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An Explanation of the Literary Term Anagnorisis With Examples

Anagnorisis Explained with Examples
'Anagnorisis' is nothing but the 'moment of truth', i.e., that moment wherein the protagonist discovers an important truth, of which he was completely unaware. This leads to a paradigm shift in the story, and sometimes, even a change in the attitude of the protagonist.
Neha B Deshpande
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Did You Know?
In his work 'Poetics', Aristotle explained how the use of peripeteia and anagnorisis makes a simple plot convert into something that is intriguing and attention-grabbing. Peripeteia means a sudden and abrupt change in someone's fortune due to a tragic circumstance.
Have you seen the movie 'The Sixth Sense'? Didn't the sudden twist revealed at the end of the movie make you jump off your chair? I was completely thrown aback, when it was revealed that the psychologist who treated a child who can see ghosts is himself (psychologist) a ghost! All the more, he could talk with and see the kid, since the kid had an ability to see him. That suddenly explains why his wife did not speak with him, and the pieces start to fall in place.

But, to those unaware, this moment where any character makes a pivotal discovery has a name in literature. This literary term is defined as 'Anagnorisis'. This word has been derived from the Greek language, and was coined by Aristotle. It is nothing but the discovery of an unknown truth, whose results may be good or bad depending on the discovery. He has explained this term in his work 'Poetics'.

Of course, the use of 'anagnorisis' will be found primarily in suspense movies, especially if you watch M. Night Shyamalan's movies that are known for their sudden twists. Detective novels, suspense thrillers, and tragedy usually involve a complex plot with a heavy dosage of 'anagnorisis'. In some cases, it might be a simple and subtle storyline. However, the use of anagnorisis may lead the story to become more catchy and interesting. The protagonist shifts from ignorance to knowledge in this case.
Examples in Literature
King Lear
A tragic play by Shakespeare, this is the story of King Lear, who fails to realize the value of true love, and runs after false praises. There are many cases of anagnorisis in this play. Firstly, it occurs when he realizes what a big fool he has been in denying his beloved daughter, Cordelia, a piece of his land. He falls prey to the hypothetical praises of his two elder daughters and divides his kingdom between them. It is when they ill-treat him, and turn out to be traitors, he comes face-to-face with truth. On the other hand, Gloucester, one of the faithful noblemen of the king, also confronts the truth when he realizes that he has been extremely wrong while judging his legitimate son, Edgar, and falling prey to the ploy concocted by his illegitimate son Edmund.
King Lear
Death of a Salesman
This is an extremely complex plot that revolves around Willy, a salesman who is on the verge of a breakdown, while pursuing his dream of being the perfect salesman. He is also in despair due to his failing son, for whom he harbors a dream of being a good businessman. However, he finally realizes that all his thoughts are in vain, and it is no longer possible for him to be a good salesman and take his family out of debts. It is when both, the father-son duo come to a realization that they are not meant to do anything great, and live an ordinary life, the moment of anagnorisis occurs. Sadly, Willy does not accept the complete truth, and is in the false hope that his son has forgiven him, and will start a business soon. He kills himself in the hope that his son will use the insurance money to start a new business.
In the play 'Hamlet', the moment of truth occurs when Hamlet's confusion is solved, and he gets evidence that it is his uncle Claudius who has killed his father, as stated by the ghost that he had seen. Though informed by his father's ghost that it is his uncle who killed him, Hamlet still seeks evidence, and becomes a victim of occasional pangs of madness, in the bargain.
The moment of anagnorisis occurs when Macduff reveals that he was not born to a woman, but was ripped off from his mother's womb, i.e., through C-section). It represents how foolish Macbeth was in immediately making a conclusion, that since every man is born to a woman, it is not possible for anyone to kill him. Eventually, he falls as a tragic hero, being a victim to his foolish thoughts and decisions, in the blind thirst for achieving more power.
The Odyssey
The moment of anagnorisis in this case is a happy one, since it is revealed that King Odysseus is actually alive, and is disguised as a beggar. Thus, it is 'recognition' here that brings out the moment of truth, in this mythical story.
Romeo and Juliet
In this classic story, the moment of recognition occurs when Juliet realizes that the man she met at the celebration, and grew instant attraction for, was Romeo, a Montague, her family's enemy. On the other hand, Romeo too realizes that Juliet is a Capulet. Thus, realization dawns upon them that, the person whom they fell in love with and kissed was none other than the member of their feuding families. However, they decide to gulp it, and keep their loyalty with their love, despite the bitter truth.
Oedipus Rex
This is one of the classic examples of anagnorisis. In this case, the king of Thebes, Oedipus, learns that in he has unknowingly killed his own father and married his mother, thereby bringing disgrace to his relationships. He was unaware of his biological parents, and hence, this folly had taken place. However, with this shock, Jocasta, who is both his wife and mother, hangs herself. Oedipus also stabs his eyes and turns blind in despair.
This classic tragedy by Sophocles is a story that describes the quest of a sister to bury her brother's dead body, despite a strict edict from the king banning his burial. Eteocles and Polynices were the two sons of King Oedipus, who had agreed to share the throne. However, Eteocles declines the throne to his brother, after completion of a year, following which a war breaks out between both. Both of them die, and Creon wins the throne of Thebes. He believes Polynices to be a traitor, and decides that he will not be entitled to a burial, which is a basic right of every human being. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, however, wants to build a grave for her brother, and is caught by Creon' soldiers. She is confined to jail for not following the king's orders. Creon's son Haemon is set to marry Antigone. He begs his father to let his love out of jail, but to no avail. On the other hand, Creon is warned that the Gods are angry with him, since he has sinned by not giving a burial to a dead human being. In fear, he agrees to bury Polynices, and also free Antigone. However, it is too late, as Antigone has already killed herself. After hearing this news, his son Haemon also stabs himself, and Creon's wife also follows suit. This is when our protagonist Creon realizes that in his haughtiness of being authoritative, he lost his family. The moment of truth dawns upon him, and he is enlightened about the grave folly that he has committed.
Examples in Movies
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
In the Harry Potter series, the recognition moment occurs when Harry realizes that Severus Snape is not the antagonist, and has been, in fact, making every attempt to save Harry. His (Snape's) alliance with Lord Voldemort was to only put his hand in the lion's den, to know his tactics, and keep his trust. It is his deep love for Harry's mother Lily, which compels him to protect Harry, since Lily had died protecting her son, indicating that all she wanted was her son to be safe. This is an eye-opener, since Harry and his friends have been considering him as the villain from almost the beginning of the series.
The Village
Again, a movie written by the infamous M. Night Shyamalan, it is set in the backdrop of a village which maintains no contact with the outside world, in the fear that there are monsters outside the village limits. They are not allowed to speak of the monsters, and hence, no villager ever leaves the village. One of the protagonists, Lucius, is attacked by a villager Noah, who is distressed since Lucius loves Ivy, his love-interest. Ivy wants to heal Lucius, however, requires medical supplies for the same, for which she seeks permission from her father to cross the village limits. Before she embarks on her journey, the moment of truth occurs: it is revealed by her father that these monsters are not real, and simply a hoax created to discourage the inhabitants from leaving the village. They are nothing but scary costumes made to make the villagers believe that there is something evil outside their village. Such a plan was concocted by the early members of the village, and kept a well-guarded secret from the next generation.
The next time when you see the protagonist of any story learn about a critical truth, and transform from the darkness to the light of the truth, you know what it is: