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 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. Some examples of classic dilemmas include:

  • Deciding where to go for dinner on a first date

  • 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:

  • A secretary 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 teacher, who is also the volleyball coach, asks her athletes to give her their cell phone numbers so she can get in touch with them quickly; however, according to district policy, teachers are not supposed to have contact with students on their phones.

  • While responding to a domestic violence call, a police officer finds out that the assailant is the brother of the police chief, and the police chief tells the officer to “make it go away”.

  • 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.

Moral Dilemma

A moral dilemma is a situation in which a person is torn between right and wrong. A moral dilemma involves a conflict with 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 awaited either a beautiful maiden or a ferocious tiger. For the young man, 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?

Example Exercises

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.

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)

  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically

  • ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information

  • ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2: Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source

  • ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2: Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data

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.

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