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22 Jan

Comparative Literature: An Introduction by Dr K M Krishnan

Comparative Literature: An Introduction by Dr K M Krishnan

"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 is a method of evaluating and interpreting literature. It consists in the comparison of more than one aspect of literary analysis.


The origins of Comparative Literature can be traced to a time when men came into contact with literary productions in languages other than their own. Elements were discovered common to both. Comparative Literature takes into account the points of convergence and contrast. As Van Tieghem puts it, “the object of Comparative Literature is essentially the study of diverse literatures in their relations with one another.”


Comparative Literature had its beginnings in the West. Indian Comparative Literature is of more recent origin.


Russians consider Alexander Veselovsky as the founding father of Comparative Literature.


Marius- Franois Guyard’s notion of “La Litterature Comparee” had been in currency from early 19th century.


Q. Consider the notion of world literature.

The notion of Weltliteratur (world literature) proposed by Goethe in 1827 is often considered as the beginning of Comparative Literature. Historically, it indicates the availability or circulation of literary texts from all nations, cultures and languages to other parts of the world. Aesthetically it signals the recognition of literary features of universal significance. Goethe’s notion of Weltliteratur invites comparisons with the concept of Bishwasahitya (world literature) that Tagore spoke about in 1907.

Q. Critically consider the growth of Comparative Literature as an academic discipline.

Comparative Literature developed as an academic discipline of a cross disciplinary character only towards the end of the 19th century. Sorbonne University in France has been in the forefront in making Comparative Literature a major academic discipline. The German and American Schools of Comparative Literature too have made significant contribution towards the growth of Comparative Literature as a major academic discipline. The English term was coined by Matthew Arnold in 1848. The growth of Comparative Literature in the 19th century coincided with the growth of systems of knowledge on a global scale. The French school of Comparative Literature dealt with the textual elements.

Q. Which are the three major schools of Comparative Literature? Evaluate their contributions.

In the West three major schools of Comparative Literature gained prominence. They are the French School, the German school and the American school.


The French School

Comparative Literature developed as an academic discipline of a cross disciplinary character only towards the end of the 19th century. Sorbonne University in France has been in the forefront in making Comparative Literature a major academic discipline. The French school of Comparative Literature dealt with the textual elements. Some even argue that it attempted a forensic approach to the study of literature. At the same time, the French School concerned itself with questions of influence of one literature over another. Similarly, the French school promoted the nation-state approach of the discipline, even though it had largely remained a European phenomenon.


The German School

The German school of Comparative Literature also had its origins in the late 19th century. In the beginning it was folklore studies that interested the German comparatists, though later the Nazis took control over it. The work of Peter Szondi after the World War II deserves special mention. His efforts opened the disciplines to scholarship in several areas and gave a new orientation to comparative literary studies. Still, German Comparative Literature remained Eurocentric, dominated by European interests and tastes.


The American School

The American School was less interested in detailed historical analysis and investigation. Instead, it followed a method closer to traditional literary criticism. For the American School, Comparative Literature means comparing literature beyond one’s frontiers. In fact, the American School is more interested in the original internationalist vision of Goethe and H.M. Posnett.


Q. Discuss the disciplines that Comparative Literature shares space with.

Comparative Literature shares a lot of critical space with recent developments in Linguistics, Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Translation Studies, Religious Studies, Anthropology and History. Disciplines like Stylistics too have contributed to the growth of Comparative Literature. Comparative Literature is increasingly being seen as study of literature across disciplines like psychology, philosophy, architecture and the like but also between other art forms like music and painting.


Q. What is Eurocentrism?

Eurocentrism is the domination of European interests and tastes.


Q. The importance of Genology.

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. Genology is the study of genres. It refers to the study of form in Comparative Literature. Some theorists argue that it is futile to study genres as genres keep changing. Some authors do not respect genre at all. According to this perception, literature should be taken as a whole. But one is compelled to ask about the relation between a text and a genre. Traditionally, verse was used in plays as the medium, which means that plays were form of poetry. Even during the Elizabethan times, noble characters in plays speak in verse while the ordinary characters use prose. In modern times too there exist texts that defy categorization or belong to two categories. Even some novels deserve to be placed in the poetic tradition. The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth is a typical example.

Indian Comparative Literature

It is of more recent origin. But it has given significant contributions towards Indian literature in various ways. Indian literature is characterized by the works written in the various Indian languages, not to speak of English. It is significant that Indian literature itself provides the conceptual space for the application of Comparative Literature without invoking nationalist problematic. In this context the remark that Indian literature is one though written in different languages appears all the more meaningful.


Some Important Figures in Comparative Literature


Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz – The Hungarian scholar who was the editor of the journal Acta Comparitionist Litterarum Universarum  in the 19th century.

Rene Wellek – A 20th century American comparatist of Czech origin. His monumental work Theory of Literature, produced with Austin Warren is considered a pioneering attempt at systematizing literary theory.

M.A.K. Halliday – A British linguist.

Leo Lowenthal – A Marxist who identifies in Comparative Literature “sociology of literature, but with a difference”.

Susan Bassnett – She declared that the objective of Comparative Literary Studies is to “undermine and undo the tendency of dominant cultures to appropriate emergent ones.



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



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.


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.


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

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