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What Is Comparative Literature?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Comparative literature is the analysis of two or more pieces of literature from different backgrounds. The term can also be applied to an area or element of a group’s literature rather than specific pieces. Different linguistic backgrounds dominate comparative literature, but backgrounds can be culturally, ethnically, racially or religiously distinct as well. Cases can also be made for comparing literature by age groups in contemporaneous writers and by experience; for example, war veterans versus non-veterans.

Literature covers both fiction and non-fiction. It is a broad range of written work, which as a whole, forms one of the key elements of a culture’s self-identity. Such written work takes on many forms and modes from diaries and letters to articles and poems. The dominant form of literature, when people think of the term, is the novel. The novel has only dominated world literature since the late 1700s.

The field of comparative literature is an academic mode of study and inquiry. It overlays with a wide variety of subjects including history, sociology, linguistics and religious studies. This is because each element is a key part of a literary piece’s own background. Such a lack of distinction and the use of other modes of study or inquiry have led some critics to question comparative literature’s focus.

Studies in comparative literature developed in the early 1800s with the first publications on the subject being published in France. At the same time, a number of other comparative studies were beginning to develop in the fields of law, biology and linguistics. Nation states were also beginning to form and the idea of national identity developed in tandem. In 1886, Hutcheson Macaulay Pornett fully defined ideas on the theory in English.

There are three main schools of thought on comparative literature. The first is the French school, which developed from 1816 onwards and was preoccupied by the nation state. French scholarship and its admirers took a forensic tool to literature to examine its origins and influences with relation to its dominant culture and language.

The German school was developed after World War 2 by Hungarian Peter Szondi. Influenced by Eastern European structuralism, Szondi moved comparative literature away from nationalism. This is only natural, as Szondi, who was Jewish, spent time in Bergen Belsen. For Szondi and his disciples in Berlin, social context was more important than politics.

An American school grew out of a wariness of separating nations and linguistic groups. Instead of historical detective work, the American school of comparative literature sought to find common bonds between the works of different literature. This includes looking for universal truths.

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