Writing About Literature: Ten Sample Topics for Comparison & Contrast Essays

Marker at Edgar Allen Poe's Original Grave Site
"The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" are both by Edgar Allan Poe. drnadig / Getty Images

In high school and college literature classes, one common type of writing assignment is the comparison and contrast essay. Identifying points of similarity and difference in two or more literary works encourages close reading and stimulates careful thought.

To be effective, a comparison-contrast essay needs to be focused on particular methods, characters, and themes. These ten sample topics demonstrate different ways of achieving that focus in a critical essay.

  1. Short Fiction: "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Fall of the House of Usher"
    Although "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" rely on two notably different types of narrator (the first a mad murderer with a long memory, the second an outside observer who serves as the reader's surrogate), both of these stories by Edgar Allan Poe rely on similar devices to create their effects of suspense and horror. Compare and contrast the story-telling methods employed in the two tales, with particular attention to point of view, setting, and diction.
  2. Short Fiction: "Everyday Use" and "A Worn Path"
    Discuss how details of character, language, setting, and symbolism in the stories "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker and "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty serve to characterize the mother (Mrs. Johnson) and the grandmother (Phoenix Jackson), noting points of similarity and difference between the two women.
  1. Short Fiction: "The Lottery" and "The Summer People"
    Although the same fundamental conflict of tradition versus change underlies both "The Lottery" and "The Summer People," these two stories by Shirley Jackson offer some notably different observations about human weaknesses and fears. Compare and contrast the two stories, with particular attention to the ways Jackson dramatizes different themes in each. Be sure to include some discussion of the importance of setting, point of view, and character in each story.
  1. Poetry: "To the Virgins" and "To His Coy Mistress"
    The Latin phrase carpe diem is popularly translated as "seize the day." Compare and contrast these two well-known poems written in the carpe diem tradition: Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins" and Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Focus on the argumentative strategies and specific figurative devices (for example, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and personification) employed by each speaker.
  2. Poetry: "Poem for My Father's Ghost," "Steady as Any Ship My Father," and "Nikki Rosa"
    A daughter investigates her feelings for her father (and, in the process, reveals something about herself) in each of these poems: Mary Oliver's "Poem for My Father's Ghost," Doretta Cornell's "Steady as Any Ship My Father," and Nikki Giovanni's "Nikki Rosa." Analyze, compare, and contrast these three poems, noting how certain poetic devices (such as diction, repetition, metaphor, and simile) serve in each case to characterize the relationship (however ambivalent) between a daughter and her father.
  3. Drama: King Oedipus and Willy Loman
    Different as the two plays are, both Oedipus Rex by Sophocles and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller concern a character's efforts to discover some kind of truth about himself by examining events from the past. Analyze, compare, and contrast the difficult investigative and psychological journeys taken by King Oedipus and Willy Loman. Consider the extent to which each character accepts difficult truths--and also resists accepting them. Which character, do you think, is ultimately more successful in his journey of discovery--and why?
  1. Drama: Queen Jocasta, Linda Loman, and Amanda Wingfield
    Carefully examine, compare, and contrast the characterizations of any two of the following women: Jocasta in Oedipus Rex, Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, and Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Consider each woman's relationship with the leading male character(s), and explain why you think each character is primarily active or passive (or both), supportive or destructive (or both), perceptive or self-deceived (or both). Such qualities are not mutually exclusive, of course, and may overlap. Be careful not to reduce these characters to simple-minded stereotypes; explore their complex natures.
  2. Drama: Foils in Oedipus Rex, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie
    A foil is a character whose main function is to illuminate the qualities of another character (often the protagonist) through comparison and contrast. First, identify at least one foil character in each of the following works: Oedipus Rex, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie. Next, explain why and how each of these characters may be viewed as a foil, and (most importantly) discuss how the foil character serves to illuminate certain qualities of another character.
  1. Drama: Conflicting Responsibilities in Oedipus Rex, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie
    The three plays Oedipus Rex, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie all deal with the theme of conflicting responsibilities--toward self, family, society, and the gods. Like most of us, King Oedipus, Willy Loman, and Tom Wingfield at times try to avoid fulfilling certain responsibilities; at other times, they may appear confused as to what their most important responsibilities should be. By the end of each play, this confusion may or may not be resolved. Discuss how the theme of conflicting responsibilities is dramatized and resolved (if it is resolved) in any two of the three plays, pointing out similarities and differences along the way.
  2. Drama and Short Fiction: Trifles and "The Chrysanthemums"
    In Susan Glaspell's play Trifles and John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums," discuss how setting (i.e., the stage set of the play, the fictional setting of the story) and symbolism contribute to our understanding of the conflicts experienced by the character of the wife in each work (Minnie and Elisa, respectively). Unify your essay by identifying points of similarity and difference in these two characters.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Writing About Literature: Ten Sample Topics for Comparison & Contrast Essays." ThoughtCo, Apr. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/writing-about-literature-1692444. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 10). Writing About Literature: Ten Sample Topics for Comparison & Contrast Essays. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/writing-about-literature-1692444 Nordquist, Richard. "Writing About Literature: Ten Sample Topics for Comparison & Contrast Essays." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/writing-about-literature-1692444 (accessed November 21, 2017).