body of the paper. Likewise, when you come to the “so-what?” paragraph, paraphrase the seed sentence you wrote at the end of your introductory paragraph. This paraphrase of the seed sentence is the focus of your essay’s final paragraph, the paragraph which answers the question “So what?” You should not be surprised if this final paragraph is longer and more detailed than any of the body paragraphs. After all, it is meant to open up for your reader a wider perspective than the body of your essay can provide.

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