Riders To The Sea: Summary and Analysis

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The Opening Scene

      The scene is set in a cottage on an island off the west coast of Ireland. Articles in the kitchen; fishing nets, oilskins, a spinning wheel, and some new boards suggest that the source of income of the house is fishing. Cathleen, a girl of about twenty, after kneading the cake, puts the material in the pot by the fire. She wipes her hand stained with flours. Then, she starts working on spinning wheel. Nora, her younger sister makes her entry. She asks Cathleen about her mother. Cathleen tells her that she is trying to sleep, if she could. When Nora is confirmed that there is nobody in the room except her and Cathleen. She takes out a bundle from her shawl. On Cathleen’s query, Nora, tells that the bundle is given by the young priest, who wanted to let them confirm do the clothes and stocking belong to Michael or someone else. Cathleen is surprised as she can not believe of her brother’s body to be washed up so far in the north. Now Cathleen changes the topic by asking Nora if the young priest will stop Bartley to cross the sea. Nora replies her that Young Priest is sure’ that God can not be so cruel to bring another misfortune for the family, so he is not afraid of his journey and will not stop him. Cathleen and Nora are worried for their brother Bartley, who is the last hope of the family. Cathleen hides the bundle for she does not want to make her (mother) upset at all. Maurya is now shown on the stage, an old woman bearing a lots of hardships, as her facial expressions suggest. She is disturbed because her only son, is determined to go to the sea, when the weather, is unfavorable and the sea is rising.

Critical Analysis

      Riders To The Sea a one-act tragedy of Synge has made us aware of the hardships undertaken by the local inhabitants of Ireland especially Aran Islands where Synge had spent some days of his life. Articles like boards in the kitchen, have a deep impact on the minds of viewers. These boards are the signs of death. Then bundle in the hands of Nora, increases the suspense, which reveals the tragedy of Michael’s death. Maurya’s fifth son. Thus we came to know that why. lady can not have a sound sleep. Her tension is intensified with the Hews of Bartley’s decision to go to the sea, even not caring the bad signs of weather. The lines spoken by Nora are really touching which expresses the young priest’s views. “God Almighty would not be so cruel as to deprive her of her last son and thus make her utterly, helpless.” The audience is make sure that Barley will survive at any cost because God is in favor to him. But, the ending of the play suggests the futility of the words.

Scene II Maurya’s reaction over Bartley’s Plan

      Maurya is informed by Nora that Bartley has make up his mind to, visit the Galway fair in order to sell his horses and earn more profits. She loses her temper and begs him to change his mind as the storm is sure to come. She gives him another reason that he will be needed greatly when the dead body of Michael is washed up and there’s no man to make the coffin. But Bartley does not listen to her and Maurya, the mother of an only son, is afraid of the biggest loss of her life. Ignoring all the comments of the mother, Bartley leaves for the sail, promising his sisters that he will surely come within four days. On the door step, he looks behind to his mother, who, tells him that his last son i.e. Bartley has also gone to the sea, leaving her mother behind.

Maurya regrets

      Cathleen, gets annoyed with mother because she has uttered such an unlucky word, when Bartley was looking towards behind her. She is afraid of the bad effect of those words on Bartley. Suddenly, she remembers that the cake, which is freshly baked, is not given to him. Both of the sisters are about to cry because Bartley has taken nothing since sunrise and he will starve to death if not given this bit of bread. Cathleen advises her mother to rush to the spring well and to hand Bartley this piece of bread. In this way, She can not only bless her son and will be able to fail the impact of the dark words uttered earlier. So, Maurya, wraps the bread in a cloth and walks as fast as she can to have a glimpse of Bartley.

Critical Analysis

      In this scene, Bartley makes his entry and is not seen again. Only his dead body is brought by the local men. This episode is emotional and touching. The sensitive audience must be shedding tears on the lines spoken by Maurya “If it was a hundred horses, or a thousand horses you had itself, what is the price of a thousand horses against a son where there is one son only.” How much a mother is helpless in resisting his only child to face the danger. Bartley ignores her and does not defy her, which hardly can reveal his intention and mood. But we are also aware of the fact that the people living near the coast have to endanger their lives for the bread and meat. Same is the case with Bartley, as he is the only male member of the family, thus knows his responsibility and does not want to ignore them. Cathleen understands this and takes brother’s side, “It is the life of a young man to be going on the sea and who would listen to a woman with one thing and she saying it over?” A young man like Bartley can not sit in the house when the other family members are trying to manage food for the family and it is quite true that Maurya, the mother of six sons, but now of only one tries to stop Bartley because in such an old age she cannot suffer more.

      Synge gives us the hint about the tragedy which is inevitable. As T.R. Henn has noted, “We may if we wish discern, uneasily, some connection between the red mare ridden by Bartley, and the grey pony by Michael’s phantasm, for one color belongs to strength and vitality, the other to the dead.” The other hint we get when Maurya unwillingly speaks a dark word. Synge has, knowingly, done this because he wants the audience to guess what is yet to come. Unwillingly, Maurya predicates the misfortune, “He’s gone now, God spares 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.” These are very pessimistic lines and they greatly contribute to the atmosphere of pathos in the play. Holding of stick by Maurya, which is given to her by Michael also indicates as T.R. Henn has pointed out, “The living and the dead seem to meet through their possesions.” She also thinks that death should come first to the elders, whereas with her the case is reversed. Maurya is not thinking of the dream of Michael alone, for earlier him four other sons of hers have also fallen a prey to the sea.

Scene III Proofs of Michael’s death

      Maurya’s departure gives both of the girls the opportunity for which they were waiting for a long. Just after she leaves, Cathleen tells Nora to bring the bundle which will decide their fate. Nora, tells her that the two men found the body, when they were rowing and oar of one of them stroke in it. Then they cut the bundle with a knife as the strings were damaged due to the salt water. When the bundle is disclosed, a hit of a shirt and a stocking was found: The two girls compare the flannel of the shirt with another one in the house and declare both made of the same. But the shirt of the same flannel can be worn by any other sailor too so they remain doubtful again. After that, the number of stitches in stocking and they confirmed of Michael’s death because the stocking was knitted by Nora herself. Cathleen and Nora burst into tears that how the dead body would have been at the mercy of the winds arid the waves. His body must be eaten up by the birds and fishes. Such a brave sailor had such a terrible and painful ending. The two sisters thus wail and moan on their brother’s drowning and hide the articles as soon as they listen the footsteps of mother.

A Frightful vision seen by Maurya

      Maurya comes in reversed mood in which she had left. Her facial expressions reveal her confused state of mind. She sits on the stool without saying a word to anybody. On being asked about her meeting with Bartley, she looks in the blankness and weeps bitterly. She tells them that Bentley came on the red mare and Michael’s on the grey pony, was chasing him. Cathleen is surprised because Michael got a clean burial in the north and the man who is dead, can not be seen again. But mother is confident what she had seen and now no one can save Bartley’s life because, Michael has come to take his brother with him and he will succeed in his attempt. Thus, Maurya’s fear of Bartley’s drowning seem to happen true. Maurya’s vision compels Cathleen to say, “It’s destroyed we are from this day. It’s destroyed, surely,” Nora believes on the young priest who had that God is not too much cruel to take the life of her last son. But Maurya has lost her patience and recalls how one by one, each male member had chosen the sea for their death, willingly or unwillingly; “I have had my husband, my husband’s, father, and my six sons in this house.... All of them are now gone from this world.” Describing this tragic story she even can not listen to the wails and moans, which catch Nora’s attention, but the mother is lost in the thoughts and continues, “There was Sheamus, and his father and his own father again, were lost in a dark night.”

Critical Analysis

      This section declares the terrible death of Michael. Earlier we were confused, whether the dead body is someone else or Michael’s. All these doubts are clear when the bundle discloses the bitter truth. Synge could have reveal the fact much earlier but to intensify the tragic effect; he delays the news so as to thrill the audience with the dead bodies to two young sons. Maurya is too much depressed and helpless that she is not able to lament on the loss. Synge wants to make us aware that when a pot is filled with water, and even then the water is poured into it there’d be no effect. In the same way, a mother having five sons, missing each, has become that pot which is filled to the trim.

       Then the reference of a black knot on the bundle also gives the impression, of some mishappening. We become aware of it, when the bundle is opened and the clothes tell us that Michael is gone.

      However, the house has faced a lot of difficulties after missing one male after the another reaches the number to six. The girls are much more fearless to bear the loss quite alone without informing it to their frustrated mother. They think of their mother that they do not want to make her almost insane by disclosing the Michael’s death, when Cathleen speaks, “Maybe it’s easier she’ll be after giving her blessing to Bartley, and we won’t let on we’ve heard anything the time he’s on the sea.” Then the deep love for their brother is explained by the words spoken by Cathleen,” Isn’t it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and to keep him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?” Nora also imagine the pitiful sight when she says. “And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher but a bit of an old shirt and plain stocking”

      As Michael’s death has given the play an emotional touch, Synge is now aware of the audience of the final tragedy. The whole section is full of tension, which keeps on increasing with Maurya’s description of the vision she had seen and the girls keening “Maurya’s inability to utter a word gives the play a realistic mode, where an old woman after bearing the loss of five sons is suspicious of the sixth and last one. What Maurya has seen is suggested by the dialogue, “I went down to the spring well and I stood there saying a prayer to myself. Then Bartley came along and he riding on the red mare with the grey pony running behind him.....The son of God spares us, Noria!” These words create an atmosphere of supernatural mystery and fear which is quite appropriate to this tragic play. There are also various blind faiths of the people of this island, which make Maurya to predict Bartley’s death. Symbolically the red mare with grey pony suggests that Michael is dead and Bartley is fated to die. The grey color amplifies sadness and sobriety, which can cause doom. Is this part of the play reaches at the climax of the tragedy with the sounds of keening of all the characters. The most tragic scene of this part is Maurya’s retrospection of her past, when she recalls, “There were Stephen and Shawn were lost in the great wind and found after in the Bay of Gregory of the Golden Mouth and carried up the two of them in one plank.”

The Last Scene

      The last scene opens with the entering of the women, making the holy sign of the cross at the threshold. Maurya is confused as she asks whether the body brought in, is of Patch or of Michael and she is mixing past with the present. Michael has been drowned a few days ago, whereas Patch has gone to the sea many days back and his dead body has got a fine burial too. Cathleen is also not sure because she knows that Michael had been found the far north, given a decent I burial then how the dead body of Michael is found here. Maurya does not want to face the reality as she tells that many youngmen of Michael’s age go for the sail and do not come back. It can be the body of any other one. Now Cathleen contradicts herself by declaring the body of Michael because she has been given the clothes and stocking by the north-staying people. But, when Nora, points out that the men are carrying something from which water is dropping Cathleen makes herself sure that it is Bartley’s body and after investigation, she is informed that grey pony knocked him down and he was drowned. She says “The grey pony knocked him over into the sea and he was washed out where there is a great surf on the white rocks.”

      Maurya now kneels down at the head of the table and the women are wailing in low voices. Maurya laments that all her sons are dead now and the sea can do no further harm to her. All these years she had been praying and keeping awake at night whenever any male member of her family was at sea. There is no need to go out in the dark winter night to perform a sacred ritual. Then Maurya asks for the holy water which is left in the vessel. Nora gives it to her and she sprinkles it on the body of Bartley and on Michael’s clothes spread across it. She says that Bartley should not think that she has not said prayers for his safety because she has been praying for Bartly repeatedly till she did not even know what she had been saying. Now she will have rest and a sound sleep in winter nights, because she has not any cause of unrest. Now, she will be satisfied with the wet flour and stale fish. Nora is surprised when she finds her quiet and calm, “she’s quiet now and easy, but the day Michael was drowned you could hear her crying out from this to the spring well” She has wrong impression that mother is more fond of Michael than Bartley as she says “It’s founder she was of Michael, and would anyone have thought that.” But then Cathleen clarifies to her that she has been weeping for nine days and is fully tired now. She has not enough strength to withstand the suffering. Maurya then utters a prayer for the peace of Bartley’s soul and Michael’s soul and souls of her other sons. In the end, she accepts her, fate and provokes the words that death is inevitable what comes to all. Thus death is the rewards for the sufferers and nobody can get the gift more valuable than that.

Critical Analysis

      Maurya’s final calm is not only because she has accepted her fate but also because she knows the limitations and mortality of a human being. She is a failure in fighting with her luck and finally is exhausted. All her prayers could not move God’s heart and the catastrophe could not be avoided. We really admire her for her courage in the midst of her grief.

      Synge’s handling of the end of the play is superb, because the play does not leave us in a state of utter despair with the following memorable words:

      “Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God; Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the whiteboards and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.” Thus the play closes with Maurya’s feeling of reconciliation with her fate. Death has to come to everybody, and it is enough for Maurya that the sons who have died are getting a decent burial. By virtue of this fortitude and stoicism, she rises to the position of a true heroine. She is the victim of a long series of sufferings but she struggles hard till the end. In fact, she is not a failure but a big success where only exceptional cases can withstand such shocks. T.R. Henn points out, “Riders to the sea gives us tragedy in its profound and inexorable simplicity: less violent more elegiac in its tone, achieving depth by common yet complex symbols against the over whelming forces of mutability and the sea.”

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