How to Compare and Contrast Two Books

Young student carrying armful of books.
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Compare-contrast essays require students to analyze texts and draw conclusions based on similarities and differences between elements within the texts. This type of analysis is challenging, because it requires multiple levels of thinking. However, by comparing literary works, students will uncover universal themes in surprising places.

1 Choose Your Books and Develop Your Purpose

For a compare and contrast essay, you will need to find elements within the books that have some type of similarity, such as the characters or themes. For example, you could compare Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde or Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey. All these “monsters” in some way represent the conflict of good and evil within man. A close analysis of the similarities and differences of the “monsters” will suggest causes of this conflict. The ideas you uncover will help you form your thesis. Does man have inherent good and evil tendencies? Do we misbehave because of conflicting societal messages? How much are we influenced by external forces? Does each author seem to lean one way or another?

2 Gather Facts. Use Graphic Organizers

Once you have chosen your books and your elements for analysis, you will need to closely study the texts, particularly the elements you will be comparing. Use graphic organizers to organize your thoughts, listing things the elements have in common and things that are different. A Venn diagram works well for this as it offers a quick visual display of similarities and differences. As you begin to separate the similarities and differences in the work, you will begin to see patterns forming on which you can draw conclusions. For instance, Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein both have secrets. What is similar about their secrecy? What is different? What are they hiding and why? The answers to these questions will help support your thesis.

3 Choose a Structure: Point by Point

A compare-contrast essay can be organized in two ways: You can compare subjects point by point or subject by subject. In the point-by-point method, discuss the different points as they are presented by each character. For instance, on the issue of secrecy, discuss Gray’s hidden portrait and Frankenstein’s hidden monster. You could then discuss the transformation of character in both stories. Both Frankenstein and Dorian Gray transform from innocence to culpability. How and why? You could discuss the idea of grotesque appearance in both stories. What does it symbolize in each work?

4 Choose a Structure: Subject by Subject

If you were to structure your essay to compare elements subject by subject, you would list all the relevant details of one subject first. For instance, in the Frankenstein-Mr. Hyde comparison, make all the points you wish to about Frankenstein and then make all the points you wish to about Mr. Hyde. If you choose a subject-by-subject approach, include a paragraph that ties the ideas together. The compare-contrast paper is analytical, and should not simply sound like a list of points.

Debbie McCarson is a former English teacher and school business administrator. Her articles have appeared in "School Librarians’ Journal" and "The Encyclopedia of New Jersey." A South Jersey native, she is a regular contributor to "South Jersey MOM" magazine.