I. What is a Dilemma?
A dilemma is a conflict, problem, or situation with two possible solutions. When a dilemma occurs, a person has to make the difficult choice between two desirable options, or, contrastingly, two undesirable options. The word comes from the Greek dilēmma (di “twice” + lēmma “premise”); it is a term used in logic and rhetoric when causing an opponent to choose between two unfavorable options.
A dilemma can have a leading role in a narrative and may be the cause behind a character’s behavior—as a type of conflict, they are key parts of countless literary plots. Literature and other entertainment have given us many a superhero forced to save one person or a whole crowd; and many romantic scenarios where one character has to choose between two potential lovers. It is not uncommon for a character to be faced with choosing between two positive or two negative outcomes!
Though dilemmas are, of course, real life occurrences, this article focuses on their role in narratives.
II. Examples of Dilemma
Here are two lighthearted dilemmas that someone might face:
The menu at the restaurant looked amazing, and Sam wanted to try everything. But, having a limited budget, he was faced with a choice—to order the gourmet mac and cheese made with gouda (his favorite cheese); or to get the bacon and gouda burger. For a gouda-lover, it was quite a dilemma!
My mom gave me two choices: do the dishes or clean the bathroom. Neither sounded like much fun. What a dilemma.
III. Types of Dilemmas
Dilemma is a general term, but there are also specific types that follow specific scenarios.
a. Moral/Ethical Dilemma
One of the most popular themes in literature is the “moral dilemma” or “ethical dilemma,” where a character is faced with a conflict of morals or ethics. In such a dilemma, choosing one moral will result in violating another; or, doing one thing could bring positive results but is morally wrong. A common example is “stealing from the rich to feed the poor.”
b. Chicken or the Egg
This is a classic dilemma about which of two things comes first. If the chicken came first, where did it come from? Likewise, if the egg came first, who laid the egg?
d. The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic conflict and is often depicted in crime stories. It involves two parties each faced with punishment that will be different based on how the opposite party behaves. It follows this pattern:
- If party A gives up party B, party A will receive the lesser punishment (and vice versa).
- If both parties A and B give each other up, both receive the maximum punishment.
- If neither A nor B gives up the other, both receive the minimum punishment.
e. Sophie’s Choice
Getting its title from the novel of the same name, a “Sophie’s Choice” dilemma involves a choice between two things that will lead to the death or destruction of whichever isn’t chosen.
IV. Importance of Dilemmas
Like conflict in general, dilemmas are key narrative devices that drive the plot and the choices and actions of its characters. It can be the determining factor in where a story goes, deciding the fate of everyone involved. What’s more, a good dilemma will truly captivate the audience, leading them to become personally invested in a story and making them feel just as torn by the decision at hand as the characters themselves.
V. Examples of Dilemma in Literature
You’re probably already familiar with one of the most famous dilemmas in literature, which is the choice between life and death. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet finds himself in a serious self-imposed dilemma, which he addresses with these memorable words:
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.
In his soliloquy, Hamlet debates whether “to be”—to live; or “not to be”—to commit suicide. This is his dilemma. While it may not seem like a dilemma because death is generally not a desirable thing, for Hamlet, living and dying both seem like reasonable options. If he lives, he will have to suffer with the memories of things that have happened, or he can end those memories by dying.
As mentioned earlier, William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice is known for the famously cruel dilemma that the main character experienced earlier in her life. Sophie, a holocaust survivor, reveals the choice she had to face upon arriving at Auschwitz concentration camp:
Sophie, with an inanity poised on her tongue and choked with fear, was about to attempt a reply when the doctor said, “You may keep one of your children.”
“Bitte?” said Sophie.
“You may keep one of your children,” he repeated. “The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”
“You mean, I have to choose?”
Here, Sophie is faced with an impossible dilemma—to choose which of her children will live, and which will die. It is from this novel and this choice that the name “Sophie’s Choice” was coined for this type of painful dilemma.
VI. Examples of Dilemma in Popular Culture
As mentioned earlier, superheroes are often faced with some pretty serious dilemmas. In Spider-Man, the villain, Green Goblin, gives Spider-Man the ultimate dilemma: save the woman he loves, or save a cable car filled with children:
You’ve probably seen many superheroes put in a pretty similar position in comic books and on screen. But naturally, because he’s a superhero, Spider-Man amazingly manages to break open the terrible dilemma he faces by saving both the cable car and Mary Jane!
In the science fiction action movie Divergent, the protagonist Tris has to choose which of her society’s “factions” she will become a part of. For her, this is a huge dilemma—she is a “divergent,” and could fit in with any of the factions, but is torn between two. The first is Abnegation, her family’s faction that would give a comfortable and a simple life. But, she has always been intrigued and attracted by Dauntless, a dangerous but exciting faction. This is the most difficult dilemma she will ever face—once she chooses, she can’t ever go back. In this scene, it’s time to make her choice:
Here, Tris takes a leap of faith and chooses the faction that she thinks will be the best for her. Her dilemma comes to an end as she leaves behind the world she knows and follows her heart by choosing to join Dauntless.
Nicolas Sparks’ love story The Notebook tells the tale of an intense love between two people who lose touch but find their way back to each other. However, once they do, Allie has a choice to make, because she is engaged to another man. It’s a major dilemma for her—to choose Noah, who she has spent her whole life loving fiercely, or to stay with Lon, who she also loves and fits in with her lifestyle:
Here, Noah asks Allie what she wants, but for her, it’s not easy or simple to decide between two men she loves.
VII. Related Terms
In literature, a conflict is a struggle, a disagreement, tension, or any kind of problem between two opposing forces or characters (usually a protagonist and some form of antagonist or antagonizing force). It is a hugely important literary device that is present in every narrative. A dilemma is a specific type of conflict that is primarily centered on choice.
In all, a dilemma is a problem with a difficult choice that can really steer a narrative. It adds excitement and tension to a story, determining the action and events that occur and working to make the audience become emotionally invested in its outcome.