What is ‘Comparative’ Literature?

This version is pre-editing; for the final version please see Comparative Critical Studies, Volume 10, No. 1, 2013, 68-91.

‘What is “Comparative” Literature?’


This article approaches the problems of self-definition surrounding ‘comparative literature’ by analysing the nature of comparison per se, and the place of this practice in literary criticism past and present. It argues that comparison in its broadest sense is involved in all thought, but that comparison in the strictest sense is involved in only a minority of all criticism, whether described as comparative or otherwise. Certain works of literature call especially clearly for a comparative approach, through allusion to other works, or through establishing internally comparative structures (for example in parallel plots); such works might collectively be denoted by the noun phrase ‘comparative literature’. The nature of ‘comparability’ is analysed, and various factors affecting the results of comparison are noted in turn, including the topic on which the comparanda are compared, their number, and the degree of detail of their description. It is argued that literary criticism would benefit from greater self-consciousness with regard to comparison, and that departments of comparative literature would be well-placed to lead the process of theorising comparison, which hitherto has been remarkably overlooked.