Our expertise, your prosperity.

What makes thinking about Comparative Criticism Advanced?


Comparative criticism makes discoveries in literature by comparing two or more individual literary realities or a literary reality to a non-literary reality. Advanced comparative criticism makes a fundamental distinction between what is transparently and superficially presented and apparent and other aspects of the literary work that are “deeper” and “between the lines.” Simple comparative criticism thus is about objective realities, like the rhyme scheme of the sonnet or the length of a novella versus a short story. Simple comparative criticism may become opinionated and speculative, but it speculates about the immediately provable. Advanced comparative criticism starts by asserting less than superficially objective character, and as a result, advanced comparative criticism is always open to challenge and often becomes highly controversial.



The key to constructive and useful comparative criticism is explicit and careful definitions for the purposes of the comparison itself. Such definitions may not be all that congruent with dictionary definitions: they are technical definitions which the thinker and writer establishes in order to do a good specific job.

Again, all comparative criticism needs explicit, careful definitions, but this is particularly true for advanced comparative criticism because advanced criticism moves beyond the objective into implicit and subjective perceptions. If on top of implicit subjectivity a work of criticism is also hopelessly vague about what the “it” that is under discussion, all sorts of error abound for the thinking critic and all kinds of confusion abound for the critic’s reader.

Let us take an example from Shakespearean tragedy. In an attempt to follow Aristotle as closely as possible, the critic accepts the idea of dynamis, the power the work has over its audience, as a necessary dimension of defining the tragedic accomplishment of a particular play like Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or Othello.

Sadly, for 2300 years of criticism, dynamis has been left by generation after generation of critics without fuller definition than Aristotle’s sense of power over audience. And one can expect in such a situation that there will be a good deal of vagueness and even self-contradiction in the resultant criticism.

We could go on at great length, but consider just one aspect of better definition: when does  dynamis  occur, the dynamis that the critic chooses to assert?

Is the dynamis of Hamlet felt immediately as the final curtain drops? For many audiences, that dynamis will be fairly stunned as a long play of procrastination suddenly ends in assorted mayhem with no one in charge thereof. If we consider Othello, Lear, or Macbeth, however, there is much more sense that as the final curtain falls, we as audience have been fully informed of how things moved to such tragic conclusion and that we have some sense of how we are to respond to it.

By considering “time when” as part of the definition of dynamis, we are already on to interesting comparative distinctions between the Great Tragedies. 

What if we took the time to carefully consider when dynamis occurred and what if we took a very definite definitional stand—a technical definitional stand that told people what we were investigating—before we started drawing conclusions from comparison?

In short, careful, explicit technical definitions for the discussion at hand moves thinking and criticism to entirely higher levels, and that very quickly.

Negative Criticism

Since advanced comparative criticism is necessarily speculative or subjective to some degree and always open to challenge and controversy, advanced comparative criticism should always be checking itself for its negative or positive character. Typically, there is a bias in favor of positive criticism, but that is not our point here. If one chooses, for example, to be invidious (envious and hurtful) in one’s comparison or insidious (ambushing) from comparison, or insinuating (worming one’s way toward hidden effects) one should not be naïve about looking for critical trouble. To be unaware of these challenges would be like a Greek warrior going into battle without his shield at the ready.