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Riders To The Sea: Summary and Analysis

The one-act play by By J.M. Synge, Riders to the Sea, through the depiction of calamities brought upon by the sea on a fisherman’s family, offers a glimpse of the Aran islanders, among whom Synge had spent a few days on being urged by his friend, Yeats. First performed at the Molesworth Hall, Dublin, on 25th February 1904, it is hailed as a representative piece of the Irish Literary Renaissance, for having a straightforward plot and for using the unique language of rural Ireland.

A Short Summary

Maurya, an old wife of a dead fisherman, lives with her family on an island, to the west of Ireland. Unfortunately, she has lost a majority of her sons, and the only surviving ones are her two daughters, Cathleen, Nora and her son, Bartley.  In the exposition of the play, Nora and Cathleen are seen aiming to hide the clothes of their drowned brother, Michael, who is rumored to have died in the sea. They do so to momentarily spare Maurya, the grief of losing yet another son. However, the last son, Bartley enters to announce about his forthcoming journey to a horse fair in Connemara, despite his mother’s plaintive forebodings and inclement weather. Bartley finally departs without receiving his mother’s blessings. Shortly after this, when the two sisters manage to convince their mother to give Bartley the cake as a token of her blessings, Maurya obliges but on returning, reveals how she has seen the spirit of Michael behind Bartley and consequently, being shocked, has failed to give him the cake. The vision, both sisters confirm is a portent or an unlucky symbol. And, indeed a bit later, as the women on hearing someone crying, rush to the seaside with hopes of retrieving Michael’s body, they end up getting Bartley’s instead. The curtain falls with Maurya’s poignant resignation that she would finally sleep peacefully at night, for, having lost all her son’s, she has no one to worry about.

Critical Analysis

Themes

The All-Powerful Sea Representing Fate

The sea in the play assumes a very vital role; it is the chief source of livelihood for the helpless islanders and simultaneously, a constant cause of unexpected and unavoidable death. Bartley is fully aware of how the sea has claimed the lives of his brothers, yet he desperately sails out, disregarding all odds. Determining the destiny of the islanders, the sea as such serves as fate.

Subtle Paganism Steeped in Catholicism

Synge’s observation of the keen inclination of the islanders towards Celtic paganism is brilliantly portrayed through the varied traits of the central character, Maurya. Despite being a Catholic, she invests more faith on the sea, and natural happenings are looked upon by her as a warning of impending doom. It is only after the death of her last son that she can surrender herself fully to the Catholic faith.

Tradition as Opposed to Modernization

Maurya, with her rigid reluctance to leave her cottage and her belief in pagan values, stands for a traditional way of life, whereas her children embrace a modern outlook in refusing to wash away their capabilities around the uncertainties of the sea.

As a Greek Tragedy

Riders to the Sea follow a typical Greek tragedy in most of its aspects. Primarily, its central plot, revolving around the unending misery of the central character, Maurya, affected by the merciless sea, directly echoes the classic theme of the Greek tragedies of focusing on human suffering against a backdrop of unyielding fate. Maurya’s stoical philosophy in calmly accepting her deadly misfortune imparts a universal tone to this tragic play.  Secondly, its structure also adheres to the three unities of action, time and place. The deaths of Michael and Bartley, being the only action occurring, help in achieving the unity of action. The unities of place and time are also observed as everything takes place on a single day and Maurya’s cottage is the dominant scene of the drama. In commenting on the proceedings of the plot, Cathleen, and Nora, to a great extent, act as the Greek chorus. On the other hand, Irish superstitious beliefs, like the mentioning of “pig with the black feet” or the “star up against the moon” play the part of tragic foreboding, an integral component of Greek plays.

As a Poetic Drama

The chief tenets of a poetic drama – the inclusion of a poetic vision as well as epical characters are admirably attained in this elegiac play. Dissatisfied with the insistence of the then raging “Prose Plays of Ideas” on urban life and its multiple issues, dramatists like Synge and Eliot sought to radiate emotion, vitality, and spontaneity through their works. Naturally, poetry seemed to be an ideal medium of expression in comparison to prose. The simple life of the Aran Islanders appealed to Synge, and he captured their universal struggle for survival through the suggestive, lyrical and symbolic power of poetry. Even the characters, their heroism, passion, and dedication evidently help to reinforce this poetic spirit. The poetic quality is also achieved through the use of lyrical dialogue and symbols in the play.

Form

One act play

Tone and Mood

The play has a gloomy and fatalistic tone and mood.

Symbolisms

The sea is the major symbol, representing both the giver and taker of life of the islanders.

Number 9, used randomly in the play, indicates bad luck; Maurya mourns for nine days when Michael goes missing, and nine unknown women come to console her after Bartley dies.

Bartley’s red mare and Michael’s grey pony suggest death. Imminent demise is also hinted by the white boards for a coffin and the rope that Bartley uses as a halter for his horse.

The spinning wheel and hearth, around which Cathleen is always involved, represent the kind of work women inhabiting the island are habituated to do. It also makes an important gender distinction – Bartley and Michael are always the providers while Cathleen and Nora are the one’s dependent on them.

The “Holy Water” stands for purification and traditional Catholicism, thereby acting as a contrast to the mighty water of the sea.

Imagery

The ragged, wet piece of shirt that the two sisters believe is of Michael’s, serves as a powerful image for it suggests how fragile human life is.

Maurya’s vision of a finely attired Michael on a horse is a haunting image, for it prepares the audience of some impending danger.

The Major Conflict

The dominant conflict in the play concerns whether all of Maurya’s sons would be claimed by the sea or not.

The Important Characters

Maurya

Maurya is the tragic protagonist, who portrays heroic endurance in passively accepting the deaths of her loved ones. Significantly, it is not her flaw in character that makes her a victim; nonetheless, she embraces all her adversities with dignity. Maurya thus reflects an unyielding spirit that refuses to bow down in front of overbearing fate.

Bartley

Bartley shows his daring zeal when, ignoring the premonitions of his mother, he ventures out into the sea. In fact, his desperation to follow the footsteps of his late brothers glaringly point at the helplessness of the island’s males, who had no alternative vocation other than the sea.

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