Why Compare?

In the now-iconic ‘2 mothers in a hdb playground’, Arthur Yap gives us these quintessentially Singaporean lines from two mothers comparing their children, ah beng and kim cheong (italics mine):

ah beng is so smart,
already he can watch tv and know the whole story
your kim cheong is also quite smart,
what boy is he in the exam? […]

kim cheong eats so little.
give him some complan. my ah beng was like that,
now he’s different, if you give him anything
he’s sure to finish it all up.

We compare people, places, things all the time in real life. We might even argue, Bloom’s Taxonomy be d**ned, that comparison is a cognitive skill on its own: our understanding of the world around us, particularly unfamiliar terrain, is shaped by what we already know, or what we are well acquainted with. When we travel to foreign lands, our observations are often filtered through a Singaporean lens, where “Oh, it’s so messy here” or “They are really laidback here” is always already a reflection of our own experience back home. Like in Yap’s “2 mothers”, comparison can be used to confirm our own understanding of our context (i.e. Singapore) and affirm ourselves (i.e. my son is better than your son). The same would surely apply to the Sony/Microsoft, DC/Marvel, Samsung/Apple fanboy wars.

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Why do we compare?

The art of comparison in the study of A-level Literature leans more toward understanding than it does towards judgement. It is not about judging one text to be superior (i.e. more effective or preferred) to the other, even if you are permitted that opinion. Comparing two texts means reading one text through another, and discovering more ideas more deeply than you would have by examining them separately.

With our mind on the “perfection” of Susan’s imaginary family in Woman in Mind, we can perceive the imaginary son in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf filling a similar “gap” in George and Martha’s lives. While holding on George’s manipulativeness and destructive tendencies, we might see Gerald as far more peace-loving than he would have otherwise seemed. In H2 Paper 3, we are tasked to compare two texts we have studied. The onus on you is not to stage a “tell-all” about two texts, but rather to make new meaning in the process of looking at two texts.

On the other hand, you have to compare two unseen poems, one a “Singapore poem” and other a “non-Singapore” poem, in H2 Paper 1. On this topic, some idiot gave us this quote in a national newspaper:

But the study of Singaporean poetry is not meant to be parochial… We can try to see the familiar in the foreign, and vice versa. Doing such a comparison helps us reach deeper, and see the themes in local writing as universal.

Indeed, it would be easy to identify the “Singapore poem” and write extensively about it all while characterising it as “uniquely Singaporean”. “Paradise City” by Jennifer Anne Champion takes its reader to the familiar climes of the coffee shop complete with local dishes, HDB playgrounds and the CBD. But we should not be “parochial” and inward-looking. In these recognisable places and people, we can and should locate universal ideas of the race to perfection, of dreams, of freedom of expression, of a less material life and finally of home. These concerns, being not solely Singaporean, are our tools to capture “somewhere else”.

 

How do we compare?

When we compare, we have to rely on our reading of one text’s methods, effects and concerns to understand the methods, effects and concerns of another text. Ms Ang in her lecture called the first text an “anchor text” or base text from which we can “read through”. This could be the text that you find more accessible / easier to understand, the text that seems more directly relevant to the question, or simply “Poem A”, literally the first text shown on the page. Your analysis and response to this anchor text will take up the first half of a paragraph, or one paragraph by itself.

We will write about the “comparison text” or “second text” in the 2nd half of the paragraph, or in a new paragraph. This is where we will write about interesting similarities and differences between the comparison text and the anchor text, using comparison words such as “like”, “also”, “similarly” and “yet”, “in contrast”, “however”, “while” (a more exhaustive list can be found in our packages). In other words, our analysis of and response to the “comparison text” is always already in the light of the anchor text. This is best illustrated in actual samples of comparative writing, which we will examine in two upcoming posts on P1 Poetry Comparison and P3 Set Text Comparison.

In H2 Paper 1, your Cambridge examiners pair two poems around a common theme / subject matter. Since 2010, this common theme is given to you in the question (e.g. separation, exile, hope, passing of time).

Write a critical comparison of the following poems, considering in detail ways in which language, style and form contribute to each poet’s portrayal of separation (2016 ‘A’ Level).

In H2 Paper 3, the question will provide two prompts, at least one of which will be based on a common theme (e.g. effects of social pressure on the mind, the troubled mind). The other option is typically based on a method (e.g. symbolism, point of view). You have to choose the two texts out of the three you have studied, and wisely select the concerns, characters and methods you wish to discuss.

Explore how two of the writers you have studied present personal fulfilment (or the lack of it) for an individual in society (2016 ‘A’ Level).

While reading the anchor and comparison texts, we can also prime ourselves to see them in certain “moulds”. The two texts can be assumed to revolve around a common theme, so they will never be 100% different. Neither will they be 100% similar, unless the same poem is printed twice! Instead, we must consider the ways in which they are:

  1. Similar yet different:
    – The concerns are similar but the texts offer contrasting attitudes or views (e.g. nonchalant vs despairing)
    – The general attitudes or views are quite similar but differ somewhat in terms of effects or intensity of effects (e.g. B is more desperate than A)
    .
  2. Different yet similar:
    – The attitudes or views in the two texts seem vastly different. On closer reading, they are actually quite similar or compatible (e.g. both poems present separation as painful)
    – The ideas are different (e.g. youth, old age) but their views are actually quite similar or compatible (e.g. we should cherish every moment of our lives)
    .
  3. Similar and complementary:
    – The concerns are similar. One text seems to complement or “add onto” the ideas or attitudes in the other text (e.g. George and Martha in WAVW show us how Susan in WiM might possibly attain redemption and gain control of her situation).

Having these “frames of mind” will help you grasp the unseen poems or plan your P3 comparison outline more quickly, while also stopping you from writing about the two texts separately. We’ll elaborate on what this means when we drag out the samples for both papers! Till then.

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