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Developing a Comparative Thesis

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


Today’s guest blogger is Elizabeth Hollow, who teaches middle and high school English at the

Lycée Français de New York.

While AP® teachers and students are taking a well-deserved rest, I’ve been grappling with how best to help my students—juniors and seniors preparing for the American option of the French Baccalaureate—to write a comparative essay, one of the primary tasks of their English literature exam. Of course, writing a strong comparative essay is a crucial skill for any student and for many disciplines, which only adds to my concern that my students start now to get it right.

At first I assumed students would easily make the transition from writing in depth about one text to writing about two, but this assignment proved a major challenge. The real issue, I quickly realized, is how to best to formulate a strong comparative thesis, one that knits the texts together in a significant way. Too often students write about the two works discretely or in parallel tracks, without a genuine comparison. My goal has been to help students focus on the relationship between the texts and to articulate that relationship in a specific, arguable thesis.

To that end, I developed the following handout, borrowing heavily from a model by Dr. Kerry Walk, former director of the Princeton Writing Program. I hope it will prove useful for your students as well.

Developing a Comparative Thesis

One of the central tasks of your upcoming exam is to write a comparative essay: one in which you consider two works in relation to a particular question or theme. Although this assignment is similar to other analytical essays you’ve written, it also requires some additional thinking.

To write a good comparative essay, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you’ve observed between two texts—and make them cohere in a meaningful argument. Here are some of the elements required:

Frame of Reference: This is the context in which you place the things you plan to compare or contrast, the umbrella under which you’ve grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory. Most comparative essay assignments (including exam questions) give you this frame. Here, for example, is a classic comparative essay prompt:

“Much madness is divinest sense to the discerning eye.” —Emily Dickinson

Can madness be said to show or yield wisdom? Discuss this question as it relates to two works you have read in this course.

Notice how this question gives you a general theme—madness—as well as a narrower point of focus: madness that results in (or doesn’t result in) wisdom. Even with this more specific focus, however, many of your texts would be good candidates. Your job is to choose those texts that provide the most interesting comparison. To do so, you must:

  • Read the question carefully.
  • Recognize and define key terms.
  • Brainstorm about how various texts relate to the question or frame of reference.
  • Consider your specific “grounds for comparison” in combining particular texts.

Grounds for Comparison: Let’s say you’re writing an essay on the question above and you’ve chosen to write about Hamlet and Medea. Why these particular texts? Why not The Bluest Eye and A Streetcar Named Desire? Your rationale or grounds for comparison sets up the kind of analysis you’ll do and lets the reader know why that choice is meaningful, not random.

You might begin by considering your chosen texts’ response to the initial question. Do both A and B answer it positively, showing that madness does yield wisdom—or is there an immediate contrast? You might also think about more specific commonalities, such as genre or style, character or situation: both Medea and Hamlet’s madnesses could be said to spring from the need for revenge, for example, while Blanche’s and Medea’s arise in response to mistreatment by male characters. Finally, keep returning to your key terms: are there similarities—or interesting differences—in the kinds of madness (or wisdom) that various characters exhibit?

Keep in mind that your own grounds for comparison will vary with the initial frame and the texts you choose. Remember also that even as you focus on similar themes, it’s important to acknowledge major differences in genre, historical contexts, or style.

Thesis: As in any argumentative essay, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument. And as always, your thesis should be:

  • Clear and specific
  • Interpretive—not just an observation, but a statement of what this observation means
  • Debatable—an intelligent reader could thoughtfully disagree
  • Significant to readers’ understanding of the work

In addition, in a compare-and-contrast essay, the thesis must show how the two things you’ve chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Does B extend, complicate, contradict, correct or debate A? How can you best state the connection between them?

In the most common compare-and-contrast essay—on focusing on differences—you can state the precise relationship between your texts by using the word “whereas” in your thesis.

Whereas Medea shows the damage that occurs when madness blinds us to the results of vengeful action, Hamlet shows the subtler madness—and painful wisdom—that can come from a hyper-awareness of those consequences.

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