Anagnorisis (uh-nag-nor-EE-sis) is a literary device referring to the moment in a narrative when the protagonist realizes either their own or someone else’s true identity and/or understands their situation in a new, more complete way. This typically leads to the story’s resolution and is a common device in tragedies.
Anagnorisis comes from the Greek anagnorisis, meaning “recognition,” which itself is derived from ana, “again,” and gnorizein, “to make known, to gain knowledge of.” The word evolved from the root gno, which means “to know.” Anagnorisis first entered the English language circa 1790 when discussing Aristotle’s own definition of the term in his work Poetics.
The History of Anagnorisis
This device was first explored at length by Aristotle in his Poetics (circa 335 BCE), the earliest surviving work of dramatic and literary theory. The philosopher discusses anagnorisis in great detail, defining it as “a change [that] occurs from ignorance to knowledge, creating love or hate between the individuals doomed by the poet for bad or good fortune.” This change generally occurs at a turning point and is often followed by a reversal of fortune, or peripeteia.
For Aristotle and his audience, anagnorisis was a crucial element of classical Greek tragedy. This moment gives the protagonist insight into both their own character and the dramatic situation itself, thus pushing the plot to its necessary resolution. According to Aristotle, anagnorisis facilitates more complex narratives and characterizations, thus leading to superior tragedies.
As such, he believed the presence of anagnorisis in a tragedy was superior to its absence. For example, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex would be a superior tragedy to Euripides’s Medea in Aristotle’s eyes. In the former, Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, later learning the truth of his identity and thus the consequences of his actions. In the latter, Medea knows her children are her own and kills them anyway.
This understanding of anagnorisis remains influential, though modern interpretation has moved away from Aristotle’s emphasis on theater and tragedy. Now, anagnorisis can appear in any genre of literature and simply refers to a moment of epiphany—a startling discovery that sheds light on a character’s identity or their situation. This new knowledge resolves any lingering issues or ambiguities and, in addition to bringing the narrative to a satisfactory conclusion, allows the audience to experience catharsis.
The Function of Anagnorisis
The moment of illumination that anagnorisis brings allows the protagonist to experience an important new insight into their own nature, the situation, and/or human nature itself. This can serve as a crucial moment of characterization as both the audience and character finally understand who the protagonist really is as a person. Anagnorisis also plays an important role in plot resolution. As it tends to occur during the climax of a plot, the knowledge it imparts allows the plot’s complexities to be resolved in a satisfactory way.
In tragedies, anagnorisis is the moment when the protagonist realizes their own tragic flaw. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, this kind of revelation occurs after Othello kills his wife Desdemona, believing she was unfaithful. He later discovers that she was innocent and he was deceived and manipulated by Iago. Only then does Othello recognize the truth of the situation and how jealousy led to his downfall.
Anagnorisis vs. Peripeteia/Peripety
Anagnorisis often occurs in conjunction with peripeteia (also known as peripety), but they are not the same thing. While anagnorisis is best considered a moment of discovery, peripeteia is a reversal of fortune as a direct result of the new knowledge. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defines peripeteia as “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite” and says that it and anagnorisis are the most powerful parts of the plot in a tragedy.
Consider the classic Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Goose Girl.” In this story, an orphaned princess is sent away to marry a prince. On the journey there, her servant girl forces the princess to trade places so that the servant is thought to be the princess. Eventually, the prince discovers who his true bride is and marries her after killing the evil servant. The moment the true princess’s identity is revealed is anagnorisis, and the reversal of fortune that allows the princess to marry her betrothed and causes the execution of her former servant is an example of peripeteia.
Anagnorisis in Pop Culture
Anagnorisis is a popular device in movies and television as well because it creates satisfying and surprising plots, as well as nuanced characters.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Sixth Sense, anagnorisis occurs when Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist treating a boy who can see and talk to the dead, realizes that he himself is dead. This reveals to Crowe the truth of the situation and his own nature.
Anagnorisis also occurs in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. At the movie’s climax, hero Luke Skywalker is battling his nemesis, Darth Vader. In the end of their fight, Darth Vader tells Luke, “I am your father.” In this shocking moment, Luke discovers the truth of his parentage—to his horror.
Similarly, in the final season of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow finds out he is the true heir to the Iron Throne rather than an illegitimate member of the Stark family. This is an especially satisfying use of anagnorisis, as identity and self-awareness were major aspects of Jon’s arc throughout the series.
Examples of Anagnorisis in Literature
1. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
In Chapter 39 of Dickens’s novel, protagonist Pip discovers that his secret benefactor is not the wealthy and eccentric Miss Havisham, as he believed, but the convict Abel Magwitch who Pip helped escape prison near the opening of the novel. Pip muses:
For an hour or more, I remained too stunned to think; and it was not until I began to think, that I began fully to know how wrecked I was, and how the ship in which I had sailed was gone to pieces.
In this moment of anagnorisis, Pip’s discovery of his newfound wealth’s true source illuminates who he really is and the devastating nature of his situation. Because his money comes from criminal enterprise, he cannot become an upper-class gentleman nor be allowed to marry his beloved Estrella.
2. William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
In Act III, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, the moment of anagnorisis is relayed to the audience by various Gentlemen of the Court, who tell the following story:
That which you hear you’ll swear you see, there is such unity in the proofs. The mantle of Queen Hermione’s, her jewel about the neck of it, the letters of Antigonus found with it, which they know to be his character; the majesty of the creature in resemblance of the mother, the affection of nobleness which nature shows above her breeding, and many other evidences proclaim her with all certainty to be the king’s daughter.
These gentlemen explain how Perdita, the King of Sicily’s daughter, was raised as a poor shepherdess, unaware of her true parentage until she was found and claimed as royal. Much of the play’s plot concerns her romance with Prince Florizel, initially forbidden because of her presumed lack of nobility. When the gentlemen reveal she is truly a princess, the audience understands her true identity, and the plot ultimately ends with a happy marriage.
3. Homer, The Odyssey
In Homer’s epic, Odysseus wanders for 10 years, trying to reach his beloved homeland Ithaca, after the Trojan War’s end. In Book Eight, the shipwrecked Odysseus is being entertained at the home of King Alcinous, whose court musician sings about the Trojan War. Odysseus begins to weep, prompting the king’s suspicions and leading him to ask this stranger who he is and where he comes from. At the opening of Book Nine, Odysseus (sometimes translated as Ulysses) identifies himself:
I will tell you my name that you too may know it, and one day, if I outlive this time of sorrow, may become my guests though I live so far away from all of you. I am Ulysses son of Laertes, renowned among mankind for all manner of subtlety, so that my fame ascends to heaven. I live in Ithaca…
This moment of anagnorisis is notable because it is not accompanied by peripeteia. While Odysseus reveals his true nature, he does not experience an immediate reversal in fortune. It’s many books later when he eventually returns to Ithaca, slays his wife’s suitors, and regains his throne.
Further Resources on Anagnorisis
John MacFarlane, professor of Philosophy at University of California Berkeley, wrote an interesting in-depth exploration of Aristotle’s definition of anagnorisis.
The poet Kyle Dargan wrote a collection exploring the idea of anagnorisis, particularly in terms of contemporary racial relations in the United States of America.
- Tragic flaw