This week, Insight writer and English/EAL teacher Niki Cook offers some helpful advice for getting a handle on the comparative essay task.
The comparative essay is the most heavily weighted assessment task for Unit 4 of the English/EAL Study Design. To achieve Outcome 1, you will be expected to analyse the similarities and differences between a nominated pair of texts, each of them a different text type. While you will have already studied one of these in Unit 3, comparing two texts of distinct types – such as a novel and a play – can present a big challenge for some students. In this post, we’ll look at some tips to get you started, using Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders as examples.
Understanding the task
Before you start comparing, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the key knowledge required to achieve the assessment outcome. The task in Unit 4 requires you ‘to produce a detailed comparison which analyses how two selected texts present ideas, issues and themes’. This means you will need to be familiar with ‘the ideas, issues and themes’ of the texts, as well as the ways in which the authors use different features of particular text types to convey them.
Finding points of comparison
At this stage, you should already be familiar with one of your set texts from Unit 3. Use your knowledge of that text as a starting point for unpacking the other. Begin by looking for overall similarities between the plots, characters, contexts and big ideas of each text. For example, both The Crucible and Year of Wonders are set in conservative religious communities in the late 17th century; they both feature societies in which women are oppressed and restricted; they both deal with the effects of superstition and fear; and they are both based on real events.
Once you’ve identified similarities, you can start to look at how the texts differ – the distinct ways in which the texts convey the key ideas, issues and themes. For example, while both The Crucible and Year of Wonders feature societies in which women are oppressed, The Crucible is largely critical of female characters who seize power, such as Abigail. Year of Wonders, on the other hand, is narrated by a woman and celebrates her increasing confidence and education over the course of the novel, thus presenting a more positive image of women who challenge patriarchal structures.
Comparing text types
To produce a detailed comparison of the texts, however, you will need to look beyond the similarities and differences in plot, characters and setting to examine the features of each particular text type and how they are used by the authors to convey information and ideas.
Start by asking general questions about each text type. What are the key features of a play or a novel? And what can an author demonstrate in one text type that they can’t in the other?
Building a table to compare the features of each text and the ways in which they are used can also be a useful exercise. Below is an example comparing the structural features in The Crucible and Year of Wonders.
Year of Wonders
Now that you’ve identified the important structural elements, consider how they are used to convey meaning. Below is an example of a paragraph comparing the structural features of each text.
Both Miller and Brooks use the structure of their respective texts to explore the effects of a crisis on two different communities. In The Crucible, the linear structure of the play and the time jumps between acts help to emphasise the speed with which hysteria takes hold in Salem and highlight the villagers’ willingness to accuse and condemn others. (Only eight days pass between the end of Act 1 and the start of Act 2, even though Mary Warren reveals that ‘There be thirty-nine [people] now’ arrested on suspicion of witchcraft.) In Year of Wonders, however, time passes more slowly, and the circular structure of the novel enables the narrator, Anna Frith, to reflect on the events of the crisis and their impact on the community.
The comparative essay is a complex task, and one that requires you to know both text types well. When comparing a play and a novel, remember to focus on the ideas, issues and themes explored within the texts, and aim to include discussion of the structural features of each throughout your essay. Together, these key elements will help you to produce a strong 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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