Having difficulty getting your head around comparisons? Insight writer and English teacher Kate Macdonell offers some handy tips to get you thinking more deeply about your texts and taking your analysis to the next level.
There is no doubt that the comparative element of the Year 12 English course is a challenging one. Not only does it demand that you know two texts from different genres extremely well, but it also requires you to explore and provide evidence about how those texts navigate a particular idea while taking into account form and context, all in the space of an hour-long examination.
When writing a comparative essay, it can be very easy to focus on the obvious similarities and differences between the texts and ignore the nuances. To lift the quality of your analysis beyond the superficial to something more substantial, try answering the following questions.
How is an idea or human quality explored in each text?
This question requires you to think about the role of form in the texts. For instance, in I am Malala and Made in Dagenham, the mediums through which the stories are conveyed help to crystallise their respective historical settings.
In Made in Dagenham, the uneasy tension between liberal and conservative values in late 1960s Dagenham is highlighted by the juxtaposition of scenes of jiving mini-skirted women (accompanied by an upbeat soundtrack) with images of the harsh working conditions of the Ford company machinists (all of whom are also women). The combination of overhead shots depicting the numerous sewing machine stations in close proximity alongside close-ups of workers cutting thread or guiding fabric through their machines emphasises the oppressive conditions under which these women work.
In contrast, the memoir form of I Am Malala allows the narrator to portray the complex makeup of Pashtun culture, the Swat Valley setting and the political context of Pakistan more generally. The use of legends, personal anecdotes, historical references and Pashtun sayings act to provide a sense of the magnitude of the forces impacting Malala’s fight for girls’ education.
How do I take context into account?
Once you have studied what each text says about a particular theme, you should turn your attention to the time and place in which the texts are set. Thinking about context enables you to provide a much deeper analysis; it alerts you to the degree to which the idea you are exploring (e.g. courage) might manifest differently in each text and why.
For instance, in Invictus, Madiba’s show of courage as president is designed to repair the division in South Africa after years of apartheid. In Ransom, however, Priam’s courage in paying the ransom for the body of his son is more personal; his primary motivation is to give his child a dignified burial, not to solve the intractable conflict between the Trojans and the Greeks.
Priam’s courage is demonstrated in a context in which fewer malleable forces exist than in Madiba’s South Africa, where the president has the capacity to be a force for real change. While both Priam’s and Madiba’s demonstrations of courage are important, the type of courage shown and its effects on other people varies according to differences in time and place.
What do I see when I put the texts together?
Although it might be the hardest one to answer, this question can generate some interesting and powerful observations about the key ideas in your texts. Analysing Made in Dagenham in relation to I Am Malala, for instance, exposes the complexity of Malala’s fight for girls’ education.
Made in Dagenham shows that educating girls is not, on its own, the solution to inequality between the sexes. While education is an important step to facilitate women’s agency, the film makes it clear that more systemic legislative and social changes are necessary for women to be regarded as equal to men. The example of Lisa Hopkins, who has an honours degree but is treated as subservient by her husband, is important here. While for Malala the right of girls to an education is crucial, Made in Dagenham shows that, in a patriarchal culture, it is only one of many steps needed to achieve social and economic equality for women.
Remember that all of the comparative pairs on the VCE English Text List comprise texts that are generically different and navigate distinct historical and/or geographical contexts. Appreciating these differences and answering the questions outlined above should help you to provide a thorough and interesting comparative analysis.
Need more help with comparing texts? Browse the range of Insight Comparison Guides for VCE English/EAL text pairs. Written by experienced English teachers and professional writers with expertise in literature and film criticism, each Insight Comparison Guide includes a detailed study of each of the two texts, and a close analysis of their shared ideas, issues and themes.
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