Glossary Home Literary Device


A dilemma is a problem or conflict that has more than one possible solution. There are always important consequences one has to contend with.

A person who is faced with a dilemma has to choose which path is the correct one or the most desirable. It’s possible that all possible solutions are less than agreeable. This is when someone has to choose the lesser of two undesirable options. At the root of a dilemma is the fact that someone has to make a choice between two sides, both of which will have consequences. There are several examples below, such as those from the plays of William Shakespeare, which are particularly notable for the terrible consequences they have.

Dilemma pronunciation: deh-lee-muh

Dilemma definition and examples


Definition of Dilemma 

The word “dilemma” comes from the Greek meaning “twice” and “premise.” It is most commonly used in logic or rhetoric and when speaking about arguments or debates. Dilemmas can play important roles in short stories, novels, plays, and even poems. They might be part of the central conflict of a story. For example, one person has to make a terrible choice that’s going to change their life forever. Sometimes they involve ethically problematic decisions that could have a terrible or wonderful outcome.


Examples of Dilemmas in Literature

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 

Throughout Jane Eyre, the main characters are faced with various dilemmas, ones that could change their lives for the better or the worse. Jane finds herself in a situation where she loves Mr. Rochester but is faced with the fact that he’s already married to Bertha Mason. Without this central issue, the novel would not have anything truly dramatic to focus on within the bulk of its pages. Take a look at these lines in which Jane describes her feelings for Mr. Rochester: 

Yet I had not forgotten his faults…He was proud, sardonic, harsh to inferiority of every description…He was moody, too…But I believe that his moodiness, his harshness, and his former faults of morality…had their source in some cruel cross of fate. I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies…I thought there were excellent materials in him, though, for the present, they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled.

She’s recently learned more details about his past but has not forgotten his faults. There are many things about him that bother her, but she also obviously cares for him. While exploring Rochester’s character, these lines also reveal to the reader what Jane values in another person. She’s willing to look past his faults and see the goodness in him. 

Discover Charlotte Brontë’s poetry.


Othello by William Shakespeare 

The most important dilemma any character faces in Othello plagues the main character. In his scheme to destroy Othello, Iago comes up with a plot to convince the latter that his wife, Desdemona, has cheated on him. Through clever and devious suggestions, Iago sets up a difficult dilemma for Othello. He has to decide whether or not to believe Iago or to trust in his own opinion of his wife—that she wouldn’t cheat on him. Unfortunately, Othello chooses poorly and decides to kill his wife in revenge for something she didn’t do. Here is a line from Act V Scene 2 of the play: 

I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

Othello speaks these words to Desdemona after he’s killed her. He kisses her once more before he takes his own life. Othello notes that if he had never kissed her to begin with, they wouldn’t have ended up in this situation, and he wouldn’t have harmed her. 


Hamlet by William Shakespeare 

Hamlet is another great example of a Shakespearean tragedy filled with dilemmas. The main character struggles with different ways he might revenge his father’s death, take the throne, and more. As is often the case in Shakespeare’s plays, his actions do not lead to a good outcome. Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ monologue is a great example of how the character considers his life and its value. Here are the most famous lines: 

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.

Another great example comes from Ophelia’s perspective. She has to figure out whether or not Hamlet is true in his affections for her. Or, if, as other characters say, he’s just playing with her and will soon toss her aside. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poems. 


Why Do Writers Use Dilemmas? 

Writers use dilemmas so that they can present characters with adversity. They often get to the heart of a character’s morality, forcing them into a test of their beliefs. This allows readers to get an interesting insight into their minds and create tension in the narrative. If the dilemma is central to the plot, readers will likely spend many pages wondering what decision is going to be made and what the outcome of that decision will be. This is related to other literary terms such as foreshadowing, cliffhangers, and suspense. It can be interesting to read about a character’s evolution over the pages of a novel. Who they start out as may not be who they end up as after the consequences of the dilemma and their decision have come to pass. 


Related Literary Terms

  • Suspense:  the anticipation of an outcome, created through hints at what’s to come.
  • Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
  • Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
  • Concession: a literary device that occurs in argumentative writing in which one acknowledges another’s point.
  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.


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