Examples of Dilemma in Literature

Dilemma is a state of affairs that sets before one two equally undesirable courses of action. It is an uncertain state that comes about because there are contradictory values, beliefs or advantages. 

Conflicting loyalties, promises and moral values can also result in dilemmas–a choice with an uncertain outcome. Thus dilemma is the state of indecision brought about by such opposite choices or demands.

Common Examples of Dilemma

Work vs Family: Obligations at work throw the promotion that requires long hours and much travel in his face, which only makes things worse for him personally.

Loyalty vs Truth: No, but a tea that someone may be forced to reveal another’s secret by friend or colleague-telling the truth cannot possibly harm anyone.

Health vs Wealth: Sometimes a person would have to choose between using up a large amount of money for medical care needed by their loved one, or cutting out some spending so as not to get behind in other financial obligations.

Honesty vs Kindness: Keeping secrets There may be a need to tell the truth about someone’s wrongdoings, but doing so can hurt and humiliate that person.

Career vs Environment: For instance, say one has to decide whether or not on a well-paid job in an environmentally damaging undertaking; if give that up and take another career course at the end of which reward is clearly less.

Examples of Dilemma in literature


“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

“To be, or not to be, that is the question, Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them? To die—to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause, there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.”

In the aforesaid monologue, the character Hamlet is talking on the nature of life, death and the decisions we make as humans. He poses the question of whether it is better to suffer through life’s hardships or to take action to prevent them, even if it means causing harm to others. Hamlet’s words illustrate the complexity and weight of a difficult dilemma.


“Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo 

“But before she goes, I must speak!…The gentleman whom you love is free today, but I, who raised you from a child, am a lawbreaker. I want you to be loved and to love. Him who loves you now is a man of honor. You would be disgraced by associating yourself with a man who has twice served terms in the galleys!…”

In this scene, the character Jean Valjean is confronted with a difficult choice after his adopted daughter Cosette tells him that she loves someone named Mareus. Of course, Marius is from a powerful and distinguished family while Valjean himself was an ex-con. How can he take good care of Cosette? Valjean’s struggle is between keeping Cosette to his self–to do so would be acceptable and almost completely avoid hated for him, but this might cause a break in relations with the married Marius; allowing her marriage face only possible severe damage ever after.


“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

“Do I silence conscience, and keep the oppressor’s courage? Or do I release her, and shame the oppressor’s fright?”

Jane is grappling with the morality of her actions and the potential consequences. She wants to do what is right, but she knows that speaking out could have serious repercussions. The titular character is faced with a dilemma after discovering that her husband, Mr. Rochester, has concealed his wife’s mistreatment and confinement in the attic. Jane is torn between her love for Mr. Rochester and her loyalty to the truth. Jane’s dilemma is whether to reveal Mr. Rochester’s secret, potentially injuring his reputation and hurting his future marital prospects, or to stay silent and allow the situation to continue.


“The Lady, or the Tiger” by Frank Stockton

“‘Your Majesties, you ask me to condemn a mate, to sentence an innocent to death—I, who think no being unworthy of mercy, who detest a vengeful fate, who shudder at the idea of crime!’

The terms of this quotation involve a moral conflict between the speaker and his superiors– Your Majesties ‘Orders Having You Condemn an Innocent Person to Death. This is brought about by conflicts with core value systems that one possesses, such as not approving harsh punishments or thinking no being worthy of brutalizing. Vengeful fates are hated but the pressures of authority make it difficult to obey one’s own values, and this seems unfair. This quote points out the inner struggle and emotional torment so often accompanying moral dilemmas. The choices that are initially clear-cut quickly become complex due to one’s own ideas and values.


“The Scarlet Letter”  by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Perhaps the god who rules men’s fates would not have her lose her husband, and cast aside her child; but jeopardized these by the alternative of disgrace or sin. Not to consecrate sin would be disgrace. And yet, equality with her husband’s life!—to share his perils, to partake of his experiences, to have his conflict her own!”

In the novel, Hester Prynne’s husband persuades her to keep an illicit affair and their illegitimate child secret. As for whether to tell bither husband the truth and destroy his reputation, or let him keep up appearances publicly while still feeling ashamed of her privately–this is Hester’s dilemma.


“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“When I found you I felt that you were mine alone. . . .We loved with a love that was more than love—”

In this passage, Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy cloud his judgment and make it difficult for him to recognize the consequences of his actions. He wants to claim Daisy as his own, but he also knows that doing so could lead to painful consequences.

Examples of Dilemma in literature
Examples of Dilemma in literature

Dilemma Examples in Pop-Culture

1- “Orange is the New Black”

“I don’t know what to do. I feel like a terrible daughter for even having to think about the fact that I might not get to be there when she passes, and I don’t want to just think of her suffering while I’m thousands of miles away. But it could be years. Years. And what about my responsibility to serve my time? I wouldn’t be the first woman to die in here, but some things are still important enough that they eclipse the rules.”

In the popular Netflix series, the main character, Piper Chapman, faces a dilemma when she discovers that her mother is terminally ill. Piper is now in prison and the only way for her to get temporary release is through work release. On the other hand, Piper will soon be eligible for transfer to a minimum-security prison that would put her much closer to her mother and enable more time with family. Piper has been faced with the dilemma of choosing between saving her mother’s health or finishing her sentence..

2- “Inside Out” 

“I know what I have to do. It’s hard sometimes, being in charge. But I can’t just think about my own joy. I have to think about Riley’s overall happiness. I just hope Sadness can be helpful, not hurtful.”

Here, Joy’s duty to Riley’s whole health is weighed against her ambition of helping Sadness. Joy finds herself in a tug-of war between her duties as the ruler of Riley’s emotions and an animal creature drive to save another life.

Related Terms

Ambiguity vs. Dilemma

Ambiguity is a form of literary technique in which the reader cannot judge what sense was intended or written into existence. Dilemma, on the other hand, is a literary device used in drama that requires the character to choose between two evils. Normally, ambiguity and dilemma tend to go together and their multiple understandings give rise to a character’s struggle.

Irony vs. Dilemma

Irony arises when what is said and what it meant are in opposition, resulting in a large gulf between intended meaning and actual impact. Dilemma, on the other hand is a literary technique that sets up situations where characters are caught between two evils. Irony is very closely connected to dilemma, because sometimes what a character does seems intended to go in one direction but the outcome refuses that intent. This also provides for an in-depth exploration of human behavior at a time when things are unclear and ambiguous.

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