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What You Are In The Dark / Literature

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Examples of What You Are in the Dark in literature.

  • Agent Pendergast finds the formula for an immortality elixir in The Cabinet of Curiosities. During the story, he agonizes over what to do with it when he finds it. Keep it to himself? Destroy it? Share it with humanity? In the end he realizes that no good could come of its existence and he burns it. However, in the unofficial epilogue, he's memorized the formula before doing so and goes to pick up the ingredients afterward.
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  • In All Creatures Great And Small, Dr. Herriot is called into to perform a post-mortem on a dead cow with the owner assuming it was killed by lightning, which means an insurance pay out. However, Dr. Herriot determines that the cow died of heart failure and is solicited by the owner, who is a disagreeable chap anyway, to report it falsely as a lightning kill. However, Herriot, after hearing the usual claim that no one will know, responds that he himself will know what he did and stands his ground. The grump then blows his temper and complains to Herriot's boss, Dr. Siegfried Farnon, about Herriot's refusal to cooperate and Siegfried backs up his employee all the way.
  • Rob of An Outcast in Another World has an option to kill a helpless enemy who tried to kill him. Doing so would grant him quite a few Levels and dramatically increase his strength. He declines, as he’s worried about losing his sense of self, not wanting to let the new world he's in change him. This ends up being the correct choice for many reasons.
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  • In The Belgariad, Durnik's influence on the growing Garion is exemplified by his explaining that he is making a small piece to be used on the bottom of a cart as good as it can be made — because he will see the cart every day and be reminded how good or poor a job he did.
  • Big Trouble: Played for Laughs when (due to Walter's company Cutting Corners) a detention center's automatic cell doors open during a lightning storm, "leaving it up to the prisoners to decide, on the honor system, whether they wished to remain in jail. As it happened, 132 prisoners, out of a possible 137, decided they did not wish to remain in jail.''
  • Books of Bayern: Selia of The Goose Girl offers Ani/Isi a very tempting offer — admit that she "lied", tell the king that Selia really is the Princess Anidori, and no one will ever have to know. Ani/Isi can even go back to her goose herd, rather than face death. This would lead to Ani/Isi's entire homeland being killed in an ambush. Ani/Isi knows that she can't convince anyone of the truth, knows that she will die unless she sacrifices her people. No one would know but Ani/Isi, Selia, and Selia's guards... and the Prince and his guard, who are listening in a hidden passageway. Ani/Isi doesn't know that, though, but declares she won't lie anyway. Cue Big Damn Heroes.
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  • Commented on in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the middle Brother, states that humans will become utter bastards if they relinquish their faith in "immortality" (that is, God and a final judgement). It fits the trope because the absence of God would mean nobody will see what you are in the dark, and hence - no human conscience.
  • Comes up in A Brother's Price. Jerin Whistler is being taken to be married; he's known to be a virgin and free of STDs, and men of his family are uncommonly virile; a family that was on its way to the cribs to try and get someone pregnant tries to pay his sisters to get him for one night with one of their daughters, who's also a virgin and clean. They reason that no one can tell if a man is a virgin, and this would benefit everyone. Eldest Whistler will have none of this. Somewhat subverted in that Captain Tern was there, if overlooked, and reported this incident, making the Whistlers look better.
  • Can You See Me?: In Ways to Be Me, Tally steals her classmate Carrie's ladybird necklace, which is a good luck charm. Tally knows she can get away with keeping it, and she thinks it's working for her, but even if nobody else found out, she'd know, so she confesses to the theft and gives the necklace back to Carrie.
  • John C. Wright's Chronicles of Chaos: In Fugitives of Chaos, Amelia weeps over a Western movie (High Noon by the description) and tells Vanity that she wants to be like the marshal, doing what is right regardless.
  • C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: This is the climax of the first book, The Magician's Nephew. Digory is tasked with recovering a magical apple for Aslan for unknown purposes, and told not to eat any of it before coming back. When he and Polly reach the garden where it grows, he easily pockets one, but smells it first and is overcome with a massive hunger and thirst. He's tempted to take a little bite, but stops when he notices a large bird watching, which reminds him of his promise (the narrator, meanwhile, comments that even if the bird hadn't been there, Digory probably wouldn't have done it). But things take a turn for the worse when Jadis appears, having stolen and eaten an apple for herself; Digory runs for Polly, who's waiting outside, but the witch still reaches him and starts describing the fruit's powerful magic and ability to make people into gods, and how Digory doesn't really owe Aslan anything, does he? Digory turns her down, but Jadis then brings up Digory's mother, who's dying of a rare, incurable disease — he could teleport back home using the magic ring that brought him to Narnia and give her the apple, curing her. Digory is sorely tempted as Jadis paints a picture of his mother being returned to health, free of any consequence... until Jadis points out that he could ensure no one would know by leaving Polly behind. This shocks Digory right out of any temptation to do as Jadis says, as it would never even have occurred to him to abandon Polly.
    • There's also the fact that Polly had a magic ring of her own and could get home perfectly well without Digory. The Witch doesn't know that, but Digory does and it's that slip-up which makes him realize how "false and hollow" everything Jadis said was. He brilliantly shuts her down by asking why in creation she suddenly cares so much about his mother, who she's never even met. Aslan thus rewards Digory with both the knowledge that his choice has kept Narnia peaceful and idyllic, and a magic apple of his own that will cure his mother after all.
  • Taran faces a moment of this in the fourth book of The Chronicles of Prydain when Craddoc, who he believes to be his father, falls down a ledge. When Taran believes that Craddoc is dead, he realizes that he no longer has any sort of familial obligation to remain as a shepherd on Craddoc's rundown farm and can instead pursue the woman he loves. However, he quickly realizes that Craddoc is still alive. Even then, though, he is so far away that Taran knows he could leave him and no one would think any worse of him. When he realizes what he is thinking of doing, he cries out, "What man am I!" and tries to save him.
  • Circleverse: Young Sandry in Daja's Book is so considerate and scrupulous that when she accidentally burns an odd pattern into someone's jacket while he's out, she stays around until he comes back to point out the damage, take responsibility, and offer to replace it despite the difficulty. All the while, one of her friends is urgently insisting that she go take a message somewhere, and another is thinking she's daft and should just leave the jacket so she won't get in trouble.
  • In the first book of Harry Turtledove's Alternate History Colonization series, a sequel to the earlier Worldwar series, Vyacheslav Molotov, General Secretary of the Communist Party, is kidnapped and sent to the gulag by Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the NKVD, as part of Beria's attempted coup to seize control of the Soviet Union. Molotov is rescued by Georgy Zhukov, Beria's rival and commander of the Red Army, after Zhukov survived his own attempted assassination and thwarted the coup. In the aftermath, with Beria already having delivered false announcements that Molotov had voluntarily retired and with many senior Communist officials already dead, Molotov is worried that Zhukov could easily just execute him and seize power for himself now that Beria had been dealt with. Zhukov seems to consider this for a moment, but in the end, apparently surprising even himself, he allows Molotov to remain as General Secretary and head of the Soviet Union. Zhukov is not above extorting more funding for the Red Army afterward and "suggesting" the course of political actions, but he remains loyal to Molotov for the duration of his rule. This is likely a reference to the Real Life Zhukov's admission that he was much better dealing with military matters than with politics.
  • In the Conan the Barbarian story The Servants of Bit Yakin, the barbarian badboy faces a classic Friend or Idol Decision between the Girl of the Week, and the utterly priceless jewels he spent the entire story looking for. Awesomely, Conan doesn't for a moment consider dropping Muriela for the treasure (or even look at it) and immediately saves her instead.
  • In Creation Man And The Messiah, Jesus states that this is the essence of truth: "Knowledge of your own self", later interpreted like this: "Truth is what you know about yourself when you are alone". This definition of self-conscience fits the trope.
  • A pretty dark variation occurs in A Cry in the Night. Erich - not realizing Jenny is watching - coldly shoots Joe's puppy after he gets loose. When Jenny starts screaming for him to stop, thus alerting him to her presence, he claims that he only shot the dog because he believed it was a potentially dangerous stray and he didn't know it was Joe's pet. He makes a big show of apologizing to Joe and buys him a new puppy, but Jenny gets the feeling he only did this because she witnessed him shooting the dog and that he otherwise might've let Joe believe his dog went 'missing', which is indicated to be what happened to another of Joe's dogs. This incident is one of several that causes Jenny to realize Erich is not as benevolent as he presents himself.
  • Iain M. Banks' The Culture: In The Player of Games, the protagonist master game-player is pressed into a multi-year epic journey across the galaxy that is instrumental in the downfall of an empire, ultimately because he accepted a drone's help to cheat in a meaningless exhibition match. And it was not even in order to win, but just to convert a certain victory into a record-breaking one.
    • It is later revealed that the protagonist was set up from the get-go. The drone who offered him the temptation to cheat was an agent of Special Circumstances — the same people who the protagonist had refused an earlier invitation to come work for. So they sent someone to help him cheat, then record him cheating, and then blackmail him... not into coming to work for Special Circumstances, but into doing the drone a favor that he could only accomplish by first going back and accepting SC's recruitment offer, which was "conveniently" still open. Gurgeh, until the end of his life, never figures out that the two events were related.
  • At one point in A Deadly Education, we see Galadriel ("It's El") Higgins spot a mawmouth on its way to the Freshman Dorms when she is cutting through the library stacks. These are things that take teams of experienced wizards months of preperation and days of non-stop casting to have a hope of killing, and those they consume neither lose consciousness nor stop being digested. If she kept going, perhaps pitching in against the incursion of lesser mals alongside the Enclave kids, no one would know. If she tried to spread a warning, even an anti-social creep like her would be hailed as a hero. Heading further into the dark after that thing? Madness, especially as pouring enough death magic into it to put its victims out of their misery and destroy it from within before it gets through her shields is not the sorts of thing that can be tested.
  • Terry Pratchett uses this several times in Discworld:
    • In Small Gods, Brutha contemplates leading Vorbis into a trap in the labyrinth. He thinks: "Who would ever know? I would" and doesn't do it. Later, when Brutha carries a comatose Vorbis through the desert, he's In The Dark the entire time. The Great God Om keeps reminding him of this, without success. And for a third time, the book ends with Brutha dying of old age at over a hundred - only to find Vorbis's spirit has never moved on. Despite Death himself pointing out with a monster Vorbis was, and the total lack of witnesses, Brutha leads Vorbis "across the desert" once more.
    • Commander Sam Vimes of the Watch, as a deconstruction of the Cowboy Cop, has a couple of examples of this. At the end of Night Watch Discworld he faced a Serial Killer in a deserted graveyard, and no one save Vimes himself would have known (or cared) if he had simply killed Carcer instead of trying to arrest him properly. This is a good part of the plot in Thud! where we see that Vimes has an "internal watchman" that stops him from abusing his power, in response to the question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This comes up again in Snuff: Willikins believes that Vimes would uphold the law even against his own desire for extrajudicial justice, but unlike Vimes, Willikins himself is perfectly willing to murder Stratford rather than try to bring him to formal justice for his crimes. Meanwhile, Vimes believes that if he was ever truly "in the dark" he would likely cross the line while pursuing psychopaths like Stratford. Therefore, he goes to great lengths to ensure that he is always being watched, even if the watcher is only in his head.
    • Esmerelda Weatherwax. She's not "gone to the bad" only because she has Esmerelda Weatherwax watching over her shoulder the whole time.
    • And, in another sense, Carrot. He's had a couple moments like this, most notably at the end of Men at Arms AND HE ALWAYS MAKES THE RIGHT CHOICE. Because he truly IS a hero.
  • In The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden has had his fair share of these moments, usually when faced with Black Magic.
    • It's a recurring theme in Changes, with several characters, even Mac, warning Harry that the latest crisis will show Harry who he really is. It showed that Harry is capable of being a true monster, if the stakes are high enough. Including when Harry is given the choice to kill a man and gain the power to save his daughter... and goes through with it.
    • The next book shows Harry does feel remorse when he realises the true consequences of his actions. It turns out he was manipulated by a Fallen Angel with seven simple but powerful words into making the choice, but the realisation, along with Mab's speech about how she now controls him, almost convinces him that he'll stay a monster forever. But the scales must be balanced. Then Uriel uses his seven whispered words.
  • In Ernie's Little Lie, a Sesame Street story, Ernie could easily pretend that he painted the tiger painting his cousin sent him, but not only does he immediately decide that that would be wrong, when Bert mistakes the painting for one Ernie did, Ernie goes all the way to the painting competition to confess the truth.
  • In a tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the anti-heroic duo briefly go into semi-retirement. Fafhrd the Barbarian becomes the acolyte of the Church of Issek of the Jug, a faith that had one priest, no other followers, and was maybe two days away from failing entirely. Fafhrd's reason? He saw the priest pat a deaf-blind-and-dumb child on the head while (as far as the priest knew) no one was looking. The priest's action is described as possibly being unique in that world's history.
  • In the Dale Brown novel Fatal Terrain, Patrick McLanahan warns his group that due to the classified nature of their mission, even if they succeed no one will congratulate them, and at worst they will be condemned by their own side. On the other hand, if they choose to back down and face trial in a federal court, it is likely that they will come out in a position to maintain Sky Masters, Inc. None of his group flinch from it.
  • The Firm by John Grisham does this in a more conventional way, with the main character tempted to adultery. Unusually, he gives in, but doing so turns out to be a very bad idea.
  • The Generals President: General Thomas Cromwell is brought to the White House during the middle of a national emergency and told that the beleaguered president is ready to resign as soon as he appoints a new vice-president. He wants Cromwell to be that vice-president. Cromwell is told that new legislation will allow the president swear in Cromwell as Vice-President without the approval of Congress and will also give him unrestricted powers to solve the financial crisis. Cromwell has the opportunity to seize all of that power with nothing standing in his way. Instead, he emphatically refuses and sets out to find someone better qualified for the job.
    Cromwell: My first name is Thomas, for Christsake, not Oliver.
  • The Glass Inferno, one of two novels which inspired The Towering Inferno, features several cases of this, during a skyscraper fire.
    • Ian Douglas sets fire to his own failing business for the insurance money only to change his mind when he realizes the effect this will have on his partner/boyfriend, hurrying to put out the fire even though the damage is already done and his arson will likely be discovered. In the process of putting out the fire he set, he discovers a second fire (set well before he set his, and much larger). He realizes that it will burn down his business anyway, as well as the evidence of his attempted fraud, but is far more concerned with the realization that the fire will pose a danger to everyone else in the building and races to sound the alarm. He also plans to confess what he did to his partner (although not to the police) in the event that he survives the blaze, even though he could easily get away with remaining silent about it.
    • John Bigelow, upon realizing that the building is on fire, spends a brief amount of time trying to wake up his mistress (whose passed out drunk) before abandoning her to the fire and attempting to flee, while also bothering to take his prized trophy with him.
    • Will Shevelson, a construction manager, is the only person with an accurate set of the final blueprints for the building after Leroux, the owner, ordered a lot of safety cuts (which Shevelson was fired for protesting against). Embittered, when Shevelson arrives at the building with the intent of forcing Leroux to pay him for the blueprints in order to fight the fire better and minimize the PR damage. Once he actually arrives, Leroux is not on the scene (being afraid to face the reporters), and upon seeing how bad the fire is, Shevelson instantly gives the authorities on the scene his blueprints anyway, for no price, when they never would have known he had them if he hadn't spoken.
    • Lex Hughes, an accountant in the building, is always obsessed with the security camera watching him work at the money drawers. When the fire causes the camera to go dead, he briefly starts to put all of the money in a fireproof safe, thinking proudly about doing his job even when no one is watching, before realizing that with no one watching, he could easily take that money instead and let everyone think it burned up in the fire, a temptation he quickly succumbs to.
    • Lisoette Mueller, upon realizing that a deaf-mute family a few floors below would likely have failed to receive the evacuation warnings, instantly, and without a word to anyone else, abandons her place in line for the building's only safe elevator to hurry down and get them out.
  • A defining character trait of several Harry Potter characters:
    • In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry finds himself having to rescue Ron Weasley from the merpeople under the Black Lake as part of the Second Task of the Triwizard Tournament. Rather than simply rescue his own hostage and return, guaranteeing himself a high score, he stays behind to make sure everyone is rescued, including rescuing both Ron and Gabrielle Delacour after Hermione Granger and Cho Chang are safely rescued, resulting in him returning last. He did not recognize that this was all planned, and thus no one was actually in any danger, though. His decision is rewarded by the tournament judges for showing great moral fiber.
    • Hermione steals food multiple times while invisible to keep the group alive in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but always takes the time to ensure the shopkeeper is compensated in some way.
  • This is one of the major themes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Imperialists in Africa know that no other Europeans can see them, so they feel they are free to do whatever they want. Only Marlow, it seems, manages to retain his humanity — and he admits that he can feel himself becoming "scientifically interesting".
  • Honor Harrington:
    • In the novel In Enemy Hands, Honor struggles with the desire to give in to despair during her captivity in State Sec hands, but manages to convince herself to refuse, believing that it is her duty to herself.
    • Albrecht Detweiler is unknown to the galaxy at large, his enemies, and even most of his allies. His plans will not come to fruition until long after he is dead, at which point he will still be unknown as figureheads make all the public moves. However, despite the fact that he will never even be acknowledged as existing, he follows through on his plans because he believes they are the right thing to do. Too bad he is the villain.
  • In one Horatio Hornblower short story, Hornblower is put in charge of an Irish rebel to be hanged, who agrees not to make a speech if Hornblower will deliver his seachest to his widow. After it's done, Hornblower decides to poke around inside and discovers that the lid is a puzzle box full of rebel pamphlets, a list of names, and a wad of likely Counterfeit Cash, no doubt destined for some hideout. Hornblower considers whether to reveal his discovery, which took a great deal of cleverness and would probably raise his standing. On the other hand, it would wreck the career of the man who searched the rebel's effects in the first place. Hornblower quietly has the chest dumped overboard.
  • In the Hurog duology, there are several of those. Ward's father fails this test of character - he once, while drunk, admits to Ward that he killed his father and disguised it as accident when they were out hunting, without witnesses. Ward, on the other hand, is "in the dark" in the sense of the word that most people around him are less moral than he is - when two nobles ask that a slave that fled to Hurog be returned to them, Ward is the only one who refuses. He briefly considers sparing himself the hassle (as the nobles will be very angry, and they're powerful) but then remembers his own, inherited, immortal slave Oreg, who he knows is severely traumatized, and just can't bring himself to turn the slave in.
  • Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality: In On a Pale Horse, Luna is illegally destined by Satan to premature death on a certain day, at a time when her soul is weighted with so much evil that she's doomed to Hell upon her death. Nonetheless, knowing her fate, she goes to put her death to the best use she can find, making a Heroic Sacrifice to trade places with a virgin scheduled to be sacrificed to an endangered dragon, then allowing herself to die rather than damage the dragon's egg to save herself. The thing is, all this good pushes her soul into neutral, which means that Death is called to judge her soul personally, which he refuses to do, for various reasons up to and including having fallen in love with her. All of which is exactly as Fate planned.
  • Happens twice in In the Keep of Time, from different points of view among the children. When Andrew goes back to get the key from the door, while the others are waiting in Anna's cottage, he is strongly tempted to escape back to the present — and the key even starts to turn in the door, before he wrenches it free and hides it instead. This act, he thinks, "took more courage than all the adventures and battles which were to follow". Later, when he finally returns from the Battle of Roxburgh, ready to go home, he cannot find the key, Elinor, or Ian, and assumes they left without him. When he is reunited with them again, he learns they were indeed tempted to do so, but couldn't find the key either. Whether they too could have resisted if they had found it will never be known.
  • Jane Eyre refuses to live with her lover outside the bonds of matrimony though nobody would know, or care if they did, because she would know and she cares for her personal integrity even if nobody else does.
  • John Putnam Thatcher: This plays a major role in the Back Story of By Hook or by Crook. Shortly before World War II Haig Parajian assumed the identity of his recently deceased brother Paul to save their business from going under (everything was in Paul's name). The rest of their family was trapped in Europe by the war and then spent years living in extreme poverty in a refugee camp. He could have easily left them for dead. Doing so would have reduced the risk that they'd recognize him as their uncle and not their father. Abandoning them would have also ensured that if his deception failed, the children, as Paul's legal heirs, would never take away the millions of dollars Haig made from his deception. Instead, Haig tracked them down at no small expense and then spent the next 30 years raising them as a loving father. His youngest nephew Greg (who feels that Haig truly became Paul) returns the favor in the denouement of the novel, destroying evidence of Haig's true identity when he could have used it to sue Haig's wife and (actual) son for their share of the family fortune.
    Greg Parajian: I don't know how I'd face up to murder, but I'm sure of one thing. If I'd been in his shoes, I would have done exactly what Paul did in 1939. And I can only hope to God that I'd have acted the same in 1948.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
    • In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is tempted to run away and leave Sam, Pippin, and Merry to die at the hands of the barrowwights because he could get away alive. He does not reflect on how no one else would know; then, he doesn't leave, either.
    • Sam could have left Frodo to die at the end of The Two Towers and kept the Ring for himself. Instead he is the only mortal to ever give up the Ring willingly and without outside coercion.
    • Also happened with Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit, when Bilbo (invisible from the Ring) needs to get past Gollum, who had already made it clear that he wanted to eat him. Bilbo reflects that he could easily kill the defenceless and unprepared Gollum with his sword and no one would ever know, but pity stays his hand — which is ultimately responsible for the resolution of The Lord of the Rings.
    • Also in The Hobbit, after Bilbo escapes from Gollum, he thinks for a minute that the dwarves are still prisoners of the goblins. He briefly considers going on without them, but then changes his mind, and decides to go back to the "horrible tunnels" to look for them. Fortunately, he finds out the next minute he doesn't have to, because he overhears Balin on lookout.
  • In the Dick Francis book Knockdown, the Big Bad is knocked unconscious in a fight with the narrator and lies helpless. The narrator has a perfect opportunity to kill the man who has tried to ruin his livelihood and just killed his brother, and can easily make it look like he inflicted the fatal blow in self-defense during the struggle. Instead, he restrains the villain, calls the police, and then cries as the Bittersweet Ending sets in for him.
  • In The Martian, the Chinese scientists of CNSA admit that if they didn't help, no one would ever know that they could have helped. They chose to help.
  • This is the whole point, even the unspoken Aesop, of Les Misérables. Valjean could easily let another man rot in jail in his place, freeing him from worry about Javert forever, and no one would ever know. But he'll know, and God will know, so he stops the execution and reveals himself, forcing him to disrupt his now peaceful and productive life to go back on the run from the law.
    • Played much more darkly in Victor Hugo's other famous novel, Notre Dame de Paris. Esmeralda is about to be hanged for the murder of Phoebus. Phoebus, quite alive, is standing in the crowd and nobody recognizes him. Revealing that he's still alive would put him in no real legal trouble at all. He lets them hang her.
  • In Teresa Frohock's Miserere: An Autumn Tale, Caleb offers to go in after Lucien. No one would know that Rachael wasn't there for the arrest. She refuses; she would know.
  • Subverted in Vonnegut's Mother Night. The moral of the story can be summed up as: you are who you pretend to be. At one point a Nazi informs the main character, who was working as a propagandist but was secretly passing information back to the Allies, that the Nazi knew the hero was a spy all along. The Nazi didn't care, though, because the hero's words were the only things that convinced him that the Nazis were right, and his country hadn't gone insane. Even if the hero was on the Allies' side, he'd helped the Nazis far more than he had ever helped them.
  • In the Harry Turledove short story "Must and Shall," a government agency with some Holier Than Thou tendencies is repulsed about having to meet a contact in a strip club. Nonetheless, when the only other people around are sex workers and drunken pro-Confederates, he finds his moral rectitude tested when he gropes one of the dancers.
    Unlike the others in the room, he'd had to be here. He hadn't had to grab her, though. Sometimes, facetiously, you called a place like this educational. He'd learned something, all right, and rather wished he hadn't.
  • One part in The Name of the Wind has Kvothe and his almost love interest Denna alone, at night, curled up to each other for warmth. Denna had eaten some denner resin (a rather potent drug) and Kvothe knew she wouldn't remember a thing that had happened while she was high on it in the morning. He was tempted, once or twice, to rape her, but resisted, because he would know, even if she wouldn't.
  • Happens two times to Íñigo Balboa, the sidekick of Capitán Alatriste in the novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte: Once in "Purity of Blood" (faced with surrender or attack, as 13-years old boy chooses to attack with a dagger the troops of the Inquisition, including an expert assassin) and once in "The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet" (a trap is prepared for him and Alatriste under the supposition that Íñigo would never dare not to ask him for support - he does). In both cases the fact of "showing the real character even with no possibility of glory" is indicated (in the first case by the narrator, in the second by Alatriste who actually arrives on time).
  • Such a situation appears for the main character in the sequel to One Fat Summer. When the outdoor theater at Camp Mohawk is burned down, Bobby Marks realizes the culprit is one of the campers he's been looking after rather than local bad boy, and former antagonist, Willy Rumson. The boy's father, who has pull with the camp, attempts to convince Bobby to let Willy, whom Marks has no reason to protect, take the fall, even offering to make sure Bobby has a job with the camp next year. Ultimately Bobby chooses to reveal what he knows, less for Willy's sake and more for the sake of the unbalanced camper.
  • The Princess Diaries:
    • Mia's ancestor Amelie was a princess for twelve days during the plague, where she was forced to take the throne after all the other heirs except her Evil Uncle were killed. She didn't tell anyone she had contracted the fatal disease, while enacting life-saving measures, and hid one final proclamation in her painting to protect Genovia from said uncle.
    • A villainous example: Mia and Lilly have fought about a lot of things, but what ends their friendship is Lilly's reveal that after Mia broke up with Michael and went on a platonic date with Lilly's ex, Lilly created a hate site about her best friend. It is two years before she takes the site down, and even then Michael has to read her the riot act offscreen for being so cruel to Mia. In addition, as Tina points out, it's grounds of expulsion for Lilly, who already has a track record for being a rebel at the school. After making this loud confession and getting a lecture from her brother, Lilly feels really guilty and had a Heel Realization, but couldn't figure out how to apologize since what she did was truly heinous, especially since if she had just told Mia why J.P. had broken up with her then Mia would have realized J.P. was using them.
  • Realm of the Elderlings: The Rain Wild Chronicles sets up one heck of a temptation for someone who isn't that heroic to begin with. Sedric Melder ends up joining an expedition along the river to take a group of disabled dragons to search for an ancient city from their ancestral memories. He doesn't like being there at all, but he plans to secretly snatch a few dragon parts and make a fortune selling them when he goes back. He goes so far as to draw some blood from a dim-witted dragon that appears to be dying — but not only does she survive, but this also creates a telepathic bond between him and her. He hates the uncontrolled link and her uncomprehending intrusion into his thoughts, and thinks he would be happier if she did die, but he can't help starting to feel some sympathy from feeling her emotions, and she also regards him as her companion. Later, in Dragon Haven, a huge flood coming along the river scatters the expedition. Sedric wakes up being carried in the water by "his" dragon with no reachable shore in sight, and all the rest of the expedition dead for all he knows. When they have reached a place where he can stay out of the water atop some trees, and he's unsuccessfully trying to get her some support as well before she tires out and drowns, they encounter Jess, who has the same kind of plans as Sedric about getting rich, except he's been up for killing and butchering a dragon from the start. He essentially offers Sedric this choice: help kill the dragon that's probably going to die anyway, and share the profits (also the boat he has, and the food), or, well, try to stand in the way of someone who will just kill you if you do.
  • The Red Box: Drunken Upper-Class Twit Dudley Frost had at least one moment of self-awareness and decency in a past situation when he didn't have to. Despite the terms of his brother's will giving him the freedom to plunder his niece's future inheritance, he turned over his duties as executor of the estate to a trusted and capable lawyer. Dudley knew he wouldn't be able to resist temptation and wanted her to have her rightful inheritance when she came of age.
  • In The Scholomance, the protagonist El Higgins has two of these moments:
    • When the Starter Villain ambushes and stabs El, she knows that she could easily defeat him by giving in and using Black Magic, but can't bring herself to do so even in the face of death. Not only does it definitively show her that she's a better person than she gives herself credit for, but it also earns her Orion's complete trust when he rescues her.
    • When El sees a nigh-invulnerable monster about to eat a dorm's worth of helpless students, she goes in alone to fight it — crying the whole time, because she fully expects it to be a Senseless Sacrifice that nobody will even know about. Instead, she destroys it.
  • In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain has to deal with this twice, once when the wife of Sir Bercilak de Haudesert is trying to seduce him, and again when a servant who takes him to the home of the titular Green Knight offers to keep silent if Gawain runs away from his almost certain death.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Jaime Lannister fills this trope, particularly due to being villified afterwards and known as "The Kingslayer" for his Bodyguard Betrayal of King Aerys. It also slightly deconstructs the trope, as in the backstory, Jaime was sworn to protect Aerys, but after fighting and losing a long rebellion, and as the rebels marched into his capital, "Mad King Aerys" planned to burn the entire city down with wildfire. He could just let him do it, or he could kill him, becoming an oathbreaker and saving thousands of lives, but he will only be known as Kingslayer, and no one will know why he did it, not even the rebels he literally surrenders the throne to.
    • Played with, in the sense that Jaime should really not have allowed the reason for his action to remain in the dark. The wildfire caches are still hidden all over the city, and wildfire is infamous for being dangerously unstable and almost supernaturally destructive in nature. In fact, many fans believe that these caches will go up in a green apocalypse, once a certain young dragonrider appears to reclaim her birthright...
    • Theon Greyjoy goes to great lengths to save "Arya Stark", actually Jeyne Poole. He is the only member of the rescue party aware of Jeyne's actual identity and therefore lack of political value. This is despite a year of torture and Brainwashing, and being aware the best reward he can hope for is a less torturous death.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • The Approaching Storm: When the boastful thief turned Sixth Ranger Tooqui realizes his companions have been captured or killed, he reflects that he can simply flee back home without endangering himself. He will even have a perfectly true story to tell about the adventure he’s just had. Ultimately, he chooses to go back and see if he can help them.
    • Dark Rendezvous has a certain Jedi, Jai Maruk, dueling Asajj Ventress. He realizes that she's better than he is, and that she will inevitably kill him. But rather than succumb to despair and fall to the Dark Side, he remains in the Light, and dies smiling.
    • In one of the New Jedi Order books, Wedge Antilles leaves the command station where he'd been directing a crucial battle, only to find that his shuttle had been destroyed. The only craft available is an X-Wing with damaged comms and no astromech. After taking off in it, he finds a civilian transport under attack by an enemy squadron, and bravely annihilates them by himself, but loses his shields in the process. When a second squadron heads towards them, he has a choice: if he stays to fight the squadron, he will almost certainly die, and, as he is in an extra fighter that was assigned to no one and he can't comm anyone to tell them where he is, his family and friends will never learn what became of him. He will die alone and unnamed. Or, he could abandon the transport, having already fought valiantly to save it. No one could blame him for retreating in the face of certain death after having already given his all. Wedge turns to face the approaching squadron head on. His specific answer is "I'll know"; he knows himself well enough that if he leaves the transport behind, it'll only give him enough time to get his affairs in order before he finds some other way to die. Because it's Wedge, the best damn X-Wing pilot in history, he's got Plot Armor in effect, and he gets rescued by members of the X-Wings squadron who noticed his fighter was still active.
    • Played with in X-Wing: Wraith Squadron. When Wedge and Wraith Squadron capture a band of pirates, he asks them about their affiliation with Warlord Zsinj. The pirates refuse to talk, claiming that they're settlers in an unclaimed system, so there are no laws to govern their actions. Wedge counters by pointing out that if there really weren't any laws, then he and his men could easily murder all of the pirates and nobody would ever know. Suffice to say, the pirates decide to talk.
    • In Michael A. Stackpole's I, Jedi, Corran Horn gives a whole litany of examples from his past, while trying to convince Luke that rather than being ignorant of temptation, he does, in fact, know the lure of the dark side. Two of them are cases where he could have shot someone and had it explained as "resisting arrest", one of those being when he caught the one responsible for killing his father (he says he could've marched Bossk into the lobby of One CorSec Plaza and shot him in the head and nobody on the force would've given it a second thought). The other example:
      Corran: I've walked into a warehouse and arrested a spicelord in his office. He opened a case and it had over a million credits in it. A million — more money than I'll ever see in my lifetime. It was mine, he said, if I'd just take it and walk away. No one would ever know. But I'd know, and I didn't do it.
    • Later in the novel, though, Corran faces a form of Scarpia Ultimatum, realizes that his pride has pushed him to the point that he "doesn't recognize himself in the mirror anymore", and has to trace back and find himself again...
  • The Scholomance: Liesel casts a spell to knock El unconscious and leave her to be eaten by mal after El gets the spot in the New York enclave Liesel is after, but she quickly regrets this and goes back to save El's life.
    Knowing she was furious enough to commit murder but also couldn't go through with in in the end gave me a rather fellow feeling for her.
  • In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll wonders if Mr. Hyde is truly a different person, or just him making the wrong choice when confronted with this trope.
  • In The Door into Sunset, the last volume of Diane Duane's The Tale of the Five series, the main character Freelorn is confronted with Cillmod, his half-brother and the man who usurped his throne (and this is a Fisher King scenario, so that's doubly bad). They are in an absolutely dark, isolated place. Cillmod has just attacked him. 'Lorn could kill him, and no one would ever, ever know. If they did, who's going to argue with the king about it afterward? In a remarkably astute move, Freelorn spares Cillmod's life and puts him in a position of high authority in his kingdom (as the latter wasn't actually evil at all, just manipulated. Cillmod legitimately wanted to try and rule as a good king, but that whole aforementioned Fisher King thing was pretty set in stone, and he didn't have a strong enough bloodline).
  • The Visible Man is about a man who uses an invisibility suit to observe people when they're alone, believing that that's when people are most themselves.
  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga:
    • In Memory, Miles Vorkosigan is asked why he did not accept a bribe, and part of the question is that it was almost certain that no one would have realized it. Miles modestly disclaims it on the grounds three would have known: him, the man who offered it, and the man he would have sacrificed by taking it. Only when it is pointed out that he would have outlived them does he admit that accepting the offer would have changed him irrevocably.
      Miles: The one thing you can't trade for your heart's desire is your heart.
    • Later, in A Civil Campaign, Miles's father tells him the difference between reputation and honour: "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honour is what you know about yourself."
      • In Miles's father's case, Count Aral knows this on multiple sides. His long and dark history includes periods of alcoholism and a suicidal death wish due to issues with his sexuality, culminating with his first wife's suicide which he was widely believed to have caused. He got into a series of duels, making political enemies. His bad reputation followed him to Komarr, where he strangled an underling who committed a war crime against orders. Aral's bad reputation and rank made many believe that strangling was a cover-up such that Aral was known as the Butcher of Komarr. However, later in the Escobarian War, Aral joined with Emperor Ezar's plan to assassinate Prince Serg, and ended up being considered the Hero of Escobar. Aral is disgusted with the redeemed reputation he has as the purpose of the entire war and thousands of deaths was just to murder Prince Serg. Thus, Aral views his disreputable actions in the Komarr war as honorable and takes pride with them, while his reputable actions in the Escobar war he views with disgust.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • In Graham McNeill's Ultramarines novel Dead Sky Black Sun, Pasanius and Uriel are in the Eye of Terror, and Pasanius suggests that not stealing a treasure from a daemon lord might be better. Uriel cites a philosopher who asked whether, if a stalagmite fell with no one to hear, it would make a sound, and says he understands it now: they will do the honorable thing, knowing that no one is likely to ever know.
    • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Sabbat Martyr, one squad of Ghosts returns too late and sees the gates closing on them. Their leader gives the order to fight.
      Nineteenth [Platoon] lasted seventeen minutes from the time the gates closed. They accounted for one-hundred and eighty nine enemy casualties. No one witnessed their heroism.
    • In Black Legion by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, when Khayon is in a psyker-coma, Telemachon spends long hours standing in his room with a sword and considering killing the sorcerer while he's defenseless. In the end, he doesn't, although Khayon believes it's more due to the fact that if anything happened to him, Gyre and Nefertari would rip Telemachon to shreds, regardless of evidence.
    • In Andy Hoare's Commissar, an appropriately named character, Solomon, the Imperial Guardsman turned convict turned Indentured Imperial Guardsman, is traversing a tunnel that is periodically flooding. He considers going back to tell the titular Commissar, Flint, that the path is not traversable. However, he determines that his responsibility to his home planet, Jopall, is too great and further reasons that only the Emperor is watching him now and that he shouldn't let him down as a Jopallis.
    • In Creator//James Swallow's Black Tide, the final volume of his Blood Angels quartet, Rafen bids goodbye to his opposite number from the Flesh Tearers' chapter, Sergeant Gorn. Rafen points out that, during the Final Battle with the Big Bad, Gorn could have pushed Rafen off the ledge, defeated the villain, and taken the prize and all the glory for himself, and no one would have known. Gorn nods to a statute of their progenitor, Sanguinius, and says, "he was watching."
  • In Glen Duncan's Weathercock, this is pretty much the theme of the book, along with its climax: Dominic, the protagonist, is given the chance to do what he's always struggled with the desire for - to torture someone to death. He doesn't do it. It is not about what he wants to do; as he notes, it is a matter of what he is and is not capable of.
  • The War of the Worlds: Done very subtly with the HMS Thunder Child. When the Martians attack during the evacuation, the Thunder Child is out to sea. The Martians are paying it no mind (it's implied that they don't properly understand warships), and it could easily wait out the attack, or even retreat to join the rest of the Royal Navy, and any witnesses would have been lost in the Martian attack. But it's all that lies between the Martians and the refugee shipping, so, despite being a defunct ship with no business fighting one tripod, let alone three, it charges forward and engages them. In the battle, it is lost with all hands, taking two of the tripods with it, but this allows the refugees to escape.
  • The Witchlands:
    • Merik has three such moments in quick succession.
      • After Cam gives him a "The Reason You Suck" Speech and leaves him, he realizes he's free to pursue Vivia's death like he wanted to and no one can stop him, but instead chooses to consider what Cam's told him.
      • He has a choice of either staying in hiding and learning valuable information, or intervening to save Cam (who doesn't know he's there), and chooses the latter.
      • Finally, when they're hanging high in the air, out of everyone's earshot, Kullen gives him his We Can Rule Together spiel and points out that all Merik has to do to kill Vivia is to do nothing for a few more seconds. Merik chooses to save her instead.
    • Iseult has this moment in the climax of the second book, when she realizes that she can either keep searching for Safi like she did for all of the novel, or come back and save Aeduan. As an added bonus, Aeduan doesn't expect her to return, and Safi doesn't even know Iseult's travelling in a company. She comes back for him.
  • The Wonderful Adventures of Nils: In order to escape his curse, Nils has to find someone who'd be willing to become a tomte in his stead. He finally encounters a volunteer - a student who landed into a terrible predicament (he accidentally scattered the manuscript of his friend's brilliant novel across the city) and would welcome any escape, even such a bizarre one. But Nils refuses to take advantage of his distress and instead helps him recover the manuscript.
  • In Tom Holt's Ye Gods!, when Jason meets the old woman, she insists on their going through the whole spiel. When he says no one would know if they didn't, she says, "I will."
  • The Wheel of Time: In A Memory of Light, the last book of the series, Logain has two options during the Last Battle: look for Demandred's discarded sa'angreal to gain more power for himself after the battle, or lead his soldiers to save hundreds of Caemlynian refugees. Guess which one he takes. A bit of Bookends here, in both his first and last scenes in the series, the people of Caemlyn look upon him in awe. In the Eye of the World, he's a dangerous False Dragon, but in A Memory of Light, he's their savior.
  • Wonder Woman: Warbringer: The Oracle offers to stay quiet and just let Alia die, which would restore the balance in Themiscyria, prevent Diana from facing the consequences of breaking the law by bringing Alia there, and stop the war that Alia is foretold to bring. Diana chooses the difficult path of trying to save Alia, Themiscyria, and the world.