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What is Comparative Literature

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What is Comparative Literature: a combination of fascinating academic disciplnes

Surely you’ve heard of studies in English, creative writing, foreign languages, and history. But have you heard of the lesser known, comparative literature degree?

When college students are researching potential majors it’s often easy to overlook unfamiliar options. The terms “comparative literature” and “world literature” are used to denote a similar field of study; with Comparative Literature more often used in America. Comparative Literature, sometimes abbreviated as Comp. Lit., is an academic field dealing with the study of literature across a breadth of specializations, including linguistic, cultural, and national groups. Often this study focuses on the translation of texts.

Comparative literature is a field full of interdisciplinary courses, cross-cultural exchange, and language theory. If you’re interested in the history of comparative literature and how this major could apply after graduation, read on.


Defined by Merriam-Webster, comparative literature is “the study of the interrelationship of the literatures of two or more national cultures usually of differing languages and especially of the influences of one upon the other.”

In fewer words, it is a study of literature through translation. While this definition attempts to sum the efforts of a diverse and growing field into one sentence, the true nature of comparative literature has been pondered ever since its inception.

Famous definitions by those in the comparative literature field paint a grander image of the endless possibilities associated with this degree. Henry Remak states that “it is the comparison of one literature with another or others, and the comparison of literature with other spheres of human expression.” Roland Greene goes on to say that it “compares literatures, not only as accumulations of primary works, but as the languages, cultures, histories, theories, and practices with which those works came.”

For these reasons it is obvious to see why students with a strong interest in literature would choose a major that draws from a multitude of disciplines.  


The studies of comparative literature are a relatively new addition to institutes of higher learning. Yet, its beginnings have a place in some of the world’s earliest literature. For centuries, scholars and authors have drawn from other cultures prior to writing their own texts. Japanese literacy was introduced in the form of the Chinese writing system, Chaucer’s works find their roots in Italian ideas, and Shakespeare’s works were inspired by Latin texts.

Comparative literature as a discipline was shaped greatly by the scholarship of people such as Hugo Meltzl and H.M. Posnett during the late 19th century. However, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe often referenced his vision for “world literature” throughout his late 18th century writings. During the 20th century, the field was characterized by its “French School” of thought, in which scholars analyzed literature for origins and influences across nations. The “American School” developed from its French counterpart by de-emphasizing the focus on methodological historical research. Rather, American scholars attempted to draw universal truths about human nature based on literary archetypes.

The modern day field of comp. lit. is moving away from a nation-based approach and towards a cross-cultural approach in the method of literary comparison. Students contemplating this major should find satisfaction in the fact that comparative literature, as a field will remain strong and thriving in the coming years. As Jan M. Ziolkowski states, that “while comparative literature retains its emphases on language-training and critical skills, and while it satisfies desires of students to transcend boundaries culturally, interpretatively, and otherwise, it will not only always remain alive but even often thrive.”


A major in comparative literature prepares students for further graduate studies in business, finance, law, and medicine. Students often find that comparative literature has given them valuable skills to pursue further studies in literature at the graduate level – which can lead to research or education. Others use their degree to enter the world of publishing, writing, or the arts. A major that requires students to integrate disciplines prepares students for a variety of careers and post-graduate work.

Many colleges have a career service’s department with detailed information about careers in each program. Alumni relations provide a starting point for students interested in working with established researches, entrepreneurs, and developers in their field. While specific majors are no longer crucial for grad school – allowing students to study in fields as diverse as their interests – there are obvious benefits of certain course requirements over others. Don’t underestimate the importance a major will have on career opportunities.

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