The Cockroach by Kevin Halligan, Analysis, Summary & Themes

Discover the complexities of the human condition in "The Cockroach" by Kevin Halligan. This introspective poem examines restlessness and self-reflection in the face of uncertainty.

The Poem

I watched a giant cockroach start to pace,
Skirting a ball of dust that rode the floor.
At first he seemed quite satisfied to trace
A path between the wainscot and the door,
But soon he turned to jog in crooked rings,
Circling the rusty table leg and back,
And flipping right over to scratch his wings –
As if the victim of a mild attack
Of restlessness that worsened over time.
After a while, he climbed an open shelf
And stopped. He looked uncertain where to go.
Was this due payment for some vicious crime
A former life had led to? I don’t know,
Except I thought I recognised myself.


• One person is observing the movements made by a cockroach
• There are no interactions between the person and cockroach
• Setting: indoors (inferred from objects described in poem)

Split into three parts according to emotion

Part 1: 1st line to 4th line - Normal, Idle Emotions

The poem begins by describing a giant cockroach pacing around a dusty floor. Initially, it appears content, casually following a path between the wainscot and the door. The tone is observational, portraying the cockroach's ordinary and idle behavior.

Part 2: 5th line to 9th line - Circling and Apprehensive Emotions

However, the atmosphere shifts as the cockroach's movements become more erratic. It starts jogging in crooked rings, circling the rusty table leg, and even flips over to scratch its wings. These actions suggest a growing restlessness and unease, as if the cockroach is experiencing mild distress or agitation.

Part 3: 10th line to 14th line - Uncertainty and Empathetic Emotions

In the final part, the cockroach climbs an open shelf but appears uncertain about its next move. The speaker wonders if this uncertainty is a result of past wrongdoing, reflecting on the cockroach's potential guilt or existential questioning. The speaker's empathy is revealed as they see themselves mirrored in the cockroach's uncertainty, suggesting a deeper connection between human emotions and the struggles of all living beings.

Kevin Halligan

• Travels countries and writes about their fascinations, Asia was birthplace of this poem
• His poems are on one level very direct but on another level very powerful
• They often consist of a subject (such as an insect) to reflect something else (e.g. himself)

Major Themes

The themes present in the poem "The Cockroach" by Kevin Halligan include:
  1. Existentialism: The poem explores existential themes, raising questions about the purpose and meaning of life through the contemplation of a simple creature like a cockroach.
  2. Restlessness and Discontent: The poem portrays the cockroach's restlessness and unease, reflecting a sense of dissatisfaction or uneasiness that can be experienced by individuals in their lives.
  3. Self-reflection and Identification: The speaker reflects on their own identity and experiences, drawing parallels between themselves and the cockroach. This theme highlights introspection and the search for self-understanding.
  4. Empathy and Connection: The speaker empathizes with the cockroach, suggesting a deeper connection between all living beings. The theme of empathy underscores the shared emotions and struggles across different forms of life.
  5. Uncertainty and Indecision: The poem explores the theme of uncertainty as the cockroach reaches a point of hesitation and indecision, unsure of its next course of action. This theme reflects the broader human experience of grappling with uncertainty and the choices we face.
  6. Symbolism of the Cockroach: The presence of the cockroach in the poem symbolizes resilience, adaptability, and the ability to survive in challenging environments, shedding light on the resilience of the human spirit.

    Critical Analysis

    "The Cockroach" by Kevin Halligan delves into the metaphorical portrayal of a cockroach's restless movements, exploring themes of existentialism and self-identification. The poem invites introspection, raising questions about purpose, identity, and the human condition. Through vivid imagery and subtle comparisons, Halligan prompts readers to reflect on their own restlessness and search for meaning in a seemingly mundane existence. The poem's ambiguous ending leaves room for personal interpretation, encouraging readers to question their own roles in the world and ponder the interconnectedness of all living beings.


    • Literal Language, little use of language devices
    • Metaphoric: ‘dust that rode the floor’
    • Empathy: ‘I recognized myself’
    • Hyperbole: ‘giant cockroach’
    • Simile: ‘As if the victim of a mild attack’

    Structure: poem is a sonnet

    • Rhyme scheme starts with normal ABAB then falls apart after 8th line, becoming ABCACB
    • This could be connected to the confusion of cockroach

    Sound devices

    • Sibilance: ‘seemed quite satisfied’
    • Enjambment: 10th to 11th line and 12th to 13th line
    • Mid-Line Pause: ‘And stopped.’ This is a dramatic pause emphasizing the stopping


    • The persona conveys his own life with the presence of empathy
    • Observant and fascinated by the cockroach: ‘I watched’ and ‘giant cockroach’
    • Empathetic towards the creatures uncertainty: ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I recognized myself’
    • Feels lost, similar to the cockroach: ‘looked uncertain’ and the change in the rhyme scheme
    • Feels guilty: ‘Was this due payment for some vicious crime’
    • There is evidence of using specific time scales: ‘at first’, ‘but soon’ and ‘after a while’
    • Linked to time scales in the persona’s life too

    Linking poems

    • ‘Hunting Snake’: shares fascination impression
    • Relatable to ‘Pike’, ‘Horses’ and ‘Hunting Snake’ since they all focus on a specific animal
    • The poem tells only one story, similar to ‘Hunting Snake’ different from ‘Horses’ and ‘Pike

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