Definition of Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis refers to a moment of insight in a story’s plot in which a character, usually the protagonist, shifts from ignorance to awareness. The moment of anagnorisis may be a realization about the character’s self, their situation, or something about a different character. This may include revelation of a character’s true identity, their actual relationship with another character, or their misinterpretation of something important. As a literary device, anagnorisis is often utilized as a turning point in the plot of a story or play that leads to a resolution.

Anagnorisis is a literary device commonly used in tragedy. However, anagnorisis can also be a source of humor for an audience and produce a comedic effect. For example, there is a clever moment of anagnorisis in the animated short film Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers. In the film, Wallace takes in a boarder, a penguin, for extra income. In the meantime, there is news of a wanted criminal, a character disguised as a chicken, named Feathers McGraw who is committing burglaries. Gromit comes across Feathers McGraw, but realizes once the “chicken” removes his “hat” that the criminal is actually the penguin boarder. This anagnorisis on the part of Gromit as to the penguin’s identity is a moment of humor for the audience, who is aware the entire time of the penguin’s criminal alter ego.

Anagnorisis and Aristotle

Aristotle first discussed anagnorisis, a Greek word meaning “recognition,” in his work Poetics in which he explores dramatic and literary theory. Aristotle defined anagnorisis as a change that occurs in a literary work from ignorance to knowledge, “creating love or hate between the individuals doomed by the poet for bad or good fortune.” This change typically takes place at a turning point in the plot and is usually followed by a reversal of fortune for the protagonist.

Anagnorisis was a common and significant element in classical Greek tragedy, as it created a moment in which the protagonist receives insight or enlightenment in terms of their own character, another character, or the dramatic situation in which they find themselves. This moment then allows the plot to achieve its necessary resolution for the audience.

In Aristotle’s view, anagnorisis is a crucial literary device in terms of its impact in tragic works. Anagnorisis supports complex narratives and characterizations. This, in turn, creates a more significant experience for the audience or reader as a plot resolves.

Common Examples of Anagnorisis in Popular Movies and Series

Anagnorisis is a common device utilized by filmmakers and series creators as a means of surprising the audience and resolving a plot. Similar to “plot twists,” these moments of reveal are often what make these films and shows memorable and even ground-breaking. Here are some common examples of anagnorisis in popular movies and series (spoiler alerts!):

  • Luke Skywalker’s true father (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
  • Dorothy’s ability to get home to Kansas (The Wizard of Oz)
  • Jon Snow’s birthright (Game of Thrones)
  • Malcolm Crowe’s (child psychologist) state of existence (The Sixth Sense)
  • Spencer’s secret twin (Pretty Little Liars)
  • Professor Snape’s protective nature towards Harry Potter (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – part 2)
  • Tyler Durden’s identity (Fight Club)
  • Identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts (The Princess Bride)
  • Alfred Borden’s ability to perform his magic tricks (The Prestige)
  • Luke’s daughter (Gilmore Girls)
  • Elliot’s alter ego (Mr. Robot)

Famous Examples of Literary Characters that Experience Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis, for a literary narrative’s protagonist, is a literary device that allows for a moment of illumination. This is generally when the protagonist is made aware of their own or another character’s true identity. Anagnorisis also refers to the moment in which the protagonist understands their situation in a more complete or new way. Once anagnorisis takes place for the protagonist in a literary work, the resolution of the story often begins. Here are some famous examples of literary characters that experience anagnorisis:

Difference Between Anagnorisis and Denouement

In literary works, anagnorisis and denouement may appear to be the same. However, they are distinct in their relationship to plot in a work of literature and their function within a literary narrative. In fact, it is often the moment of anagnorisis that leads to a narrative’s denouement.

While anagnorisis is typically a turning point in a literary narrative’s plot that leads to resolution, denouement signifies the actual resolution of the plot after the climax has occurred. Unlike anagnorisis, denouement is not technically a literary device. Instead, it is a literary term that indicates the unfolding and resolution of conflict in a work of literature. Anagnorisis may be the catalyst to how a narrative is resolved, whereas denouement is the end of a story’s plot and narrative arc.

Examples of Anagnorisis in Literature

Though the use of anagnorisis as a literary device has expanded beyond the dramatic and tragic works of Aristotle’s time, it is still an influential and impactful technique for literary writers. Anagnorisis most often appears in modern works of literature as a character’s moment of epiphany in which they experience a surprising discovery that reveals something about their character, another character, or their situation. Overall, anagnorisis creates memorable moments of insight and entertainment for readers as well.

Here are some examples of anagnorisis in literature:

Example 1: Libation Bearers (Aeschylus)

The dead are murdering the living!

This line in Aeschylus’s play precedes the moment of anagnorisis for Clytemnestra. She realizes that Orestes, her son, is not dead and has entered her house in disguise and killed Aegisthus. Clytemnestra recognizes that Orestes is a threat, as she has feared, and that he has come into her home to kill her as a means of avenging the death of his father Agamemnon at her hands. In her moment of anagnorisis, Clytemnestra realizes that she cannot escape her fate of dying at the hands of her son.

In tragic works, anagnorisis often occurs at the moment a character realizes and recognizes their own tragic flaw. This is significant for the audience and readership in that anagnorisis, as a literary device, is a catalyst for the character’s reversal of fortune, or peripeteia–which in this example would be Clytemnestra’s demise. Therefore, as Aristotle theorizes, this is also the catalyst for catharsis within the audience or reader. In viewing a character’s anagnorisis and resulting peripeteia, the audience/reader is affected emotionally which enhances empathy.

Example 2: King Lear (William Shakespeare)

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.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to scourge us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

In this passage of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the antagonist, Edmund, experiences a moment of anagnorisis when his half-brother Edgar reveals his true identity. This revelation occurs as Edmund is slowly dying due to stab wounds inflicted by Edgar for his brother’s acts of treason. This particular moment of anagnorisis is interesting in that Edgar has withheld his true identity to other characters in the play, even though it would have served him well to reveal it. However, Edgar’s revelation is a turning point in the tragedy that leads to the resolution of the complex narratives intertwined within the plot.

In many literary works such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, anagnorisis is an important literary device in terms of plot resolution. This moment of illumination often occurs at the climax of a narrative, allowing a character to experience new and crucial insight as to their own nature or identity, their situation, or human nature overall. In turn, this shift from ignorance to knowledge allows a writer the opportunity of characterization for the audience and reader. Therefore, the audience/reader gains an understanding of the truth regarding a character and the complexities of the narrative can be resolved in a satisfying manner.

Example 3: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. 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. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.

In Lee’s novel, this passage reflects a moment of anagnorisis for Scout, the narrator of the story. Scout has a moment of realization about her neighbor Boo Radley and the significant events of that time in her childhood. After Boo has saved her and her brother’s lives, she walks him home and has a moment to stand on the Radley porch. This causes Scout to have an epiphany about how everything has appeared from Boo’s perspective. Her realization sheds light on the way Boo has watched over and protected her and her brother Jem.

Scout’s anagnorisis brings about the resolution of all the events in the novel. In addition, it provides clarity and resolution for the reader at the story’s conclusion.