I. What is a Conundrum?
A conundrum (pronounced ko-NUN-drum) is a difficult problem, one that is impossible or almost impossible to solve. It’s an extremely broad term that covers any number of different types of situations, from moral dilemmas to riddles.
II. Examples of Conundrum
What can be swallowed, or can swallow a person?
This riddle employs a play on words – the word “swallow” is used figuratively in this riddle, and means different things in the two different contexts. Thus, the riddle is an example of a conundrum (specifically a wordplay riddle).
One particularly famous moral conundrum is the so-called “Trolley Problem,” in which you are standing on a train overpass and see an out-of-control train barreling toward a group of 5 workers on the tracks. You have a lever next to you that can divert the train onto another track with only one worker on it. Is it right to kill the one worker in order to save the other five?
Imagine you got into only two colleges – one was a better school with better faculty, but the other has a reputation for being more fun, and has a more socially active student body. Which school should you pick? Which one would be more conducive to your future happiness? This is a practical conundrum that thousands of students face, in different forms, every year.
III. Types of Conundrum
For the sake of simplicity, it may help if we split up this vast term into a few types. There are many conundrums that do not fall into any of these categories, but the terms will at least help clarify what a conundrum is:
a. Moral Conundrum
A moral conundrum or “moral dilemma” is a situation in which you have many choices and aren’t sure which one is right. Crucially, it’s not a situation in which you’re choosing between what’s right and what’s easy or pleasurable – that’s just a battle of personal will. The conundrum takes place when the actual question is difficult to answer. For example, whether or not you should lie about cheating on your spouse is not a moral conundrum; but whether or not you should lie so that your spouse feels better about the way he looks might be a moral conundrum.
b. Practical Conundrum
A practical conundrum is another situation in which you’re not sure what’s right to do, except that in this case it’s not a question of what’s “right” in a moral sense, but what’s right in a practical sense. Picking a college, major, partner, or job is a classic example of a practical conundrum.
The word “dilemma” can refer to either a practical conundrum or a moral conundrum.
c. Wordplay Riddle
Any riddle that contains a pun or wordplay can also be referred to as a “conundrum,” although this definition naturally is quite different from the other two. When the answer to the riddle is based on some kind of pun, wordplay, or ambiguous terminology, then the riddle can be called a conundrum. Convention states that riddles without wordplay should not be referred to by this term.
IV. The Importance of Conundrum
In literature, a conundrum is often used to display a character’s attributes and make them more relatable. We all face moral and practical dilemmas in our lives, so seeing a character go through a similar situation helps us feel more drawn into the story. In addition, the resources that we use to solve dilemmas – compassion, logical reasoning, intuition, etc. – are all extremely important to who we are as people. Our “character” is revealed not only through the answers we choose, but also through how we arrive at those answers. Good writers of fiction, then, can leverage a compelling dilemma to show us who a character is inside, and make them seem more relatable (or, in some cases, more villainous).
There is no particular purpose for wordplay riddles – they are just for fun.
V. Examples of Conundrum in Literature
In Plato’s Last Days of Socrates, Socrates is locked in prison and facing the death penalty for teaching his philosophy. His students come to the prison to try and help him escape, but Socrates refuses. On the one hand, Socrates says, he could escape and continue teaching, thus serving the city of Athens and the future of the Greek people. Yet to do this would be to break his promise and the law. This is a difficult moral conundrum, but Socrates decides quite firmly that he must stay in prison, obey the law, and sacrifice his own life.
Many works of literature and film are based on the practical conundrum of a person at the center of a love triangle. One character has the love of two others, and must choose which one to be with. This choice, obviously, affects all three characters’ futures, and must be made very carefully. But it’s difficult for the character to know where his or her true desire lies, and thus the conundrum is difficult to solve. Love triangles of this sort take place in works as diverse as Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and the Twilight saga.
Sophocles’ Antigone is based around the moral dilemma of family loyalty vs loyalty to society at large. In order to honor her deceased brother, she must disobey a direct command from the king, who was her brother’s enemy. For Antigone, her loyalty to society (expressed through reverence to the king’s command) is not as valuable as her love for her brother.
VI. Examples of Conundrum in Pop Culture
In The Dark Knight, the Joker presents a boat full of victims with a terrible moral dilemma: they can press a button to blow up another boat full of prisoners, but this will prove that they are vicious and violent people; on the other hand, they can choose not to blow up the other boat, but they run the risk that the criminals will decide to blow them up to save themselves. Is it right to press the button, or not?
One of the simplest (and most overused) practical dilemmas in film is the bomb-defusing scenario: the main character must cut the correct wires, in the correct sequence, in order to stop the bomb. Which one to cut next – red or green? Although this practical conundrum is simple in its contours (you might as well flip a coin, after all) it’s still difficult to solve, and therefore it qualifies as a conundrum.