Definition of Dilemma

Dilemma is a Greek word, which means double proposition, or perplexing situation, which presents two different possibilities, and both of them seem practically acceptable. Dilemma is a rhetorical device in which a conflicting situation arises for a person to choose between right and wrong where both seem of equal worth.  Several times, dilemma involves an ethically wrong decision that may produce desirable outcomes but could have moral consequences. Or it involves a decision in which a person needs to choose one of the two choices, and both equally good or equally bad.

Dilemma Examples from Literature

Example 1

In the play Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s leading character, Hamlet, struggles with his dilemma how could he carry out the orders of his father’s ghost to kill his stepfather to exact revenge because he married to his mother, and usurped the throne of his father. Ophelia also faces dilemma in the play, as her brother and father believes that Hamlet is not faithful to her, and would rather use her, whereas her heart is convinced that Hamlet loves her. Both of them could not reconcile to the situation following this ethical dilemma they got entangled in.

Example 2

We find a perfect example of moral dilemma in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Dr. Faustus. His major moral dilemma is he desires to get extensive knowledge for his benefits, but intends to use it to exploit others. For this, he sells his soul to the representative of Mephistopheles. We see his moral dilemma through his lust. He wishes to get things that were impossible to get, like power to rule entire kingdom but at heart he feels that he is doing wrong.

Example 3

William Shakespeare uses several conflicts in his play, Othello, and one of them is an individual versus individual. We find main the character, Othello, in dilemma when he faces internal conflict whether he should believe in Desdemona or not, and is she faithful to him or not. Othello trusts and loves her until jealousy arises in him by Iago’s cruel manipulations.

Example 4

Charlotte Bronte in her novel, Jane Eyre, demonstrates the characters struggling with their consciences after facing moral dilemmas. The most prominent characters are Rochester, Saint John and Jane. While analyzing Saint John’s character, we come to know he is determined to devote his life as a missionary. He thus feels inclined to like the work ethics of Jane, and proposes her to marry. Though John loves another girl Rosamond Oliver, yet cannot marry her, as she would not make a good wife as a missionary. Jane, on the other hand, also struggles with dilemma when John tempts her. There is an appeal in a life of missionary, but then she refuses because she does not love John. Jane’s another moral dilemma comes out whether to marry Rochester or not, as he is already married to Bertha Mason, which she finally resolves by marrying Rochester.

Example 5

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’ s novel, Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov commits a murder in order to test his assumption that some people have a right to act in this way because they are capable of doing such  things. Raskolnikov tries several times to justify his actions and connects mentally himself with Napoleon Bonaparte, showing that murder is acceptable for pursuing a higher purposes.

Example 6

Sophocles raises moral dilemma in his phenomenal play, Oedipus Rex, in which he falls victim to a great tragedy, when he sets upon to find out the truth of his birth. He seeks the truth with the expectation that after knowing the truth he would be able to set things right in his city, but we learn that despite his righteous intentions everything proves to be a trauma for him. He faces the dilemma of relieving the people form plague, or leaving it to save himself. He rather goes the other way.

Function of Dilemma

In literature, dilemma is a struggle occurring within the mind of a character. Therefore, it gives readers an insight into characters’ lives. There may be a single or multiple dilemmas in a story. However, the purpose is the same that is to create a tension and complexity in a narrative by adding confusing and conflicting ideas. It also creates suspense and excitement in the story from the beginning towards the end. Simply put, the leading characters have to struggle, evolve and make choices in a story to change effectively.

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