Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge
Introduction of the Play
“Riders to the Sea” is a one-act tragedy written by Irish Literary Renaissance playwright John Millington Synge. The play is set on the Aran Islands. Like all of Synge’s plays, it is known for capturing the poetic language of rural Ireland. The plot isn’t based on the usual clash of wills between people. Instead, it’s about how people can’t win against the cruel, impersonal sea.
“Riders to the Sea” is written in the Aran Islands’ Hiberno English dialect. Synge’s use of the Irish language that was spoken in Ireland at the time was part of the Irish Literary Revival, a time when Irish literature tried to make people feel proud of their country and more nationalistic.
Several of the play’s scenes were inspired by his time on the Aran Islands. Some of these include the fact that a drowned man was identified by his clothes and that a man’s ghost was seen riding a horse.
Summary of the Play
“Riders to the Sea” is a short play about the bad things that happen to a family of fishermen on an island west of Ireland because of the sea.
Maurya has lost her husband, five of her sons, and her father-in-law to the sea. At the start of the play, Nora and Cathleen hear from the priest that a body that might be their brother Michael washed up on the beach in Donegal. The girls don’t tell their mother because they are afraid for her safety. They also don’t get to tell Bartley about the news. Bartley wants to sell a horse in Connemara, so he plans to sail there. He doesn’t listen to Maurya’s pleas to stay. He leaves with grace. Maurya says that by the time it gets dark, she won’t have any living sons left. Maurya is so worried that she forgets to bless her son before he leaves. Maurya finds Bartley so she can bless him. At the same time, Nora and Cathleen can tell from Michael’s clothes that the body is his. Maurya comes home and says she saw the ghost of Michael riding behind Bartley. She starts to cry about how all the men in her family died at sea, and then some men bring Bartley’s body. He fell off his horse and into the sea, where he drowned.
“Riders to the Sea” as a Tragedy
“Riders to the Sea,” a play by J.M. Synge, is about human suffering and has a very tragic feel to it. Maurya is at the centre of the theme in Riders to the Sea. Even though the play’s tragedy is simple and straight-forward, it is beautiful, universal, and has a deep appeal. The play shows how terrible it is for people to be up against the violent power of a cold, unforgiving natural element like the sea. Here, the sea takes on almost the role of fate and plays a part in people’s suffering and deaths.
“Riders to the Sea” is a great tragedy because it shows how people suffer and has a cathartic effect. There are two ways to look at the tragedy of life. One says that fate plays with people, and another says that a person’s character is to blame for a sad play. “Riders to the Sea” is a good mix of Greek tragedies and Shakespearean ones.
The sea is a natural force that no one has any power over. The people who live on the island where this play takes place are both against the sea and against the sea itself. In the play, Bartley, his sisters Cathleen and Nora, and his mother Maurya are the people who fight against the sea.
“Riders to the Sea” is more about how bad things happen than about how bad people are. There is no tragic flaw in the way the characters deal with their bad luck. Fate is in charge, and neither its decree nor its direction can be changed. So, life means nothing but tragedy and giving up completely to cruel fate.
The people who live on the Aran islands get all of their food and money from the sea. They have been going to the sea for a long time, even though they know there is danger ahead. The cruel sea has taken many lives, but the islanders have to keep working hard because they have no other way to make a living. So, in this case, the sea acts almost like fate and is a cause of human suffering and death. It is more like the enemy of life that comes to destroy people’s hopes and happiness.
“Riders to the Sea” is full of sad things, and we learn that Maurya has already lost six people she cared about to the ocean, including her father-in-law, her husband, and four of her sons. Michael and Bartley, the youngest, are the only sons she has left. Michael has been missing for nine days, and when his body was found, it was clear that he had died. All of these loved ones went to the sea even though they knew it could be dangerous and faced what fate had in store for them.
They can’t be blamed for what they did because it was just how they lived. Bartley follows the same path until he decides to go to the main land to sell horses at the cattle fair. He, too, knew there were risks, but he was determined to stick to his plan. Bartley is eventually thrown off his horse and carried out to sea, where he drowns. So, Bartley is a victim of fate, even though he didn’t do anything wrong.
The last thing Maurya said shows that no one can fight fate. So she admits that fate is powerful and gives up, saying, “What more could we want than that?” No one can live forever, and we must be happy with what we have.
To sum up, “Riders to the Sea” is a great tragedy with elements of Greek tragedy. Synge made the theme of pain and loss a universal one by making fate cruel. Synge has done a good job of letting the audience know about the disaster through hints and forebodings, so it is satisfying from an artistic point of view that the news of Bartley’s death does not come all at once. So, Synge follows the traditional rule that the end of a drama should make sense and not be a surprise, which would take away from the enjoyment of the art.
Themes of ‘Riders to the Sea’
The main theme of the play is The Power of the Sea. The sea, violent, unpredictable, and implacable, is right outside the cottage door. It has killed practically all of Maurya’s male family members and is about to kill his remaining living son, Bartley. It defies logic and God, and the Holy Water is only a sad reflection of it.
Diverse personalities have different feelings towards the sea. The sea is only important to Nora and Cathleen since they have lost family members; it is the greatest enemy for Maurya; it is of little value to the young priest; and it is dangerous but a way of life for Bartley. Synge is the sea’s potency in this play “s meditation on nature’s and suffering’s power
Paganism vs. Catholicism: The play is rich with traditional Irish Catholicism: priests, blessings, Holy Water, and so on. Traditional Catholicism, on the other hand, coexists, albeit uncomfortably, with more pagan religious components. Maurya looks to the stars and other natural phenomena for warnings and messages, rather than the priests’ hollow, naive platitudes. She knows more about the island than he does; she is dubious of his outsider status, and he is never seen within the confines of the cottage. She values the power of the sea far more than she values God. Only at the end of the text, after her war with the sea is ended, can she gently re-enter the rituals and ceremonies of her Catholic religion.
Tradition vs. Modernity: Maurya represents tradition, while her children and the young priest represent modernity. Maurya is well-versed in the island’s nuances; her faith is more orthodox.
Her opinions were more paganistic than Catholic. She is not open to new notions of comforting Catholicism or commerce. She only knows her modest life, and she is afraid to leave her cottage.
Maurya “Her children, on the other hand, mock her “senseless” behaviour and tight adherence to her views. They are looking beyond the island to the larger world, and the young priest serves as the link between these two worlds. The contradictions between the two worlds are most seen in the characters of Bartley, who realises that the sea is perilous but is drawn to it because he is a man who must provide for his family. At the end of the play, it is evident that modernity will eventually triumph, but it is also clear that Maurya’s world view is still relevant and has much to teach the younger generation.
Gender Roles: The characters in the narrative strictly conform to the conventional gender roles of their period and place. Nora has few words, whereas Cathleen is the hearthkeeper. Maurya is the quintessential Mother, concerned entirely with her family and the continuation of their bloodline. She is concerned, chastised, and laments. Her primary concern is her sons. She is not at all soothed by the fact that her girls are still alive: they are essentially useless in terms of what they can provide to the family. As the man of the household at the start of the play, Bartley’s responsibility is clear: to provide for his family. Cathleen expresses that sailing on the sea is a young man’s life. He is the provider, and Maurya’s anxieties that he may die are tied to the issues they will face when he is gone.
Human Stoicism: This theme is inspired by the character of Maurya, who accepts her situation stoically and prays not only for her family, but also for humanity as a whole. Human people have no choice but to accept God’s will, to accept and endure their lot stoically.
Fate: Everyone in the community, especially Maurya, is unable to prevent death. Maurya has done everything from catholic devotion to secular superstition to keep death from claiming her family members, but to no avail. The sea takes her family’s male members one by one.
To summarise, “Riders to the Sea” is a wonderful tragedy that has addressed numerous themes in addition to creating a sorrowful mood. The theme of the play is The Sea, Catholicism vs. Paganism, Tradition vs. Modernity, Gender Roles, Human Stoicism, and the role of Fate.
Supernatural in Riders to the Sea
“Riders to the Sea,” despite a realistic play, contains supernatural elements that heighten the sad effect of the play. Natural elements in the play, particularly the sea, exhibit supernatural properties. The sea, which has claimed Maurya’s husband and five of her six boys, has a magical pull to it. Religion is helpless to stop it.
Cathleen, one of the daughters, asks the priest at the start of the play whether he can prevent Bartley, the last remaining son, from sailing to sea to sell his horse. Nora claims that the priest has refused, claiming that God will not leave Maurya destitute. In other words, the priest has no authority to avert the deaths of both Michael, who dies at the play of the play, and Bartley, who dies at the end. Instead, the sea takes both of them, and Maurya’s prayers are ineffective against the allegedly magical power of the sea.
At the end of the play, Maurya declares, “They are all gone now, and there isn’t anyone left.” “”There’s nothing the sea can do to me.” In other words, by the end of the play, it is evident that the divine power invested in nature is more strong than religion. Maurya has no reason to pray any longer because it is apparent that the supernatural can overcome prayers.
The play is largely concerned with harmonising the natural to supernatural environment of the Aran Islands, where the sea is a continual threat to the fishermen’s life. The residents must balance their everyday life with their faith in the “supernatural.” In the real world, the body of a drowned fisherman washes up on the shore and is recognised by his distinctive knitted sweater. In the supernatural world, he is presented to his family while riding a pale horse, a universal emblem for death. The family, which has already lost people to the sea, sees this tragedy as unavoidable because living on the Aran Islands is a constant battle with nature. The term “reconcile” denotes this acknowledgment and lends the play its sad tone.
We are shown a world in which both natural and supernatural components appear to coexist. The remote island where Maurya and her family dwell presents itself as a wonderful setting where superstition and religion have a significant impact on its inhabitants, as evidenced primarily by the personalities of Maurya and her vision of her final son’s death. Maurya witnesses a terrifying sight while on her way to say goodbye to her son Bartley, who is leaving for the sea. She notices Michael dressed in new clothing following Bartley on the grey pony. This vision convinces Maurya not only of Michael’s death, but also of Bartley’s coming death. Another spooky experience is intertwined with this scene. Bride dara is a well-known Irish folklore figure.
We have entered a society where blessings are vital in order to avoid evil and visions are widespread and discussed as forecasting key events. Maurya’s vision of her dead son Michael with Bartley clearly depicts how Bartley, like his siblings, would perish in the sea, leaving Maurya impoverished.
The mention of Holy Water also has supernatural significance. The Holy Water does not appear to be holy in the sense of having been blessed by a Christian priest; rather, it appears to be a magical liquid. The title of the play suggests supernaturalism.
Bartley is the only one who can ride. The second rider is Michael’s ghost, who is seen by Maurya riding the grey pony that is trailing the red mare. Furthermore, the grey colour is associated with death.
To summarise, the play succeeds in eliciting strong feelings of sorrow and terror in us, which are heightened by the effective utilisation of supernatural elements.
Symbolism in Riders to the Sea
“Riders to the Sea,” by J.M. Synge “is filled with symbols that highlight the tragedy of the central character, Maurya. The majority of the symbols are traditional and common, implying global connotations. The play is considered J.M. Synge’s best tragedy because of its careful and effective use of symbolism.
The sea serves as both a source of life and a destroyer of life in the play. The people of the island rely on fishing to survive. They gather sea weeds for fuel. They must traverse the sea to obtain items as well as sell their wares. They had to travel across the sea to construct coffins. The sea is the primary source of income for the Islanders, yet it is also a destroyer and a life-taking agent. The sea is a natural force that can be furious and fierce at times. Many islanders have died, including all of Maurya’s male relatives. She is left with her two girls and no substantial financial support. The sea is beyond prediction and even God’s power. The islanders think that rising sea tides symbolise birth and falling sea tides symbolise death.
Another icon of the play is the Riders. The male members of the Island are all riders. They ride to the sea to fish and provide for their family. Their fall at the hands of the sea represents human defeat at the hands of the undefeated nature. Their figurative life path is a long ride to the sea.
The usage of the number nine is another mythical emblem in the play. In the play, the number nine is employed to represent bad luck. Michael hasn’t been heard from in 9 days. Maurya weeps for her son for nine days, and when Bartley drowns in the sea, nine unknown women appear.
Both Bartley’s red mare and Michael’s grey pony represent death. Bartley rides off to sea on the red horse and never returns. Furthermore, there appears to be some relationship between the red mare ridden by Bartley and the grey pony ridden by Michael. The colour red is connected with life and vigour, while the colour grey is associated with death. The bread Maurya takes for Bartley is a symbol of life, but she cannot deliver it to him because he is riding away quickly. As a result, Bartley is stripped of life and must confront death. Maurya’s turning of the empty cup mouth downwards is another significant signal in the play. This action reflects a lack of Christian comfort at the time of the deaths of all the male members, and it illustrates the theme of infinite pain and surrender. This sign also reinforces the tragic theme of old Maurya.
The white boards that remain onscreen throughout the play represent Bartley’s approaching demise. Maurya frequently refers to these boards, which demonstrate that death weighs heavily on the thoughts of the protagonists. Furthermore, the ambiguity of whose body would be placed in the casket emphasises the idea that death is continually on the minds of the protagonists. Next, the water on Patch and Bartley’s corpses represents the path Death takes from the sea to the family’s home.
Spinning Wheel and Hearth:
Cathleen is always connected with the spinning wheel and the hearth, which are symbols of women’s work and the pervasiveness of gendered labour. This is significant in a play that is so preoccupied with the typical gender separation—Bartley is the provider, Cathleen is the baker, and so on. The spinning wheel represents the time period in which this play is situated and depicts the struggles that this family faced.
The rope symbolises Bartley’s impending death. As he designs (makes) a halter for the horse, he is also fashioning a halter for his own neck. That rope was always intended to drop a coffin into the grave, and now it will be Bartley’s grave.
The Holy Water represents purity, sanctity, and traditional Catholicism. It is kind water, in contrast to the sea’s forceful water.
To summarise, the employment of symbols adds depth to the play, taking it beyond the plot’s seeming simplicity.