Anagnorisis is the moment in a play, or other literary work, in which a character makes an important discovery.
It is most commonly associated with uncovering another character’s identity. This refers to who they are by name as well as what they stand for or their morals, beliefs, etc. Today, the phrase is used more broadly to refer to a character’s realization about anything from a situation they’re in, to something about themselves. The revelation might bring an end to a misinterpretation that featured in the story previously and works as a turning point in the overall narrative. Without anagnorisis, the story could not come to its conclusion.
Definition of Anagnorisis
Anagnorisis occurs to the hero of the story. The main character, or the person about whom the story is centered, makes a discovery about another person’s nature. Traditionally, this “other” person was the antagonist of the story. Anagnorisis would occur when the hero finally recognized the villain’s intentions and beliefs. This moment changes the entire storyline, ensuring that a conflict is set up between the hero and the villain.
Examples of Anagnorisis in Literature
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Oedipus Rex is one of the most influential and commonly read Greek tragedies. It explores the myth of Oedipus, who was cursed to marry his mother and kill his father. Despite his best attempts to avoid that fate, the events and characters fall into place until his identity is revealed. In horror, he gouges out his eyes with his wife’s (who is also his mother) brooch.
Here are lines from Scene 4 of the play:
Oedipus, damned in his birth, in his marriage
O Light, may I look on you for the last time! damned,
Damned in the blood he shed with his own hand!
Aristotle spoke about Oedipus Rex directly in Poetics. He described it as the perfect tragedy containing the needed elements of anagnorisis and hubris, as well as the will of the gods. The play also had another literary device Aristotle valued, peripeteia, or a reversal of fortunes.
King Lear by William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, the antagonist, Edmund, experiences anagnorisis. This is divergent from the primary use of the literary device in that the antagonist realizes something crucial to their life rather than the protagonist.
Let’s exchange charity.
I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;
If more, the more th’ hast wrong’d me.
My name is Edgar and thy father’s son.
When Edgar, his half-brother, reveals his true identity, he realizes that everything is not what he thought. When he reveals his identity, the story changes fundamentally.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, readers can find an interesting moment of anagnorisis when Scout looks back on her life and what she knows about Boo Radley. He saves her and her brother’s lives, and she has a moment of epiphany in which she sees the world through Boo’s perceptive, as her father had encouraged her to do.
They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.
It’s finally clear to her how protective Boo has been and the care he took to ensure that she and her brother Jem were safe.
Anagnorisis and Aristotle
Anagnorisis dates back to the time of Aristotle. The word is defined in Greek as “recognition” and features in Aristotle’s book, Poetics, in which he explores literature, drama, and the theories that cover them. He defined it in this work as a change that occurs when the hero transitions from ignorance to knowledge. This change is a turning point in the story, after which nothing is the same again.
Anagnorisis is often featured in Greek tragedy. It was used to create a moment where the protagonist or hero receives information about their situation, themselves, or another character that changes everything. It helps to lead the story to its resolution. Aristotle believed that it was a crucial literary device, and today, it’s still regarded as an important feature of complex narratives.
Anagnorisis in Film
The following films have examples of anagnorisis within their plots, proving that it is not at all limited to classical or Elizabethan works of drama. Many of these films are defined by the moment of anagnorisis or twist that occurs.
- The Sixth Sense —Crowe’s death
- Unbreakable —when David learns that Elijahs orchestrated the train crash
- The Empire Strikes Back—Luke Skywalker’s father.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2— Snape’s love for Harry’s mother
- The Princess Bride — The identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts
- Fight Club— Tyler Durden’s identity.
Why Do Writers Use Anagnorisis?
Writers use the literary device anagnorisis to add complexity and drama to plays, novels, short stories, and even narrative poems. The device allows the work to shift in theme and intention quite quickly as a character realizes something fundamental to their lives they didn’t previously know. When the device is used well, a literary work takes an important turn, inspiring the main character to make new, perhaps radical choices in an attempt to address what they’ve learned—for example, Oedipus’ decision to gouge his eyes with his wife’s/mother’s brooch.
Related Literary Terms
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Denouement: occurs at the end of a story, where the plotlines are tied up and resolved.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.