An Analysis/Summary of Tewfik Al-Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach (1973)

Tewfik Al-Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach is a farce that demonstrates the Theatre of the Absurd based on the existentialist philosophy which sees human life mostly as a meaningless struggle that only ends at death. A farce is a type of drama in the comic mode in which the actions are unbelievable and the characters behave in unrealistic and funny manner. Fate of a Cockroach is organised in three Acts. Act One is entitled ‘The Cockroach as King’, Act Two is entitled ‘The Cockroach’s Struggle’ while Act Three is entitled ‘The Fate of the Cockroach’.

In Act One, the setting is such that the cockroaches perceive themselves to be in a spacious courtyard, but in reality, they are on the bathroom floor in a house occupied by a couple – Adil and Samia. It is night, but the cockroaches see it as day time. King Cockroach is calling on the Queen Cockroach to wake up, as the day is dawning. The Queen insists on sleeping till the blinding light of day has disappeared. This causes a quarrel between them, with the King calling the Queen lazy and the Queen badmouthing the King and trying to assert her independence.

The theme of gender equality is depicted in the quarrel between King and Queen Cockroaches. The King uses his long whiskers to assert his superiority over the Queen. The Queen says that she feeds herself, not the King, so she is free to do as she likes. She wins the argument but the King says she has to set the right example for the community of cockroaches who look up to her by waking up early to work.

Sarcasm is an important dramatic technique in the text. Most of the remarks made by the Queen are sarcastic and are meant to hurt the King’s feeling or deflate his ego. For instance, the Queen mocks the King on his claim of having a court and authority. Apparently, the Queen thinks the King does not have subjects except the Minister, the Priest and the learned Savant.

The existential problem that plagues the cockroaches is identified in the conversation between King and Queen. The cockroaches fear the ants because they attack helpless and dead cockroaches. Cockroaches fear falling on their back because it renders them helpless. According to the Queen, falling on her back would be tragic ‘. . . and woe to me should I fall on my back, for I would quickly become a prey to the armies of ants’. There is simile in the expression ‘The problem of the ant is as old as time’. This is the King’s response to the Queen when she mocks the King for not being able to solve the problem of the ant.

The King goes on to explain how he made himself King by challenging the other cockroaches to measure their whiskers with his so that the person with the longest whiskers would become King. The other cockroaches conceded the position of King to the King Cockroach without a contest on the condition that his being King would not demand anything from them. The King’s wife became Queen because he was loved by the King, the Minister was preferred for the position because he likes ‘proposing disconcerting problems and producing unpleasant news’. The Savant earns his name and place because he always has strange information about ‘things that have no existence other than in his own head’. It should be noted that an important principle in existentialism is that existence precedes essence. What this means for each of the characters in the play is that their roles were not predetermined but are created by their actions and choices in life.

There is an instance of invective or verbal abuse when the King calls the Queen stupid in the course of their argument. When they observe the approach of the Minister, both King and Queen decide to respect themselves. They immediately stop quarrelling and start treating each other with dignity. This is a sign of pretence that often characterises human romantic relationship. Queen says to King: ‘Husbands like you are submissive only to a woman who maintains her rights’. This expression reinforces the issue of gender liberation in the play.

As expected, the Minister comes with a piece of alarming news: ‘A calamity! A calamity my Lord!’ It should be noted that the play is a farce and that its major device is humour. The tragic news that the Minister brings is that his son has been killed by the ants. Then he narrates how his son was going for a walk, slipped and fell on his back and was taken by the ants: ‘They brought along their troops and armies, surrounded him, smothered him, and carried him off to their towns and villages’.

The King sympathises with Minister on his loss, but he does not want to announce a public mourning. It should be noted that the ant problem is an existential one; it has always been there and will, probably, always be there. It must also be noted that though the play talks about the world of the cockroach, it is an imaginative way for the playwright to mirror the existential issues that confront human life.

The death of the Minister’s son renews the challenge of finding a solution to the ant problem and, as far as the Queen is concerned, it is the duty of the King to find such a solution. They argue and quarrel over this; the King wonders why he should be the one to solve the problem when even his forebears could not solve it. The Queen’s response is that before him, there was no cockroach who demanded to be made king. This implies that leadership comes with responsibility. The Minister praises the King, stating that before his emergence, the entire cockroach kingdom had been living in the age of primitive barbarism. He goes on to praise the King’s sense of organisation and sound thinking. Of course, this is the flattery that most people in positions of authority are conversant with. Queen says that what she wants are practical results, not abstractions.

King Cockroach asks the Minister to give his opinion on how to solve the problem of the ant. Minister suggests organising an army of cockroaches to attack the army of ants. The King calls it a stupid idea. The King is convinced that an army of 20 cockroaches cannot match a long column of ants. The cockroaches have never been known in their history to gather in one column. Minister says cockroaches can be trained to walk in columns. King asks the number of years it will take for the cockroaches to be trained to walk in a line. Minister says that he does not know the details, that the Savant should be asked if a teacher could be found to train the cockroaches. The reader must pay attention to the absurdity in the issues being raised in the play. As already stated, the play embodies the existentialist philosophy or the philosophy of the absurd.

Savant arrives presently, panting. He is informed about the problem of the ant as directed by the King. Savant says that the ant issue is a political problem to be solved by the Minister and the King, as it is not a scientific problem, which is his domain. Human knowledge is based on specialisation and this creates limitations for each individual in terms of how they perceive human needs and how to solve them.

Savant says that it is impossible for cockroaches to form an army. Minster insists that a solution must be found as they cannot go on living that way. Queen supports Minister. The problem is now shifted to science and Savant is asked to find a solution, or contribute his scientific knowledge towards solving the problem. Savant asks for precision and definition of what exactly is required of him. Minister explains that since the ants attack cockroaches with an army, the cockroaches need to form an army to counter attack the ants. Savant says that action should be taken in mobilising 10 cockroaches. Savant says the King should have the ability to assemble 10 cockroaches, otherwise it questions his position as King. He goes on to observe that 10 cockroaches could hardly be seen gathering in one spot. Minister says he observed it many years before but that it only occurred around a piece of tomato. They now need a piece of tomato to use in assembling the cockroaches. It is obvious that the idea would not work as the cockroaches are bound to scurry off after feasting on the tomato. The race of the cockroaches, it is observed, lacks the unity of the ants!

The King recalls how the cockroaches left him while still giving his inaugural speech after he became King once they had finished feasting on a cube of sugar that happened to be there by chance. Savant says that the phobia for gathering among cockroaches is linked to an extinction event whenever such a gathering takes place: ‘If a number of cockroaches gather together in one place, and there is a bright, dazzling light, mountains that have neither pinnacles nor peaks move and trample upon our troops, utterly smashing them’. This description actually refers to the human feet, but Savant in his limited knowledge, sees it as a natural phenomenon. Again, this speaks to the limitation of human knowledge in comprehensively explaining the human condition. When asked by King why the natural phenomenon occurs only when cockroaches assemble, Savant says that science has not yet found an answer. It is seen then that science is also groping along in the dark and does not have all the answers to the questions of human existence.

Savant says that it is an instinctive defence mechanism for the cockroaches to disperse or go off in different directions and to avoid any form of gathering. According to Savant, ants can gather in large numbers because of their size. The ‘moving mountains’ that the Savant talks about refer to the human feet, while the ‘choking rain’ refers to insecticide which human beings use in killing insects. Savant also needs time to think of a solution using the scientific approach: ‘First we must start by knowing ourselves, by discovering what is round about us in this vast cosmos. Do you know for example what is to be found behind this shiny wall beneath which we stand?’

The ‘shiny wall’ that Savant talks about refers to the bathtub in the bathroom where the cockroaches are. Savant says that he had seen a vast chasm during the number of times he had climbed to the top of the bath. The ‘vast chasm’ refers to the inside of the bath. Savant calls it a large lake that is sometimes without water. Savant has a scientific theory or formular to explain this phenomenon: light equals water and darkness equals dryness. This means that when there is light (day time), the ‘lake’ is full of water but when it is night, it is dry. In the human world, people bathe in the morning and during the day. They sleep at night and that explains why the bath is dry at night. Again, this points to the limitation of the cockroaches’ knowledge which also mirrors the limitation of human knowledge.  Everyone is interested in seeing the chasm that Savant has described.  

The Priest arrives. He says he has encountered a procession of ants carrying a cockroach, calling it a sad sight. The theme of human helplessness in the face of existential tragedies is portrayed in the words of Priest: ‘There was nothing I could do but to ask the gods to have mercy on him’. Priest represents religion in the play and from his words, it is seen that religion often intervenes where man’s strength and knowledge ends.

Priest is told that the unfortunate cockroach that he saw was the Minister’s son. Priest prays for the comfort of the Minister. His solution to the ant crisis is prayer and sacrifice. Savant does not believe in Priest’s methods and this at once signals the perennial rift between science and religion as dramatised in the play.

King observes that past sacrifices have not been effective in solving the ant crisis, which suggests the futility of religious beliefs in solving certain existential problems of man. King says that objects of sacrifices like sugar always end up being eaten by ants. A question is raised about the Priest being the only one demanding sacrifice when Savant and Minister all perform their duties free of charge. Priest says that he cannot make a sacrifice to the gods without tempting them. To prove that the supernatural does intervene in human affairs, Priest describes a miracle of being saved from the ants by a supernatural force: ‘Suddenly I saw that something looking like a large dark cloud full of water had descended from the skies and swooped down upon the armies of ants and swept them away. . .’ It should be noted that what Priest describes as a supernatural force probably refers to water or insecticide sprayed by a human being to ward off insects in the house.

Savant tries to scientifically explain the phenomenon that Priest is talking about: ‘. . . It consists of a network of many threads from a large piece of moistened sacking’. Though Savant cannot establish who caused the destruction of the ants, he says it has no relationship with Priest’s prayer. King says he believes it was the Priest’s prayer that saved him and asks that he should pray again. The prayer is to be cost-free, just like the one the Priest had prayed for personal safety. This is so humorous. The Priest agrees to pray. But then a procession of ants carrying a cockroach approach. The ants are chanting and the song demonstrates their unity as well as the gains of being united. The cockroaches watch helplessly. The dead cockroach happens to be the Minister’s son. It should be noted that the cockroaches do not hear the chanting of the ants. Savant says it is because the ants are so tiny.

Queen demands that action should be taken to save the Minister’s son. King says that he rules and does not fight. Priest says fighting is not part of his priestly duty. Savant says that his duty is to do research and not to fight. When Queen opts to attack the ants by herself, King discourages her. According to Savant, the ants are better organised than the cockroaches because they have a war minister and minister of supply. King says that the existence of the cockroach does not demand that they go to war or attack other creatures for food: ‘. . . We do not know greed or the desire to acquire and store things away’. The cockroaches see themselves as superior creatures on the surface of the earth. They see themselves as civilised compared to other creatures. Because cockroaches represent human beings in the play, their view of themselves as superior and civilised beings is to be understood in terms of how human beings look at themselves in relation to other created beings.

Cockroaches are a knowledge-seeking race; they use their whiskers to examine objects, not only food. The ants only care about food, according to Savant. Cockroaches also see themselves as ‘thinking beings’ compared to the ants. All they have to do is take care that they do not fall on their back. At this point, Queen says that the conversation has only succeeded in taking them to where they had started: ‘We have in short ended up where we began, that is at nought, nought, nought!’ This emphasises the theme of absurdity in the play.

Savant does not believe in Queen’s absurdist ideology; he says that every investigation is useful. He then reminds them of the ‘lake’ that he had discovered. The King is eager to go and see the lake, while Queen prefers to stay behind with Minister. Savant and King leave for the sightseeing. Meanwhile, Queen sympathises with Minister on the loss of his son, blaming it on her husband’s attitude on the issue of the ants. Minister makes excuses for the King. Queen says that the King has a weak character; notice how this parallels the Adil-Samia relationship. Minister says the King is a man with an open mind. Queen says Minister only defends the King because his job depends on the existence of the King. Minister says that Queen cannot have her office without the King.

A cockroach appears, singing about the night. This is the subject cockroach. Minister and Queen ask the cockroach why he is singing while they are thinking for him and others. Subject cockroach says that he thinks for himself and that he has not asked anyone to think for him. Subject cockroach says he should be left alone after Minister asks for his contribution on the ant problem. Subject cockroach departs singing: ‘O night, O lovely night. . .’ The character of subject cockroach depicts the apolitical nature of most citizens who are not interested in how they are being governed, not to mention getting involved in the political process itself.

Savant cries for help from the top of the wall (bath). The King has fallen into the lake (bathtub). The lake is dry at the moment. The King is trying to get out of the bathtub but the walls of the bath are slippery. Queen cries that her husband be saved. Savant says there is no way of saving him: ‘. . . Only he can save himself, only by his own efforts – or a miracle from the skies’. This statement reinforces the existentialist theme in the play, as well as the idea that man tends to appeal to the supernatural in moments of helplessness.

The Priest is called upon to do something to help save the King. Priest’s only action is to pray. He says that all must join in the prayer, including the scientific Savant. Savant agrees to join in the prayer if only to invalidate the Priest’s belief in the supernatural: ‘If there is someone up there who hears our voices, understands our language, and pays attention to our entreaties, that’s fine. If not, we have lost nothing’. Priest accuses Savant of doubt, suggesting that the prayer might not work because of his doubt. The Priest then prays and leads the others to do so: ‘O ye gods!’

Act Two – The Cockroach’s Struggle

The act focuses on Adil and Samia, husband and wife, living in the house where the cockroaches are. It is morning and Adil wakes up to do exercise; presently his wife wakes up too. Adil usually wakes up when the alarm goes off. A struggle ensues on who should enter the bathroom first, with Adil claiming that he woke up first and should be the first to use the bathroom, as they begin preparation to go to work that day. Both Samia and Adil work in the same company, a factory that produces chemicals. Both are also graduates. It appears that Samia has been bossing Adil around the house on all issues, including who gets to use the bathroom first. But today, Adil is determined to stick to his rights. Samia pushes Adil and he falls catching the foot of the bed. Then Samia quickly enters the bathroom and locks the door before Adil has the opportunity to get in. Adil keeps knocking on the bathroom door but Samia ignores him. She is in there doing her make up. They continue to argue from these vantage points. Samia asks Adil to occupy himself with the morning papers until she is done with her bathroom business. Adil asks himself: ‘Why am I so weak with you? But – but is it really weakness? No, it’s impossible – it’s merely that I spoil. I spoil you because you are a woman, a weak woman, the weaker sex’. It should be understood that Adil’s words reflect the patriarchal view of the woman. And being an educated man, Adil feels that he has to make allowances for the wife by letting her have her way on many things. It does not necessarily imply that he is weak.

Adil turns on the radio. There is news that ‘the black nationals rose up in revolt following the occupation by the white colonialists by force of . . .’ This radio announcement raises the theme of freedom which is central to most of Al-Hakim’s works. Man’s life is a series of endless struggles which ends at death: the colonised want to be free from the colonisers, women want freedom from the cages of patriarchy and so on and so forth.

Samia asks Adil to change the radio channel. Adil obeys. Samia likes the new channel because it plays a song that she likes. The song says that desire alone does not bring result but striving does. Striving implies agitation, struggle or the need for action, which is an important theme in existentialism. Adil asks Samia about his true identity and identifies himself as the world. He laments how Samia takes everything from him, including his salary. Samia asks Adil to order a fresh bottle of Butagas. She equally orders Adil to get breakfast ready instead of talking rubbish. Adil is wounded at this point, as he puts his head in his hands. He stops responding to Samia’s words. He looks at Samia’s picture and thinks of strangling her. But he tells Samia that he is looking at the picture with longing. Samia says it is no time for longing, ordering him to go to the kitchen and put on the milk to heat until the cook, Umm Attiya, arrives.

Note how Adil says that he is not a normal person. Adil calls Raafat, perhaps, a co-worker, on the phone to report his problem with his wife but finds it too absurd to voice out. Samia opens the door, having tried to use the heater without success. She chides Adil for not putting on the Butagas. Adil says that he has been talking to a lady, a friend. He says the lady is not yet married and is not working in their company. Apparently, he wants to make Samia jealous or angry. It is revealed that Adil and Samia have been married for five years. Adil is stunned into obeying all of Samia’s commands when he realises that she has not even taken her bath yet. He goes on to the kitchen and turns on the Butagas, heats the milk, passes to Samia items like the towel, bathrobe, eau-de-cologne and powder. Then she commands him to ‘get out’ and enters the bathroom again.

Samia screams when she notices the cockroach in the bathtub. She opens the bathroom door and calls on Adil. Samia wonders how the cockroach got into the bath; she wants Adil to kill it and clean the bath. This is a case of irony and humour; Samia who admits no fear in dealing with the husband is now afraid of a cockroach and appeals to the same husband to be the one to take out the cockroach. Samia and Adil observe how the cockroach is struggling to come out of the bath by itself. The theme of absurdity is seen in the repetitive actions of the cockroach, trying to climb out of the bath, slipping back to the bottom and trying again and again. Adil and Samia argue over why the cockroach cannot climb out of the bath. In this argument, Samia is an empiricist and a positivist. This is seen in her words: ‘. . . so long as I have not seen a cockroach climbing up a wall of porcelain tiles, I am unable to say that it could happen’. Adil is a rationalist and it is seen in his words: ‘I imagined you said something like that’.

Adil decides to study the characteristics of the cockroach by looking it up in the dictionary. The definition goes thus: ‘Cockroach, a black beetle. The cockroach or black-beetle is a harmful insect that infests cloth, food and paper. It is often found in lavatories and has long hairy horns or whiskers. It spoils more food than it actually requires as nourishment. It can live for about a year.’ What I find ironic in the description of the cockroach is that the cockroaches see themselves as peaceful, harmless beings, whereas the human beings describe them as harmful.

Adil finds the cockroach an enjoyable spectacle and spends ample time observing its movements in the bath. The absurdist existence of the cockroach in the bath is described thus: ‘. . . climbs, then slips, then rolls over, then falls to the bottom of the bathtub’. The existentialist philosophy in the text is equally seen in how Adil tells Samia that he is responsible for himself, following Samia’s demand that he should do something about the cockroach. Adil believes that the cockroach should be left alone to solve its own problem, as the cockroach is trying to save itself. This is also existentialist as the individual is responsible for creating meaning for his own life through its own struggles – choices and actions.

When Samia leaves for the kitchen to get insecticide, Adil locks the bathroom door. Adil is now preoccupied with watching the meaningless struggles of the cockroach to get out of the bath. He is seen encouraging the cockroach, while Samia complains outside. Adil is not comfortable with Samia’s intention to kill the cockroach with insecticide. When Samia asks Adil to open the bathroom door, Adil says, ‘I’ll open up and I’ll not open up’.

The phone rings and Samia answers it. It is Mr Raafat, a co-worker, whom Adil had called earlier. Samia reports Adil’s strange behaviour to Mr Raafat, adding that they have achieved nothing since morning, as they are now late for work. Yusriyya is Mr Raafat’s wife.

The cook, Umm Attiya, arrives, carrying a saucepan of milk. Cook reports that the milk in the kitchen has all boiled to the ground and that the saucepan is empty. Samia points an accusing finger at Adil. Cook wonders why Adil has been interfering in the kitchen, without knowing that it was Samia who asked him to heat the milk. Samia asks why the cook is late, implying that if she had come early, there would have been no need for Adil to mess up the kitchen. Cook blames the lateness on the nature of transportation. Samia reports Adil’s strange behaviour to the cook. She wonders where the cockroach could have come from. Cook says it can come from anywhere. Samia is about losing her mind. It gets worse when Adil reechoes her words. She calls him a parrot. Umm Attiya observes that the couple are late, wondering if it is a holiday.

Samia decides that the door should be broken down. She asks Umm Attiya to call a carpenter. Umm Attiya says that there is no carpenter nearby and asks Samia to leave everything in the hands of the Almighty, hoping that Adil would open the door by himself when he is tired. Samia notices that for the first time Adil has refused to obey her. Cook offers to persuade the addicted Adil, telling him she wants to clean the bathroom. Adil says that it is not allowed. Cook tries other tactics but they do not work. Samia’s despair is now so obviously frustrating.

There is a ring at the door. It is the doctor from the company, Umm Attiya announces to Samia. The doctor must have been sent by Mr Raafat. Samia tries to warn Adil about the doctor’s arrival but in vain. He thinks the doctor is an entomologist – a person who studies insects – who has come on Samia’s invite. Adil jumps up when he hears that it is the company doctor, but finds it hard to believe that a company doctor has come. He thinks Samia is trying to trick him into opening the door.

Samia asks Umm Attiya to bring the doctor into the room from the lounge. Doctor comes in. The doctor wants to examine Adil. It is only when the doctor calls Adil that he believes that it is true what Samia had said. Adil opens the door. He says he is embarrassed. He tells the doctor that he is fine, but Samia insists that he was slightly unwell earlier in the morning. Doctor wants Adil to lie down for examination, but Adil wants to lead the doctor into the bathroom. The doctor finally sees the cockroach. Samia and Adil struggle over who should explain the cockroach’s condition to the doctor. Adil insists that the doctor came to see him, so he should be the one to speak. Samia says that she is the woman, she should be given priority. Adil asks the doctor to observe the cockroach and report his observations, find out things by himself, while Samia wants to explain it all to the doctor. It should be noted that all these actions are ludicrous and that they explain why the play is considered a farce.

The doctor finally reports that, by his observation, the cockroach is trying to get out of the bath. Adil wants to give further explanation but the doctor is now convinced that Adil is out of his mind. He thinks that Adil has been stressed at work. Samia informs the doctor that Adil is preparing a thesis for his PhD. The doctor thinks that Adil needs rest. The doctor insists on examining Adil so as to be able to file a report on his visit to the couple. Adil’s extra weight is noticed by himself and everyone. Doctor says it is from lack of exercise while Adil claims that it is from Umm Attiya’s fatty food. Adil admits that he has had no time for exercise.

Doctor examines Adil, asking him questions, after which he writes his report and prescription. He recommends some tranquilisers and three days’ sick leave for Adil. But then the doctor also says that Adil is in excellent health. Both Samia and Adil insist that the sick leave should be reduced to one day; the doctor agrees on the condition that Adil would rest. But Adil is bent on spending the whole day watching the cockroach. In fact, he wants to explain it more to the doctor, but the doctor is leaving and promises to return in the afternoon. Adil says that Samia will definitely destroy the cockroach by the time the doctor returns. The couple continue their argument, trying to bring in the doctor but the doctor picks up his bag and rushes out of the mad house, even as Adil and Samia call out to him.

Act Three – The Fate of the Cockroach

Samia and Adil return to the room after the doctor’s departure, still arguing and blaming each other for the unfortunate events of the day. Samia says she would go to work and give excuse for her lateness as being caused by Adil’s illness and the coming of the doctor.

The doctor suddenly returns to apologise for the ill manner of his departure and asks that he be allowed to continue examining the case. He asks for a private audience with Samia. Adil accepts and locks himself in the bathroom and resumes watching the cockroach.

Meanwhile, the doctor questions Samia about her husband’s wellbeing and personality. Samia says that Adil’s personality is weaker than hers. Then the doctor uses the psychological approach to rationalise on Adil’s obsession with the cockroach: ‘. . .in his inner consciousness he has identified himself with the cockroach, and this is the secret of his concern and affection for it’. The play portrays an aspect of naturalism in which human life is compared to that of insect.

The doctor tells Samia that he is a specialist in psychiatry and that the treatment of Adil is in convincing him that there is no similarity between him and the cockroach. The doctor recommends that Samia should begin by showing affection for the cockroach. Samia decides to go along with the doctor’s prognosis.

They knock and Adil opens the bathroom door. Samia begins by talking about the need for Adil to lose weight, for according to the doctor, ‘an increase in weight leads to lethargy’.  Adil counters by saying that he is quite energetic as he usually wakes up before the alarm goes off. He compares his energy to that of the cockroach. Both Samia and the doctor now feign interest in the cockroach to please Adil. Samia even claims that she has begun liking the cockroach right away. She repents of her earlier desire to have the cockroach destroyed, saying she was stupid. She praises the whiskers of the cockroach, saying they are beautiful. These words touch Adil but he at first feels that Samia is mocking him. Samia promises to look after the cockroach with care, as Adil believes that with patience and time, the cockroach could save itself.

Adil says that he respects the cockroach for its struggle. He admires the strength of the cockroach. Samia says that the cockroach has got a personality that is even stronger than hers. This is hard for Adil to believe; he thinks they are making fun of him. Samia graduates from admiring the cockroach to admiring Adil, promising to please him. She regrets that she had not always been nice to Adil. Adil is shocked but the doctor confirms that Samia is an obedient wife. Samia promises never to go to the bathroom before her husband, never to ask her husband to prepare breakfast, never to command him around. Adil is still in shock and disbelief and wonders at the sudden change in Samia.

The doctor uses repression, a psychoanalytic term, to describe Adil’s denial of ever being angry at his wife. He had been repressing the anger. Both doctor and Samia join Adil to watch the cockroach rest and resume its absurdist struggles. Adil does not believe in rescuing the cockroach; he believes that the cockroach should rescue itself. Samia urges Adil to help the cockroach out of the bath. The indifference of the supernatural to human struggle is illustrated in Adil’s indifference towards the cockroach’s struggle.

Both the doctor and Samia move on to inform Adil that there is no connection between him and the cockroach. Doctor begins to convince Adil that Samia likes him. Samia’s claim of equality with Adil is based on the fact that they are both college graduates, work in the same company and earn the same pay.

The doctor and Adil engage in a long conversation. Adil says he obeys Samia’s orders not because she has a stronger personality than him but because he wants to please her, knowing that she is the weaker person: ‘I hold that real manliness demands that she be made to feel her strength and her importance and to raise her morale’.

The doctor confesses to Adil that he only studied psychiatry as a hobby; he is not a specialist. The whole matter is coming to light now, with the doctor admitting that he made a wrong analysis on Adil. No knowledge is completely certain. Adil comes to see the cockroach as more advanced than him, admitting he admires the cockroach and tries to imagine himself in its place. Adil wants the doctor to imagine himself as a cockroach. The doctor says he cannot be a cockroach. Adil sees the cockroach in the bath as a hero. The cockroach is considered a hero because it has not given up even in the face of futility. It is from its continuous struggle that the cockroach derives meaning for its existence. And this speaks for human beings as well. The language of the cockroach is its struggle. The doctor is all for rescuing the cockroach but Adil is averse to it.

Samia appears with a cup of coffee. The doctor admits to Samia that the cockroach now interests him. Samia says that Adil’s disease has caught the doctor. They are in the bedroom now for coffee and doctor announces that Adil is well. Doctor confesses to Samia that he also wishes to be a cockroach. Adil reveals that the doctor has opened up to him on everything. He prays God to forgive Samia. This is quite hilarious. Doctor also admits his mistakes to Samia. Adil and doctor now appeal to Samia to save the cockroach. Samia now thinks that both Adil and the doctor are mad.

Samia calls on Umm Attiya and asks her to prepare her bath as she is going out. Umm Attiya goes into the bathroom and turns on the bath tap. Meanwhile, doctor and Adil are trying to calm and pacify Samia. Samia says the doctor has joined with her husband against her and has become like a cockroach.

The cook has filled the bath with water and now removes the dead cockroach from the bath and throws it into a corner in the bathroom. Then she reports to Samia that she had run the bath. Adil rushes into the bathroom calling the doctor after him. He reports to the doctor that the cockroach is dead, drowned in the bathwater. Umm Attiya shows them where the dead cockroach is. Adil pities the cockroach. Sarcasm is seen in Samia’s words: ‘Shall I get a professional mourner?’

It should be noted that the fate of the cockroach is the death of the cockroach and it is the universally acknowledged fate of man. Just as the cockroach dies after a meaningless struggle to free itself from a phenomenon that it cannot comprehend, man also engages in a meaningless struggle to be free until death puts an end to it. This is an existentialist view of human life.

Ants have already come to carry off the dead cockroach. Both the doctor and Adil start admiring the heroic action of the ants. They have passed their admiration of the cockroach to the ants, the predators of the cockroach. Samia teases them for this. Then the telephone rings. Samia answers the phone. The call is for the doctor. He is being summoned for another case. Cook is now cleaning the bathroom and the ants with it. Adil persuades the doctor to delay going for his next case so that they can continue to observe the ants. They see the cook coming out of the bathroom, having cleaned it. Both the doctor and Adil are hysterical that Umm Attiya has removed the ants and the cockroach.

The doctor is leaving. Adil wants to go to work despite having been given a day off. Samia wants Adil to spend the day arranging her clothes. She also teases Adil on spending the day writing a memoir on the Fate of the Cockroach.

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16 thoughts on “An Analysis/Summary of Tewfik Al-Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach (1973)

  1. Your website is always reliable and adequate,if you’d be so kind to please do an analysis of Africa:chants to the ancestors by Sola owonibi,Thank you sir .

  2. Thank you for this sir
    I’m really glad reading this before going for my critical analysis examination.

  3. This story is a perfect account of the existentialist nature of life. After all the struggles and questions to find meaning, it all ends in death. Thanks for this sir.

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