Definition of Comparison
As a literary device, comparison is a broad term for any act of describing the relationship between two things or more things. These things (whether people, actions, intangible concepts, places, etc) may be alike or different to any degree. Through comparison, an author may show new connections that the reader may not have thought of, or may make an unfamiliar thing more familiar. There are many more specific types of comparison, as we will see below.
The word comparison comes from the Latin word comparare, which means “to pair, match.”
Types of Comparisons
- Analogy—Another umbrella term, similar to the definition of comparison, referring to any comparison that explores the similarities or differences between two things.
- Juxtaposition—Placing two concepts, characters, ideas, etc., near each other so that the reader makes comparisons between them and perhaps contrasts them as well.
- Metaphor—Comparing two things without the use of “like” or “as;” asserting that one thing is another, such as “My love is an ocean.”
- Simile—Comparing two things with the conjunction “like” or “as,” such as “My love was like an ocean.”
- Pun—Using comparison to creative cognitive links in a humorous way, for example, “I’m glad I know sign language, it’s pretty handy.”
- Allegory—An extended metaphor that carries throughout an entire piece of literature that compares the situation in the story to a real-life situation.
Common Examples of Comparison
We use comparisons all the time in the real world and in everyday speech. Comparisons help us understand the world around us because we can either explain unfamiliar things through already known entities, or complicate familiar things by describing them in new ways that thus creates cognitive links. Examples of comparison abound, and are found in each of the following cases:
- “Have you met my friend Janet? She’s exactly like your sister, except more dramatic.”
- “This new young adult novel is like Harry Potter meets Titanic.”
- “Come on now, quick as a bunny.”
- “The little red dress is the new little black dress this season when it comes to Hollywood glamour.”
- “Wearing white after Labor Day would be a sin of epic proportions.”
Significance of Comparison in Literature
Comparisons play an important role in just about any work of literature imaginable, as they are a primary function of the brain. It is through comparisons that we learn and map out the world. Even the simple act of naming things requires comparison in the brain—we refer, for example, to many different-looking objects as “chair” because we can compare them in our minds and realize they all have the same general function. Comparisons are especially important in literature because authors are creating a new world for the reader to understand and become interested in, and authors must show how this new, fictive world is similar and dissimilar from the one the reader lives in (even if the work of literature is completely realistic). Writers also may use comparisons to make their lines more poetic.
Examples of Comparison in Literature
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” includes one of the famous examples of comparison in literature. The speaker asks explicitly if he should compare his beloved to “a summer’s day,” and goes on to do so. He finds the summer’s day inadequate as a comparison for his beloved, insisting that “thou art more lovely and more temperate.” This comparison works to show the speaker’s all-encompassing love.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
(“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost)
Robert Frost uses many examples of comparisons in his poetry in order to create stronger imagery. In this excerpt from “Mending Wall,” the speaker and his neighbor walk along the wall that divides them, trying to put it back together. While the neighbor likes this wall, and affirms that “good fences make good neighbors,” the speaker is suspicious of this premise. The speaker uses the simile of his neighbor looking like “an old-stone savage armed,” which creates a sense that the neighbor is more like a caveman than a modern human, and that his opinions are similarly outdated.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
This excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby comprises the final few lines of the novel. There is a strong sense of nostalgia that Fitzgerald relates through this ending. He does this by creating the metaphor of the characters trying to travel into the future against a current that pulls them back into reflections on their past. This example of comparison is an excellent metaphor in that in describes the familiar relationship of trying to row against the current with a more intangible experience.
TOM: But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. . . . There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this two-by-four situation! . . . You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?
(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)
In this excerpt from Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, the protagonist Tom compares his own life to the magician’s trick of getting out of a nailed-up coffin. This is a particularly striking example of comparison because from the outside Tom’s life might not look so terrible. Clearly, however, he views it as a prison that is nearly impossible to escape.
So Gen should have said something more, and Carmen should have listened more, but instead she kissed him, because the important thing was to forget. That kiss was like a lake, deep and clear, and they swam into it forgetting.
(Bel Canto by Ann Patchett)
This evocative comparison example comes from the contemporary author Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto. In it, she compares a kiss between two characters to a lake. This is an interesting comparison because it is unusual, and perhaps not one that the reader will have thought of before. Patchett justifies this comparison with the beautiful idea of the characters swimming into the kiss, as they might have done into a lake, forgetting the dangerous situation they are in.
Test Your Knowledge of Comparison in Literature
1. Which of the following statements is the best comparison definition?
A. Describing two or more things in relation to each other.
B. Showing that one thing is better than another.
C. Showing how two things are dissimilar.
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2. Which type of comparison can be found in the following quote from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello?
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
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3. Which of the following lines from Robert Frost poetry contains a comparison example?
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
(“After Apple Picking”)
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
(“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)
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