Meaning of Conundrum

The term, conundrum, seems to have originated back in 1590. It was used for a person in the meanings of a pedant with further evolution in meanings the 16th century and later. Its Latin equivalent conandrum means to attempt something that was used in the meanings of a riddle during the 18th century and later evolved into this meaning.

In literature, a conundrum is a difficult situation that is unresolvable or almost unresolvable. It is akin to a dilemma or a riddle in a novel or a poem. Whereas a riddle involves a pun or twisty argument or narrative, a dilemma is a situation where two or more options are available.

Examples of Conundrum in Literature

Example # 1

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,38
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.

This soliloquy occurs in Hamlet. Hamlet speaks these words when he finds himself in a dilemma; the dilemma is that he is to kill his uncle, king Claudius, as per the words that he has given to the Ghost of his father. On the other hand, he doubts the morality of his action in which murder is a heinous crime. Therefore, he faces this conundrum in which he thinks that he is options but not sure which one is righteous.

Example # 2

A Raisin in The Sun by Hansberry Lorraine

Mama: My children and they tempers. Lord, if this little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again. (She turns from the window) What’s the matter with you this morning, Ruth? You looks right peaked. You aiming to iron all them things? Leave some for me. I’ll get to ’em this afternoon. Bennie honey, it’s too drafty for you to be sitting ’round half dressed. Where’s your robe?

Mama speaks these words in the play of Hansberry Lorraine. On the one hand, she sees the plant not getting more sun, and on the other hand, she sees Ruth not doing enough. She faces this conundrum about what to do as she has options after having money in her hands. This dilemma is purely moral as well as social, for if she invests money in the education of her daughter, it would be able to uplift them as well as ruin them. The fate of the entire family depends on her resolution of this conundrum.

Example # 3

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

‘Love is new, and fresh to us as the dew; and we are together. As the lover’s world goes, this is a great deal. Stephen, I fancy I see the difference between me and you––between men and women generally, perhaps. I am content to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making a world to suit your happiness.’

Elfride is speaking to Stephen after having not resolved the conundrum of her love. She is in a real conundrum as she explains that though they are in love and that they are together yet she states, “I see the difference between you and me” that exists between a man and a woman. In fact, she finds herself in a conundrum that seems unresolvable to both of them.

Example # 4

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

This passage occurs at the end of the novel, Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Other animals are looking in the barn at the pig as many as twelve voices are shouting in anger. They see that they cannot differentiate between the pigs and men as all of them are fully drunk and this poses a serious conundrum when they cannot identify any one of them.

Functions of Conundrum

The use of a conundrum depends on the writer whether he uses it as a mild dilemma or a riddle or a simple unresolvable option. In many cases, the writers put a serious issue amid various options. In such a case, it heightens the suspense of suspense and makes readers feel the same agony as the characters feel. However, in the case of a simple dilemma, the function of such a conundrum is to just make the readers feel the unresolvable situation and try to find a solution on their own. In case, it is just a riddle, the readers are implicitly given a chance to find the answer and imbibe this lesson so that they could apply it in the future. Overall, its function is to make readers feel the thirst to read more and find how characters resolve their respective conundrums.