Comparing & Contrasting Ideas Between Two or More Texts

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

The lesson explores ways to compare and contrast two works of literature. We will investigate the similarities and differences between setting, plot, point of view, and metaphor in two classic dystopian novels: George Orwell's '1984' and Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.'

What is Similar / What is Different?

When writing about literature, you will often be asked to compare and contrast. Having the ability to discern similarities and differences between two or more works of literature along these criteria demonstrates your skills in close reading, analysis, critical thinking, and organization.

Do you prefer to sketch or list? For the visually-inclined, draw a Venn diagram, a graphic that depicts two or more overlapping circles. For those who think more linearly, create a chart. Doing so will help you to brainstorm, flesh out ideas, and gather evidence on which you can base your responses and analyses. Then, analyze each text along the lines of these criteria: comparison (what is similar between them?); contrast (what are the differences?).

Compare and contrast: Setting and Plot

One of the most difficult steps of compare and contrast exercise comes at the initial stage: choice of text. Works of literature fall into general categories based on genre, plot, author, historical period, theme, character perspective, and literary device.

Let's take for example two works of literature that bear many similarities: George Orwell's 1984 (1948) and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1951).

  • Based on the publication date alone, it becomes apparent that cultural and historical circumstances may have influenced the books' content. For a cultural analysis, you might consider the ramifications of World War II and international politics.
  • Both novels fit neatly into the category of dystopian speculative fiction, a sub-genre of science-fiction. The Totalitarian, post-apocalyptic settings are also similar. Mass society has become pacified to large-scale government control, which seeks to control the flow of information and restrict personal freedom. A small group of resistance fighters bear the 'truth' of humanity.
  • Additionally, they share similar themes (including information control, surveillance, and grassroots resistance).

Venn diagram showing similarities
Venn Similar

But there are contrasts as well. For instance, readers get a thorough picture of how the government controls its citizens in 1984, due to the protagonist's position in the Ministry. In Fahrenheit 451, the blue-collar protagonist is not able to provide much insight into the way the government works.

Compare and Contrast: Point of View

The narrative point of view (the voice in which the story is told) in both novels share more similarities than differences. Both novels adopt the same type of narration: third person limited point of view. The narration works in both instances to create empathy between the reader and the protagonist.

Additionally, Both men are employed by government bureaus in a capacity that supports the control of information. In 1984, Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Information censoring newspaper articles. In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a fireman whose job is to destroy illegal book collections. They initially lead unfulfilling lives and harbor fantasies of freedom. Both become involved in the rebel cause. In terms of the narrator's limited point of view, the reader experiences the importance of rebellion against a totalitarian government in each novel when, towards the end, both Smith and Montag fight against the power. Both men follow women to the rebel group and seek a life free from oppression.

However, the analysis would be incomplete without recognizing the many differences between point of view in the novels. The tone and outcome differ radically. In 1984, Smith's point of view is as pessimistic as the stark world in which he lives. In the end, he fails to achieve freedom and becomes a brainwashed drone. Fahrenheit 451 is hopeful and optimistic. In the end, Montag succeeds in his mission and finds sanctuary in a community that values knowledge and memory.

Venn diagram showing dissimilarities in point of view in 1984 and Fahrenheit 451
Venn dissimilarities

Compare and Contrast: Metaphors

Both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 employ complex symbols to convey meaning about knowledge, beauty, oppression, and hope (or the absence thereof). However, the meaning they attach to these metaphors differs between the novels.

Both novels promote the theme of knowledge through the use of metaphor. Bradbury entitles part II of Fahrenheit 451 'The Sieve and the Sand.' the title relates metaphorically to Montag's ceaseless, ineffective search for the truth. In 1984, Smith keeps a diary that he keeps carefully hidden. The diary can be seen as a metaphor as a symbol of knowledge, memory, and resistance.

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