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Riders to the Sea: Summary, Symbolism, Theme & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Setting of ''Riders of…
  • 0:31 Plot Summary of the Play
  • 2:16 The Importance of Language
  • 3:31 Analysis and Themes
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
John Millington Synge's 1904 play 'Riders to the Sea,' is recognized as a representative classic of the Irish Literary Renaissance. It is noted for the simplicity of its tragic plot and the distinctive language of its characters.

Setting of Riders of the Sea

J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea (1904) is a brief, one-act play, and its action is starkly straightforward. Synge's play is short and mysterious, like a fairy tale. It engages the reader with questions of how forces as big as historical change and as intimate as grief affect individuals and families. The sea is significant throughout the play; the family is dependent on it for their livelihood. The sea has also brought death; Maurya, the mother, has lost her husband and six sons to it.

Plot Summary of the Play

In an island cottage off the coast of Ireland, three women wait for news. Maurya is resting in an inner room. Her daughters, Cathleen and Nora, work on household tasks. Michael, their brother, has been missing for days. As readers learn from Nora, Michael is only the latest of Maurya's sons to be lost to the sea that also claimed her husband. Cathleen and Nora identify a drowned man's clothes as Michael's but hesitate to tell their mother the dark truth.

When their only surviving brother, Bartley, enters the cottage, it is to announce that he will be sailing that night. Bartley is determined to go to the horse fair in Connemara despite the bad weather. Maurya is anxious, asking him, 'What is the price of a thousand horses against a son where there is one son only?' Bartley, however, continues to prepare for his journey. When he leaves, Maurya will not give him her blessing.

Cathleen and Nora are both distressed in the wake of Bartley's departure. Maurya's sending him off in anger is thought to be unlucky; also, they've forgotten to give him a cake to eat. They manage to convince their mother to go to meet Bartley to give him the cake and her blessing.

When Maurya returns, she is greatly distressed. She met Bartley but could not give him her blessing. As he passed with the family's two horses, she saw the ghost of his brother Michael behind him. She, Cathleen, and Nora are all convinced that this is a portent, which is an unlucky sign. Cathleen cries out, 'It's destroyed we are from this day.'

Shortly after Maurya herself returns, a noise of crying out by the seashore is heard. The women half-expect it to be Michael's body washed up at last. The body brought in, however, is Bartley's. Maurya greets this with bleak resignation, saying, 'They're all together this time, and the end is come.'

The Importance of Language

The language of Riders to the Sea is notable for its economy and power. Synge himself spent time listening to and recording the distinctive speech patterns of the Aran Islands before writing the play. The rhythm of the play is defined by the rhythms of speech, which give the play a clear sense of place, time, and community.

The characters' unusual turns of phrase (for instance, 'The young priest is after bringing them,' to mean, 'The young priest brought them') can seem strange to the modern reader. They would have seemed just as strange to audiences in 1904 Dublin and London. The language of Riders to the Sea belongs specifically to the fishing communities of the Aran Islands. Synge transforms it.

Homey details add to the realism of the play. Simple words are used repeatedly, like they might be in fairy tales. When Bartley is looking for a piece of rope, Cathleen says, 'Give it to him, Nora; it's on a nail by the white boards. I hung it up this morning, for the pig with the black feet was eating it.' The symbolic use of color is also typical for the play. Significantly, the necessary rope is hung up by the white boards that will be used for Bartley's coffin.

Words often have double meanings, as well. When, for instance, Cathleen laments, 'It's destroyed he'll be, surely,' means that Bartley will be hungry, but the words can also be read as a prophecy of his death.

Analysis and Themes

Riders to the Sea is considered a classic of the Irish Literary Renaissance, which was also called the Irish Literary Revival and was the rapid growth of various talents in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, Oliver St. John Gogarty, and James Joyce. Not coincidentally, this literary movement arose in a time of renewed Irish national feeling. The play's success abroad was welcomed by Irish authors, like Yeats, who were eager for their national literature to be taken seriously.

The themes of Riders to the Sea can be thought of as a series of paired concepts:

  • Life and death
  • Tradition and modernization
  • Christianity and paganism

These are not presented as strict binaries with one valued as good and the other as bad. Life and death appear dangerously close to each other throughout. Maurya herself frequently speaks of desiring death; her last words in the play are, 'No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.'

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