What Is Anagnorisis?

Alan Rankin

Anagnorisis is a literary term for a sudden moment of recognition or revelation. It is the moment when a previously hidden element of a story’s plot is discovered by a character and often by the audience as well. The term “anagnorisis” was coined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle during his study of classical Greek drama. It has since been applied to novels, films, or any other form of narrative. In modern times, writers often employ it to reveal a mystery involving the plot or characters.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle created the term "anagnorisis".
The Greek philosopher Aristotle created the term "anagnorisis".

Aristotle studied and wrote about most of the sciences known in his time, including aesthetics, the principles of artistic composition. When he wrote his influential book Poetics around 335 BC, Greek drama had already existed for at least two centuries. In Poetics, Aristotle defined many storytelling principles that are as effective today as they were in antiquity. One of these principles was the startling revelation of plot elements previously unknown to the characters and the audience. Aristotle called this anagnorisis, meaning “recognition” in Greek.

Stories often employ anagnorisis to reveal a mystery involving the plot or characters.
Stories often employ anagnorisis to reveal a mystery involving the plot or characters.

In classical drama, anagnorisis often occurs simultaneously with peripeteia, a sudden reversal of fortune for the central character. This is particularly common in the tragedy, a popular dramatic form in ancient Greece. The classic example occurs in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, in which a famous Greek hero weds a queen and inherits a kingdom after accidentally slaying its king. The kingdom falls under a curse because someone has committed an unnatural act: killing his father and marrying his mother. Oedipus’ realization that he unknowingly perpetrated this act is the play’s moment of both anagnorisis and peripeteia.

The principle is not limited to tragedy. Comedies often depend on misunderstandings or mistaken identities that are eventually cleared up in ways that benefit the main characters. Anagnorisis should not be mistaken for epiphany, a similar moment of revelation. An epiphany is a sudden realization, unconnected to any previous understanding and often accounted to divine inspiration. Anagnorisis is the culmination of information that has slowly been revealed beforehand, often as a way of providing clues to involve the audience.

Modern storytellers can employ this device in any genre of narrative. The Harry Potter stories of J.K. Rowling are famous for such moments of revelation, as are the early films of M. Night Shamalayan. Mystery stories, by contrast, sometimes conceal the moment when the detective unravels the mystery in order to save this information for a dramatic finale. An exception is the 1997 film L.A. Confidential, in which a police detective played by Guy Pearce investigates a mass shooting. A casual remark by a fellow officer provides Pearce with a moment of anagnorisis, in which he understands the extent of the conspiracy he faces.

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