What is Comparative Literature?

Still from “Manto” (dir. Nadita Das, 2017). Faculty expert, Aamir Mufti


First of all, Hi!

Let’s handle a couple of basic questions to get you started:

So What Exactly Is Comparative Literature?

Comparative Literature (often abbreviated as “Comp Lit”) might be called World or Global Literature––but there are important differences. The terms “world” and “global” here imply similarities, perhaps even some universal sameness. Literature, however, is diverse. It changes:

  • Across space (various places, languages, cultures, etc.)
  • Across time (since culture itself evolves from generation to generation)
  • And across media (there’s a difference between stories told in a book, on a stage, as TV shows, in film, through memes, jokes, in fashion, advertising, politics, or the legal system… and so forth).

They all overlap––but they diverge, too. They’re both similar and diverse. This means that Comp Lit involves the comparison of literature with storytelling in history, philosophy, politics, science, and other fields. It’s the broadest interpretation of storytelling you can imagine. It’s literature in a world of endless difference.

But What Can I Do with Comparative Literature? 

Comp Lit will give you the skills you need in a wide range of careers.

First of all, let’s back up a little––and consider a quick list of literary shapes or forms. In a typical bookstore you might encounter the following: autobiography; biography; epics; fables; fantasy, folk tales; historical fiction; legends; myths; news stories/non-fiction; novels; parables; plays; short stories, etc. That’s already long enough––but what if you multiply that by all the people, times, and places of human history? Way too much for one person!

Comp Lit, therefore, allows you to choose the times and places that interest you most.

  • Benefit #1: Freedom. And choice, too.
  • Benefit #2: Learn a new language––or improve one that you already know! So before we even get to any “real-world” uses of Comp Lit, we’ll train you to operate in another language, culture, or continent. No matter what you study. Comp Lit is way more than an English degree. It opens up two careers, two marketplaces, and two cultures––if not more.
  • Benefit #3:  We will teach you to write very well indeed. And speak real good, too. Why is this important? Because whatever you believe or hold dear, language remains the basic tool of persuasion. It helps people understand why your views will be relevant both today and tomorrow. Language, used well, makes others believe what you do. It gives you influence in the world.

Consider how many places––every day––you encounter storytelling as a form of persuasion:

  • Your own life! Your hopes and dreams. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
  • Social media (with newsfeeds in chronological order)
  • Advertising (promising an improved life)
  • Music (either the structure of a song or an album, playlist, mixtape, live set…)
  • Politics (also with big promises. It criticizes the past and hopes to shape the future)
  • Religion (with tales of redemption or growing wisdom over time)
  • Business (every corporation needs a storyline to justify its past and future)
  • Startup Culture (every pitch is a story––about something that’ll hopefully come true)
  • Medicine (each doctor’s visit is a narrative, outlining an improved tomorrow)
  • Technology (grounded in the belief that society will improve––in the near future)
  • And any job interview! Each interview is a chance to explain how your past (your CV/education, etc) is linked both to the present moment and the future. You’re promising a story that has yet to unfold.

You will do better in all the listed careers, especially on a global stage. In Comp Lit we examine the role of those narratives in life––across time and space.

Stories, after all, are the main tool we use to make sense of life. So, at the very least, we’ll make you wiser and a genuine citizen of the world––by comparing your culture with others. There’s a whole world of difference out there. UCLA is the perfect place to explore.

And now for a more complex version…


Standing at the forefront of innovative work in literary, theoretical, and cultural studies, UCLA’s Comparative Literature program is one of the most exciting fields in the humanities. As a discipline it requires exceptional linguistic ability, theoretical knowledge, and high intellectual caliber. UCLA’s program offers students the opportunity to work with faculty members in any of the University’s language and literature departments as well as with a diverse Comparative Literature Department faculty.

Both interdisciplinary and multilingual, the Comparative Literature Department is committed to continuing its pioneering work in defining literary paradigms and fostering new directions for exploration in literary studies, including areas such as:

  • The relationship between translation and transnationalism
  • Literary theory and emerging media
  • The future of national literatures in an era of globalization
  • Gender and sexuality studies
  • East-West cultural encounters
  • Human rights and global censorship
  • Postcolonial and diaspora studies
  • Experimental approaches to literature and culture

Focusing first and foremost on those literary elements that preoccupy literary studies in general, such as genre, period, theme, language, and theory, Comparative Literature also extends its range to questions that concern other disciplines such as:

  • Anthropology
  • Art history
  • Film and media studies
  • Gender studies
  • History
  • Philosophy

Courses are designed to provide students with both a historical and theoretical understanding of literary and cultural forms, themes, and movements. Given its focus on interdisciplinary research and pedagogy, Comparative Literature is the natural site around which to organize modern language and literary studies.