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Do you remember a time when you had to make a choice and each option was equally unpleasant? Perhaps you lied, and something terrible happened, or you were faced with the task of divulging the truth and being punished for lying. This mess is called a dilemma: a situation that challenges an agreeable solution. In literature, dilemmas form the central conflict many protagonists encounter. Many people face all kinds of dilemmas in life, and the choice they make can have long-lasting impacts. Sometimes these dilemmas have even caused changes in society and history! Common types of dilemmas include classic, ethical, and moral.

Classic Dilemma

A classic dilemma is a choice between two or more alternatives, in which the outcomes are equally undesirable, or equally favorable. The dilemma does not typically involve a moral or ethical crisis, but the person or character’s life may change as a result of their decision. As a young adult, some examples of classic dilemmas include:

  • Deciding between colleges to attend

  • Uncertainty about which job offer to take

  • Wondering whether or not to make the move to a new city

Classic dilemmas are more than simple choices, because they usually prompt the person to think about the outcomes of the choices. As a result, a character in a story may find themselves on an adventure, in fear for their lives, or instituting change because of the choice they made in their dilemma.

Ethical Dilemma

An ethical dilemma arises when a person is forced to decide between two morally sound options, but they may conflict with the established boundaries of a business, a governmental agency, or the law. Some ethical dilemmas may involve following the truth versus being loyal to a friend; following the laws or rules versus having compassion for an individual’s plight; and concerns about an individual person versus the larger impact on a community. An ethical dilemma differs from a moral dilemma because it very much involves following rules rather than one’s conscience, although one’s conscience can certainly move an individual to consider breaking the rules.

Ethical dilemmas are especially important in the medical and criminal justice fields, and in careers such as social work and psychology. In addition, most public servants have to undergo ethics training to address common dilemmas they may come across while working with the public. Recent advancements in science have also brought forward interesting and uncharted ethical dilemmas. Some examples of ethical dilemmas include:

  • An administrative assistant discovers her boss has been laundering money, and she must decide whether or not to turn him in.

  • A doctor refuses to give a terminal patient morphine, but the nurse can see the patient is in agony.

  • A government contractor discovers that intelligence agencies have been spying on its citizens illegally, but is bound by contract and legalities to keep his confidentiality about the discovery.

Children may also face some ethical dilemmas. Some examples include:

  • A friend got the math test ahead of time and says you can look at it. You struggle with math and you know it would help your grade if you knew the questions ahead of time.

  • You are going to the movies with your friends and tickets are half price for kids who are under 12 years old. You are 13 years old, but could easily pass for younger.

  • You are hanging out with a friend who isn’t very popular. You run into other friends who invite you to hang with them, but they do not want your friend to come.

Moral Dilemma

A moral dilemma is a situation in which a person is torn between right and wrong and looks at the very core of a person's principles and values. The choice the person makes may leave them feeling burdened, guilty, relieved, or questioning their values. A moral dilemma often forces the individual to decide which option he or she can live with, but any outcomes are extremely unpleasant no matter what. Moral dilemmas are often used to help people think through the reasoning for their beliefs and actions, and are common in psychology and philosophy classes. Some examples of moral dilemmas include:

  • The classic “lifeboat dilemma”, where there are only 10 spaces in the lifeboat, but there are 11 passengers on the sinking ship. A decision must be made as to who will stay behind.

  • A train with broken brakes is speeding towards a fork in the tracks. On the left, there is a woman crossing with her two children; on the right, there is a man doing routine maintenance on the tracks. The engineer must decide which side to aim the speeding train towards.

  • A husband learns he has a terminal illness and he decides to ask his wife for assistance in ending the pain before it gets too bad.

  • A friend discovers her best friend’s boyfriend is cheating. She must decide whether to tell her friend or keep it a secret.

Moral dilemmas also provide interesting social topics for students to examine in position and research papers. Common topics for such assignments often include:

  1. The Death Penalty
  2. Doctor-Assisted Suicide
  3. Ending the Drug War
  4. The Draft
  5. Abortion
  6. Government Spying
  7. Prison Reform
  8. Legalizing (or decriminalizing) Marijuana
  9. Fossil Fuels vs. Renewable Energy

Famous Dilemma Examples in Literature

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

One of the most famous literary dilemmas appears in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The phrase “To be or not to be…”, is quite famous. However, many are not aware that these words embody the central conflict of Hamlet’s dilemma. Hamlet is comparing the agony of life, with the fear and uncertainty of death. While Hamlet is disappointed with his life, he is also scared of death, especially by suicide. He is frightened by what death has in store; it may be “sleep”, or it could be an experience worse than life. Hamlet’s dilemma is to stay living unhappily, or commit suicide and await uncertainty after life.

Silas Marner by George Eliot

In Silas Marner, Godfrey Cass has many dilemmas that he is unfortunately never able to rectify. Throughout the story, he makes one bad choice after another, because of moral and situational dilemmas controlling his life. Godfrey’s main dilemma centers on his secret, resented marriage to Molly Farren, an opium addict. The texts suggests that he was led into this marriage by his swaggering younger brother, Dunstan. Dunstan uses this information to blackmail Godfrey, and keep him away from his true love, Nancy. The secret becomes the center of every problem in his life, and many dilemmas emerge from it. Does he escape Dunstan’s power by divulging the marriage to everyone, and lose Nancy’s love? Or, does he continue to court Nancy and lie to everyone, paying off Dunstan and Molly to hide the secret?

The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank Stockton

In the short story “The Lady, or the Tiger” a young man is faced with death after falling in love with the daughter of a semi-barbaric king. The king was fierce and dealt with lawbreakers by having them stand trial, with fate as their judge. Led into an arena, they would have the choice of two doors. Behind the doors for this young man awaited either a beautiful maiden or a ferocious tiger. Either door was a dilemma because his heart had already been given to the princess. The day of his fateful reckoning he learned the princess had found out which door concealed the tiger and which the lady. The story ends without a resolution, and leaves the reader wondering which door the princess led her lover to choose. Did she allow him to be with another woman, or did that singular thought result in his death?

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In Shiloh, Marty knows that Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers, a mean man in town who neglects and abuses his dogs. Because he is hiding Shiloh from his parents and lying to them and Judd when he says he hasn’t seen the dog, Marty feels tremendous guilt and fear. However, he knows that if he returns Shiloh to Judd, the dog will be hurt or even worse. Marty’s dilemma is to hide the dog and continue lying, or return Shiloh to a place where he will be beaten and starved.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Tuck Everlasting is the perfect example of a classic dilemma. When Winnie meets Jesse and his family, she adores them and is intrigued by the fact that they have an everlasting life. When Winnie is given the opportunity to drink from the well and live forever with Jesse, she contemplates what to do. Her life would be forever changed if she drinks the water, but does she really want to live forever?

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Annabelle faces a very common dilemma. She and her siblings are being bullied by Betty, who harasses them daily. Annabelle knows that if she tells her parents, Betty will get angry and take it out on them, but she also doesn’t know if she can handle the situation on her own. This is a dilemma that children can easily relate to, as bullying is unfortunately very common and difficult to deal with.

Example Exercises

There are so many great ways to visualize and explain dilemmas in literature. Teachers can customize the level of detail and number of cells required for projects based on available class time and resources.

  1. Identify a dilemma in a work of literature you have read.

  2. Create a storyboard that shows and explains the dilemma in a work of literature. Use specific quotes from the text that highlight and explain the two equally unpleasant choices as it relates to the dilemma.

  3. Storyboard a real life dilemma that includes an internal and external conflict.

  4. Create custom worksheets for students to complete for a specific text.

  5. Create a poster that showcases an example of dilemma in literature or real life.

Common Core

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3: Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed)

Activity Rubric

Dilemma Rubric
25 Points
21 Points
17 Points
Try Again
13 Points
Choice of Scenes
Accurately depicts the scenes that show the character's main dilemma.
Mostly depicts the scenes that show the character's main dilemma.
Vaguely depicts the scenes that show the character's main dilemma.
Barley or does not depict the scenes that show the character's main dilemma.
Captions are accurately related to the dilemma and story. The connections are very easy to understand.
Captions are mostly related to the dilemma and story. The connections are easy to understand.
Captions are vaguely related to the dilemma and story. The connections are not easy to understand.
Captions do not relate well to the scenes, or are not related to the dilemma and story. The connections are very hard to understand.
The main characters are accurately and clearly identified. Their actions are well matched to their actions in the story.
The main characters are mostly clear and identified. Their actions are mostly matched to their actions in the story.
The main characters are vaguely defined or identified. Their actions are somewhat matched to their actions in the story
The main characters are lacking clarity or are not identified. Their actions are poorly matched to the story.
Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar
There are no spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors.
There are some spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors.
There are many spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors.
There are too many spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors.

Related Activities

Check out these dilemma activities from our guides on "Shooting an Elephant", "The Pit and the Pendulum", and "The Lady or the Tiger".

Image Attributions
  • Historic Route 66 • Randy Heinitz • License Attribution (
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