The Role of the Sea in "Riders to the Sea" by J.M.Synge

Updated on December 22, 2017
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The Sea: A Fitting Backdrop

In “Riders to the Sea”, Synge portrays the lives of simple Irish rustics, their endless battle with elementary agents of nature and their constant connection with death. He keeps the sea as the solitary background implying both sustenance and destruction. The play, being based on Synge’s visits to the Aran Islands, reverberates with the roar of the Atlantic. The title itself presents the universal conflict between riders and sea, between agents of life and the agency of death, between transient human actions and the eternal permanence of nature.

The Sea: A Powerful Point of Reference

The characters in the play refer continuously to the sea. They are hardly able to speak without bringing in a reference to the vast and indifferent waves, both literally and figuratively. The tensions between Maurya and Bartley, Maurya and Cathleen, are all rooted in the sea. Maurya has seen the death of men in her family which, in turn, causes her to stop Bartley from venturing out with his horses:

"He won’t go this day with the wind rising from the south and west...”

It is as if she instinctively knows that Michael is dead and Bartley would meet a similar fate. She openly expresses her despair because of her futile battle against the sea, which she sees as the rival of her peace:

"He's gone now, God spare us, and we'll not see him again. He's gone now, and when the black night is falling I'll have no son left me in the world."

Countering such a perspective is Cathleen's continuous assertions that the sea is also a provider of sustenance.

In terms of conflict, the play shows not much external action or interaction between characters. The conflict is internalized as it is the universal conflict of man against predetermined fate. In seeing the sea as her antagonist, Maurya makes an essential mistake. She considers only the destruction implied in it but overlooks the fact that it is the sea which has sustained their lives for so long. This is recognised by her children as Cathleen blurts out:

“it’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea...".

Ironically, Maurya realises this and unconsciously puts her reliance on the sea to provide her with food when all her sons would be dead (“if it's only a bit of wet flour we do have to eat, and maybe a fish that would be stinking”).

Sara Allgood as Maurya, photo taken by Carl Van Vechten, 1938
Sara Allgood as Maurya, photo taken by Carl Van Vechten, 1938 | Source

Different Approaches to the Sea

From a different perspective it is the sea which makes Maurya wiser than even religious men like the young Priest. The priest had put his faith on the Institution of Christianity believing that God would not leave Maurya with no son living. However, Maurya shows a greater wisdom in fearing the worst, which happens to confirm her understanding of life.

The priest derives his knowledge from scriptures. He has little knowledge about the real rules of nature ("It's little the like of him knows of the sea.."). The magnitude of Mauryas struggle against the terrible elemental force is appreciable. However, one can identify the “hamartia” or error of judgement that leads to Maurya’s distress. She thinks that the sea is a vindictive, cruel, active agent set against her. In reality, the sea is only an agent where humans choose to end their rides.

This is certainly hinted at in the title where the elusive relationship between riders and the sea is worth examining. In establishing the unusual association of riding and sea, Synge makes it very clear at the very onset that the sea is not just a geographical entity. It is also the sea of life where every living object is a rider. It may also mean the sea of death to which we all ride and eventually surrender. This is how Synge manages to universalize the suffering of an individual to the greatest magnitude.

The Sea: Both a Background and a Character

The sea becomes then, not just a force of nature, appeasing the senses and adding beauty to the environment. It overpowers man even while subjecting him to depend upon it. Barkley ignores his mother’s desperate entreaties and leaves for the fair. Perhaps he is aware that the sea will claim him one day or the other, and to tarry on one occasion would be a futile attempt toward escaping inevitable death.

At the end, however, Maurya appears to overcome her inner conflict, although at the highest cost. Her vision at the spring well opened her eyes to the fact that a red mare is always followed by a grey pony, that life is always persuaded by death; Bartley would go where Michael has reached. Her vision has no mention of the sea; she has realised that the she is only an agent and not her antagonist at all. The sea is not an adversary, so it would not harm her anymore: “They’re all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me... and I don't care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening".

Nine days of keening have culminated into the tenth day of acceptance. Once again Maurya finds herself able to bless all men: “...may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and on the soul of everyone is left living in the world.” All men are riders to the same unappeasable sea, and to accept Maurya's blessing is to share in the tragic experience of the play, not of utility but temporality. The sea, in this context, acquires a versatile role, affecting human habits, superstitions, topography and climate. Despite being absent on stage, the sea presents itself through the characters who confront, venture into, and finally surrender to it.

Edmund John Millington Synge (1871-1909) was an Irish playwright, poet, prose writer, travel writer and collector of folklore. He was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival and was one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre.
Edmund John Millington Synge (1871-1909) was an Irish playwright, poet, prose writer, travel writer and collector of folklore. He was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival and was one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre.

© 2017 Monami

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