Perhaps the most common assignment in a Composition course is the comparison and contrast essay. What could be easier? We've got these two things — movies, books, rock bands, decades, people, fashions, schools, ideas — how are they alike and how are they different? The paper practically writes itself! (A comparison, incidentally, is the process of showing how things are alike; a contrast is the process of showing differences.)

There are some general rules to consider before we begin to write a comparison and contrast essay, however.

First, is the comparison fair? Is it fair to compare the social nightlife of a small rural town in Oklahoma to the nightlife of Manhattan? Probably not, unless our comparison is going to lead our readers to a surprise: that for reasons they had never thought of before, the nightlife of Davis, Oklahoma, is more fun, more fulfilling than the nightlife of the Big Apple!

The second question is one of procedure. We have, let's say, five points of difference between the two things that we want to contrast. Shall we go from side to side, as if our essay were a ping-pong match, or should we dwell on one side before going over to the other side, essentially splitting our essay in half? It is possible to mix these two approaches, but our approach will determine the overall structure, pacing, and effect of the essay.

Third, there has to be a good reason to make the comparison. Why should we compare this movie to the novel it is based on? Why should we compare these two short stories, one by a modern southern American Catholic woman and the other by a nineteenth-century French-Canadian man? Will the comparison actually help anyone's understanding of either one? What's the point of the comparison? When we've finished going through the various differences and similarities, is the reader left with that horrible feeling, So what? or have we actually accomplished something important? have we provided a unique insight into the nature of these two things that the reader would never have discovered otherwise?

Finally, the business of a comparison and contrast essay is frequently (but not always) to demonstrate a preference for one thing over another. The trick is to allow the preference to grow out of the comparison without actually stating the obvious. Let the reader figure out the preference from the language we use in the contrast; let the language do its work.

The following paragraphs are an excerpt from a Corby Kummer essay (first published in the April 1996 issue of the Atlantic Monthly) that compares one kind of hazelnut to another. If you, too, are nuts about nuts, you can read the whole essay by clicking here. How does the author's preference for one kind of hazelnet emerge from the essay? (Remember that we have excerpted paragraphs from the essay, so other things are going on in the article that are not happening within this abridged version.)

Last Christmas I had a chance to visit the family orchard that supplies the nuts for those irresistible tozzetti my friend's mother makes. I was surprised at how small a hazelnut tree, a member of the birch family, is—like a modest lilac. The trunks are seldom thicker than a forearm (U.S. trees are much larger), and the wood is said to be excellent for shepherd's sticks, because it doesn't splinter. There were still nuts on the trees, each tightly clustered with two or three distinctly lobed leaves, which are technically husks. The clusters look like beaten-gold oak leaves and acorns in Greek jewelry; I expect Martha Stewart to be gilding them soon. . . .

In my taste comparisons I understood why Piedmont hazelnuts have retained their reputation. The flavor of Viterbese hazelnuts is very fine, but that of Piedmont nuts is more intense. Also, the skins of Piedmont nuts come off more easily after heating (skin adheres more or less tightly by variety), something that is crucial for candymakers who want to use whole nuts. . . .

In my taste comparisons I also learned how easy it is to over-roast hazelnuts. Since I like toasty flavors so much, I usually think the darker the better. But the almost pungent taste of hazelnuts—which is much more assertive than the taste of almonds—is easily obliterated by a minute or two too long in the oven. Best to roast the nuts in a slow oven, 325 degrees, for about ten minutes, just until you begin to smell them and they color very lightly.

Unfortunately, the taste I encountered more than any other was rancidity. This was a problem especially with the nuts I bought locally, because stores have a tendency to keep nuts on the shelf far too long. The oils oxidize and go rancid so quickly that the only safe place to store nuts is in the freezer. (This is why I no longer buy hazelnut oil, whose flavor I love; it has usually been pressed in France, and by the time I get it the oil has gone off completely.) You'll have far better luck if you buy unshelled nuts rather than shelled ones, because they resist oxidation longer. But then, of course, you face the chore of both shelling and skinning the nuts.

I was disappointed by Oregon hazelnuts. Most are of a variety called Barcelona—handsome round nuts practically as big as macadamias and with nearly as little taste. The risk with any hazelnut is a kind of dead woody flavor along with the characteristic one. Turkish and Oregon nuts, I found, had the highest proportion of wood flavor, Piedmont the highest proportion of hazelnut flavor. You can make your own comparison, buying Oregon nuts from a local store—or mail-ordering them from a reliable company such as Gahler's Hazelnuts, to ensure that they're fresh. . . .

The Piedmont variety would probably have great difficulty growing in American soil, according to Cecil Farris, an amateur botanist I discovered through the Internet who claims to have one of the world's most diverse collections of hazelnut genetic material at his home, in Lansing, Michigan. It would quickly succumb to eastern filbert blight, he says. But Farris has worked on blight- and cold-resistant hazelnut varieties that have great flavor and loose skins, and he wouldn't mind at all if Oregon growers used them instead of Barcelona, which has "a woody old kernel and a thick, ugly shell with a kind of pubescent fuzz at the apex—it hasn't got anything I'm interested in." Farris has his eye on other wet temperate regions that he thinks would be ideal for hazelnuts: he describes the Appalachian region between Bristol, Virginia, and Knoxville, Tennessee, as a kind of latter-day Fertile Crescent, and dreams of using them like the mighty almond in Hershey bars.

Community college student Charles M. Bezzler wrote the essay below which compares two shopping experiences — the experience of shopping in an old-fashioned American downtown and the experience of shopping in a modern mall. It is reprinted here with his kind permission. Don't forget to address the questions that follow the essay.

First, though, Charles had to do a little brainstorming.

Circle the elements that seem to pair off and draw lines between them. Eliminate things that don't pair off well and seem irrelevant to our comparison. Based on the "evidence" of our brainstorming and the overwhelming crowds in the malls last Christmas, it looks like we'll have to concede that the mall experience has a distinct advantage in the battle for the hearts and pocketbooks of American shoppers. But that's what sports writers call a no-brainer, leading to a so-what conclusion. Instead, let's turn the whole thing upside down at the end.

Charles M. Bezzler
English 101 W554
Professor Hartford
April 9, 1999

Shopping in America

Since the 1950s, American shoppers have been spending their money in suburban malls instead of in downtown business districts. This is even true of shoppers who have to go out of their way to shop in the malls; they will bypass downtown stores (which they might have gotten to by convenient bus) to drive to the brightly bedecked and and weather-free meccas of shopper-heaven. The result, some people claim, is the demise of the central urban commercial district, Downtown, a process leading inevitably toward more widespread urban blight. But why are Americans are so easily lured to shop in malls in the first place?

First, Americans don't like weather. They like to be indoors whenever possible, even on nice days, and they're willing to pay a premium to be protected from the elements. If they can find someone who can afford it, they will even put their sports stadiums under a gigantic bowl, and they love to stay indoors for a day of shopping, perhaps never seeing the sun from the time they first enter until they leave, hours later, relieved of money, oxygen, and much money. Second, Americans love convenience and, except during the crush of major holidays, malls offer plenty of convenient parking. A happy, enormous island of commerce in a sea of asphalt, the mall offers plenty of docking points — usually next to major commercial outlets — for cars that circle in search of the closest slot and an easy entrance.

Third, the mall offers an extraordinary variety of products under its one gigantic roof. Specialty stores and boutiques offer items that people don't realize they need until they're put under the spell of brightly lighted, beautifully furnished window after window of beguiling wares. Malls are built to respond to Americans' insatiable desire for stuff; either that, or a generation of Americans has been genetically engineered to respond to the sellers of stuff. Either way, it works.

And finally, the mall feels safe: it is lighted, warm, dry, busy. Senior citizens are invited to do their walking exercises there in the early hours; physically challenged people easily meander the smooth floors of curbless, stairless businesses in motorized carts; children are amused by clowns and fed at convenient cafeterias in Food Court.

America's Downtown, on the other hand, is often in sad repair. Parking is difficult, if not dangerous, and until you get through the door, it's all outdoors. To get from store to store, you must expose yourself to heat, cold, rain, snow. There are sometimes solicitors to fleece you of change before you even get into a store. If there is a plan here, it is not evident to most shoppers. Where is the information kiosk with a cordial, well-informed attendant to direct you to the nearest clothier, jeweler, fast-food outlet, or bathroom? Is there a bathroom?

What is left in the American Downtown to recommend it to shoppers? Practically nothing. Nothing, that is, unless you regard as important the notion that the businesses you give your money to should be owned by people, families, in your own community. Yes, there may be chain-stores; it seems there has always been a W. T. Grants, a J. C. Penneys, a Whackers. But the people who owned the franchise and worked behind the cash register were people you might meet in your own neighborhood. When you walk into the Downtown hardware store, you often feel wood, not vinyl linoleum, beneath your feet. And some old guy, who seemed old when he sold your father the hammer you use today, will sell you nails in a paper bag, weighing them out by the handful until you get the exact number you need, not the arbitrary number that comes in a hermetically sealed plastic box.

Next door, in the department store, there will be two women who know you by name and who can't wait to help you find what you need or will let you ruminate among the shelves if you want. In the drug store across the street, the pharmacist knows your aches and pains and what you've been taking for them the last five years and what upsets your stomach and knows to call your doctor when the prescription doesn't make sense. If there is a soda fountain there — naah, that's asking too much.

The truth is that the American mall grows where it does because someone with enormously deep pockets decides to plunk it down where there used to be woods or a golf course. He surrounds it with hundreds of acres of parking and waits for people to come spend their money, as he knows they will because people will do what mass advertising tells them to do. Downtown, on the other hand, grew where it did because there was an organic need for it. It was a community's response to a community's needs — neighbors responding to neighbors — and it flourished as the community flourished. If the mall can replace this sense of community, then so be it; it deserves our affection as well as our dollars. If it can't, then we have gained convenient parking and freedom from the weather at an awful price.

Points to Ponder:

  • Can you find the thesis statement for this essay?
  • What, if anything, holds the paragraphs together? Try printing out the essay and drawing interconnected circles between the structural elements that connect ideas. Would you have broken the paragraphs differently?
  • Did the contrast go back and forth between mall and Downtown or did it develop one before it went on to the other? Is that an effective strategy for this essay?
  • Does the conclusion grow out of the body of the essay, or does it feel sort of "tacked on"? Where, exactly, does the conclusion call for a response that the essay hasn't earned?
  • Is the contrast between the mall and the Downtown adequate? overdone? fair?
  • Is it clear where the writer's preferences lie? Are his preferences too obvious and is he fair to the "other side"? Does the author actually state a preference or are you allowed to infer it from the language? What does the essay say, exactly, that allows for this inference?
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