What are the differences between Comparative Literature and English Literature?

My personal statement when I was applying for literature degrees was made up of texts from across the world. It included Chaucer, but also Ibsen, Zola, Ovid, Margaret Atwood. It happened that at a university interview I was asked why I didn’t want to study foreign literature instead of English literature. I was stumped. Now, in my final year of doing a Comparative Literature BA at King’s, I can say the interview had gotten it very right. I can’t imagine myself not studying world literature. So, in case you’re in the same position I was, here are the differences between English and Comparative Literature: 

Giovanna is studying her final year of Comparative Literature BA


Comparative Literature courses focus more on foreign texts rather than just English literature.  

While Comparative Literature courses include English texts, they also focus on texts that were not originally written in English. By the time I finished one semester at King’s, I had already studied literature from five continents! As such, the course incorporates discussions pertinent to translation studies, globalization, and the global literary market.  

Consequently, comparative literature courses engage with more world history, politics, and philosophy.

You can imagine that if you’re going to be learning about texts from a new country ever week, a hefty chunk of a class will be dedicated to giving a crash course on that country’s history, politics, and philosophical outlooks. Comparative Literature comes to ask big questions on topics like nationalism, decolonization, and discrimination in its various forms.  

Comparative Literature enables a close reading of various perspectives across nations and cultures, and how this is demonstrated through literature, other publications and even media

Comparative Literature emphasizes comparison; across different artistic mediums, across different disciplines, across different countries.

While not every assessment and class has a compulsory comparative element to it, the King’s Comparative Literature department loves to encourage its students to compare literatures from different countries and to compare literature to different artistic mediums. A module on Ethiopian literature might allow you to comparatively study Ethiopian philosophy, essays contextualizing Ethiopian history, Ethiopian paintings, and more! You find yourself free to compare operas to short stories and short stories to films.  

Comparative Literature is multilingual, while English is monolingual.  

Though English Literature courses can work with World Englishes, Comparative Literature courses are much more likely to be multilingual. By definition, you are studying literature from different countries, so you are encouraged to learn languages to be able to read some texts in their original language. The King’s course no longer has a language requirement and always provides a translation of the texts being studied. However, it is always beneficial for students to read originals if they prefer to do so!

Comparative literature provides students like me with more tools to understand other cultures on their terms and, where possible, in their languages. The field, really emerging in the second half of the twentieth century, is so new that it remains exceedingly flexible so it’s truly being defined by the students and those who engage with this area of academia. If your personal statement contains more foreign literature than English and you’re interested in literature within a globalized, politicized context, consider the rewards of studying Comparative Literature at a world-renowned university.  


More information:

To explore the King’s Comparative Literature BA course page, click here

To read another one of Giovanna’s blog posts, ‘Top 5 Favourite Things about Comparative Literature’, click here

To read Paige’s blog post, ‘Day in the Life of a Comparative Literature Major’, click here

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.