Why Study Comparative Literature?

The concentration in Comparative Literature at BU is designed for students whose interest in literature embraces works in multiple languages.

A fundamental project of Comparative Literature is to cultivate reading across linguistic boundaries in order to highlight everything that the exclusive focus on a national literature tends to obscure. Studying literature traditionally meant picking an academic department that reflects the nation state on a basically European model.  English, French, and German programs each focus on the canons of their respective national traditions. But literature and readers have both always ranged outside the boundaries of one national language. German literature is brimming with the influences of English and French and Italian and Greek and Roman literature and so on. And even writers who knew nothing of one another may show fascinating similarities and differences; a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and a poem by Emily Dickinson throw each other into startling relief.

Traditionally, too, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern literatures (when they were studied at all) were long relegated to the rubric of Area Studies. The European literatures were understood as both aesthetically autonomous and expressive of the “national genius,” while texts from the non-West were read more from an ethnographic, historical, or anthropological perspective than as works of literature in their own right. The field of Comparative Literature also endeavors, then, to overcome this division between “the West” and “the Rest” by combining the formal rigor of European literary studies with the interdisciplinary reach of area studies.

Students of Comparative Literature trace the transformations and travels of literary genres and texts across time and space. They explore the connections of literature with history, philosophy, politics, and literary theory. And they study the intersections of literature with other cultural forms such as film, drama, the visual arts, music, and new media. In our increasingly globalized age, translation studies are also an important part of the comparative approach to literature. It’s surprisingly tricky to say that even a single sentence in one language is truly “equivalent” to its translation in another language; in what sense, then, can we really translate the complexity and nuance of novels, poems or plays? And yet we all depend on translations sooner or later. Literary translations also have their own kind of history and even politics. Why do some texts get translated and others not, for example? And how have the practice and theory of translation changed over time?

At the core of the concentration in Comparative Literature are courses introducing Western, East Asian, Middle Eastern and South Asian literary traditions in comparative perspective. These courses introduce students to the global diversity of literary forms and genres while acquainting them with the methods of comparative literary study. After or in tandem with the introductory courses, students meet with their advisors to put together a program of study that best suits their interests and goals. This will include advanced work in at least one foreign language and its literature and a series of interrelated courses of your choice. One attractive aspect of the Comparative Literature major is its flexibility. In close consultation with your advisor you might decide to focus on anything from the modernist novel to Romantic poetry, postcolonial literature, or Greek and Japanese epics.  At the same time you will have the opportunity to take courses listed or cross-listed under the Comparative Literature rubric (“XL”) that further hone your skills as a comparatist, such as “Gender and Literature,” “Literary Translation,” “Theory of the Novel,” or “Literature and Empire.”

A concentration in Comparative Literature is an excellent foundation for further work at the graduate level. It also prepares students to work in any field where critical thinking, strong writing skills and foreign-language competence and a sophisticated understanding of cultural difference and diversity are called for.