Language and Literature . Literary Theory

From the archives – What is comparative literature?

CCSCertain works of literature call especially clearly for a comparative approach, through reference to other works or through establishing comparative structures such as parallel plots. Collectively, these works can be denoted by the noun phrase “comparative literature”.

In our featured article this week What is ‘Comparative Literature?’ Catherine Brown examines the problems of self-definition in comparative literature by analysing the nature of comparison as a whole, as well as its place in literary criticism past and present.

Comparison, in its broadest sense, is intrinsic to all thought and willed action, but in its strictest sense, is involved in only a minority of literary criticism, whether described as comparative or otherwise. It is involved in all reading, yet is very rarely the subject of literary theory.

What is comparative literature? analyses the nature of “comparability” and the various factors affecting the results of comparison, such as the topic on which the comparanda are compared, how many are being compared, and the degree of detail involved in their description. It is pointed out that a problematic ambiguity exists between the performance and results of comparison, and that the arts, unlike the sciences, are not often able to use quantitative units in comparison, but rely on a crude vocabulary of identity, opposition, equilibrium and comparatives, modified by intensifiers and qualifiers.

In conclusion, the author notes that it is worth sharpening one’s skills at comparison in the intellectually challenging environment of literary criticism, and argues that it would be beneficial for this hitherto overlooked subject to begin to play a more important role in the departments of comparative literature.

What is comparative literature? is available to read online now.

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