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12 Jan

What is Comparative Literature?

Comparative Literature

“It is only by way of comparison that we know the truth precisely... All knowledge which is not obtained through the simple and pure intuition of an isolated thing is obtained by the comparison of two or more things among themselves. And almost all the work of human reason consists without doubt in making this operation possible.” Rene Descartes

 “Comparative Literature is the study of literature beyond the confines of one particular country, and the study of the relationships between literature on one hand and other areas of knowledge and belief, such as the arts, philosophy, history, the social sciences, the sciences, religion, etc. on the other. In brief it is the comparison of one literature with another or others, and the comparison of literature with other spheres of human expression.” Henry RemakComparative Literature: Method and Perspective (1961).

 “Comparative literature juxtaposes literary texts from different languages and cultures. It connects, say, a poem with dance, a film with the novel, photography with the essay.” Sandra Bermann

“First, Comparative Literature means the knowledge of more than one national language and literature, and/or it means the knowledge and application of other disciplines in and for the study of literature and second, Comparative Literature has an ideology of inclusion of the Other, say, a marginal literature.” Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application (1998).

Comparative literature is an interdisciplinary field whose practitioners study literature across national borders, across time periods, across languages, across genres, across boundaries between literature and the other arts (music, painting, dance, film, etc.), across disciplines (literature and psychology, philosophy, science, history, architecture, sociology, politics, etc.). Defined most broadly, comparative literature is the study of "literature without borders." What scholars in Comparative Literature share is a desire to study literature beyond national boundaries and an interest in languages so that they can read foreign texts in their original form.

French School of Comparative Literature

Comparative literature as a discipline was first established in France in the second half of the 19th century. The French critics see comparative literature as a historical and positivist discipline concerned with the study of the INFLUENCE or RECEPTION to an author or authors abroad. For them it is a branch of literary history and a study of international spiritual relations, (rapport de fait) for example, between Bharata and Aristotle or Byron and Pushkin.


American School of Comparative Literature

Comparative literature reached the shores of America much later, in the wake of German scholars who left Hitler’s Germany. The American critics see comparative literature as an aesthetic discipline concerned with the study of ANALOGIES or PARALLELS in literature, beyond the confines of one particular country. Reacting to the French School, they sought to return the field to matters more directly concerned with literary criticism, de-emphasising the detective work and detailed historical research that the French School had demanded. The American School was more closely aligned with the original internationalist visions of Goethe and Posnett (arguably reflecting the post-war desire for international cooperation), looking for examples of universal human "truths" based on the literary archetypes that appeared throughout literatures from all times and places. (The American attitude to the study of comparative literature can be understood from Henry Remak’s definition.)

The Scope of Comparative Literature

  1. The question of cultural transmigration (eg: Impact of American novels on French fiction).
  2.  Interaction between individual writers.
  3. Translation studies.
  4. The interaction between literature and other arts (eg: Painting, Music, Dance, Film).
  5. The impact of various schools of thought on literature (Marxist influence on French writing).
  6. Literature as a universal phenomenon.

However, comparative literature as a discipline suffers from a serious limitation. It ignores the style and nuances of language. In its search for universality it tends to ignore individuality.


     Influence Study

Influence Study is an attempt to trace the influence of a writer (emitter) upon another (receiver). It is a fruitful study as it can throw a writer’s individual talent in relief against a tradition or it can unmask a plagiarist.

Types of Influence Study

  1. Study of direct borrowing (eg: How much has Shakespeare borrowed from Plutarch).
  2. Study of the influence of a group of writers from diverse cultures and ages (eg: The influence of Donne, Baudelaire and Laforgue on T.S.Eliot).
  3. Study of literatures in contact (eg: French, German and Italian literatures came into fruitful contact in Switzerland).
  4. Study of the influence of ideas (eg: Impact of German ideas on Romanticism).



Adaptation ranges from a convenient reworking of a foreign model to a commercial attempt at turning a foreign word to suit local taste. It involves translation of works in a foreign language.

Eg: Shakespeare’s adaptation of Plutarch, various film adaptations.



It refers to the practice of loosely stringing together ideas, traits and subject matter borrowed from different works. The intention is serious, not humorous.

Eg: The Wasteland by T.S.Eliot



It is a stealthy imitation, using, for example, quotations without reference to the sources. It is a bad example of influence.


Analogy or Parallel Study

While Influence Study presupposes a direct causal relationship between the emitter and the receiver, Analogy Study is concerned with the investigation of two authors or works without necessarily implying a direct causal relationship between them. The factors that account for  analogies or parallels in themes, concepts or images are:

  1. Psychological Factor: The human mind has common ways of responding to experience (which Jung calls archetypes). Also, two authors may have a similar cast of mind.
  2. Socio-Historical Factor: Two societies may have reached a similar stage of development or faced with similar problems.

Eg: Arthur Hatto studied the theme of lovers meeting at night and parting at dawn in poetry. His conclusion is that the theme has been treated alike by poets, ancient or modern, Western or Chinese.



Thematology is an important branch of Comparative Literature primarily concerned with the subject matter or content of literature. Though the term literally means the study of themes, it includes several other aspects like situation, type, motif, topos etc.

Theme, a key term in thematology, is a short statement of the value system implicit in a literary work. It should not be confused with “subject matter”. At times, theme  is identified with a character, situation or even place and time. Examples:

  1. Character: Themes of ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Faust’.
  2. Situation: Oedipal theme- struggle between man and overwhelming fate.
  3. Place: Hardy’s landscapes carry thematic significance.
  4. Time: Lovers meeting at night and parting at dawn.


Stoff (German equivalent of “subject matter”) is the literal content of a literary work. The raw material, which is external to a work, is turned into stoff by the writer.


                                                         Reception Study

Reception Study aims at gauging the response to a writer’s work abroad. It is concerned with the relationship between a work and its ambience (which includes the readers, reviewers and the surrounding milieu). Reception Study should not be confused with reception theory which deals with the reader’s role in understanding literary works.


Translation may be defined as “a process in which a person who knows both the Source and the Receptor Language decodes the message of the Source Language (SL) and encodes it into an appropriate form of the Receptor Language (RL)”.

Significance of Translation


  1. It enables a comparatist to overcome linguistic barriers in the pursuit of scholarship.
  2. Translation can be seen as a sign, source and channel of influence.
  3. Through translation literary trends and movements spread rapidly.
  4. Translation enriches the Receptor Language by challenging its semantic potential.



A ‘genre’ may be defined as a body of literary works identifiable by the presence of certain well known conventions. It is a category of literary form. Geneology is the study of genres. As genres cross national boundaries, a comparatist is naturally interested in the study of genres and their history.



Intertextuality may be understood as the the shaping of a text’s meanings by other texts. It  includes an author’s borrowing and transformation of an earlier text or a reader’s referencing of one text while reading another. The term “intertextuality” was coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966. The intertextual view of literature, as shown by Roland Barthes, supports the concept that the meaning of a text does not reside in the text, but is produced by the reader in relation not only to the text in question, but also the complex network of texts invoked in the reading process. Sometimes intertextuality becomes plagiarism as in the case of Spanish writer Lucia Etxebarria whose poem collection Estación de Infierno (2001) was found to contain metaphors and verses from Antonio Colinas. Etxebarria claimed that she admired him and applied intertextuality! Amazing application of theory in life!

                                             Literature and Other Arts

Literature and other arts have frequently influenced, inspired and co-operated with one another. A study of these interrelations constitutes a legitimate aspect of comparative study.

Themes and motives from other arts often inspire writers. Keats for instance was inspired by Lorrain’s painting and the Elgin Marbles to write on “the Grecian Urn”. Blake’s verses are accompanying commentaries for his own drawings.

Similarly, literature has borrowed and blended forms and techniques from sister arts. The Opera, for example, is a dramatic composition blending drama and music. The Bharata Natyam blends not only dance and music but techniques of drama, painting and sculpture. That is, the dancer dances to the tune of music, employs gestures, postures, facial expressions and ‘mudras’ or symbols.

Sometimes literature attempts to achieve the effects of painting or music. Poetry, for instance, may turn out to be a word picture because of its sensuousness (as in Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” or Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel”). Collins’ “Ode to Evening” is called a “sculpture poem” because of its slow metre and the totality of its effect. Again, poems are sometimes written in order to be set to music. However, ‘word pictures’ or lyrical poems can be no substitutes for painting or music as the medium or the mode is entirely different. Thus the relationship between literature and sister arts is strong, various and complex.



Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, SGC Aruvithura

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Comments: (1)

  • Aisha Salam

    Please give MA notes also