Symbolism in The Play Riders To The Sea

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Symbolism: A Literary Meaning

      Symbolism is mainly a French movement in literature and assumed the status of a literary movement, in the last quarter of the 19th century in France and in the first decade of the 20th century in England. The symbolist school is a reaction to faith in nature, and endeavours to represent spiritual values by means of abstract signs. Distinguishing a symbol from a metaphor, Philip Wheel Wright observes “A symbol, a general is a relatively stable and repeatable element of perceptual experience, standing for some larger meaning or set of meanings which cannot be given or not fully given, in perceptual experience itself.” some symbols are “conventional” or “public”, some are “private” or ’’personal symbols” which are developed by the poets. However, dramatists have many advantages over the use of symbols, which are not only verbal but visual also i.e. stage symbols, by means of light and sound effects.

The Hallucination of Maurya

      The principal melodramatic element in the play is Maurya’s experience of vision of ghostly Michael, when she goes to the spring well, in order to hand over the bread to Bartley, Many critics gave in favorable response to the scene, as in the words of Malclom Pittock; “....the play is a mixture of tragedy and melodrama, that is to say it offers two incompatible attitudes to the experience it presents”. This part of the play is quite terrifying for the audience because the reference of Michael’s ghost is a source of terror for them. On the other hand, it symbolizes Bartley’s death, which is not far and in the end, it was told to us that the grey pony hit the red mare on which Bartley was riding thus causing him death. So, Bartley’s tragedy is suggested by the folk superstitions of the people of Island.

Biblical Allusion

      In Riders to the Sea, the title itself conveys us the tragedy of the riders. In the Book of Exodus, we come to know how the riders perished in the sea; for when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horse men went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them but the people of Israel walked in dry ground in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels in her hand; and all the women went, out after her with timbrels and danced. And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the LORD, for he has
triumphed gloriously:
The horse and his rider he was
thrown into the sea.”

      In the play, Bartley ignores mother’s warning and leaves for the Mainhand on red mare and the grey pony chased him. Finally, we come to know that it was grey pony, which pushed Bartley’s mare into the sea and thus caused his death. So, the grey pony symbolizes darkness, sobriety i.e. death. Even, the shirt of Michael, which was worn by Bartley, when he was to start his journey, symbolically, suggests the forthcoming disaster to the family. T.R. Henn has noted, the exchange of shirt by Bartley symbolizes the “interpretation of the world of the living by the dead.”

      Thus, we are suggested that as Pharaoh’s riders are destined to death in the same way, all the male members of Maurya’s family are fated to meet their death in the sea. So, it is the sea which determines the fate of the Islanders who are without any flaw in their characters. Even the prayers to God cannot alter the situation anyway and the priest’s beliefs shatter to the ground: “God Almighty will not leave Maurya destitute, with no son living.” These lines of Priest, which later on, prove fake, give us the impression that God is indifferent to those people on Island.

Symbolism of Sea

      In Riders to the Sea, the sea symbolizes misfortune or disaster for the people of Islands, who are at the mercy of it. Even the prayers to God can not melt its heart and the disaster is inevitable. The very setting of the play, suggests us that it is the sea, which gives bread to the islanders as “oilskins” and “nets” convey us their occupation. On the other hand the reference of “some new boards standing by the wall” at once strike the reader that death can come anytime to the people who look for their lives towards the sea. When Maurya, the woman tortured by the sea already, tries her best to stop Bartley but the son ignores mother’s warning and goes in the lap of sea. What the sea has done to Maurya, is informed to us in the end: “....I’ve had a husband, and a husband’s father, and six sons in this house—six fine men, though it was a hard birth I had with every one of them and they coming to the world—and some of them were found and some of them were not found, but they’re gone now the lot of them..... There were Stephen and Shawn were lost in the great wind, and found after in the Bay of Gregory of the Golden Mouth...” So, these lines of Maury a suggest us how all of the sons of Maurya went into the mouth of Leviathan. What Synge wrote; “Their remoteness and simplicity deprive them from benefits of modern science and accentuate their feeling of dread and desolation in the face of the vast, uncontrollable forces. And the sea, which offers a livelihood, and helps to develop admirable qualities, brings also suffering and death.”

Symbolic Significance of the Number Nine

      Synge uses the number nine, again and again in the play, Riders to the Sea, thus making us aware of the symbolic meaning of it. Maurya is shown as waiting for her son, who has been lost for nine days. Later, when Bartley leaves for the Mainland, he tells his sisters that he is sure to come back in two days, or in three day, or in four days, if the weather is stormy. The sum of these numbers is again nine. So, the number nine is unlucky for the family. Even the people coming to bemoan the death of Bartley, are nine in number. So, the influence of number nine is disastrous for the family.

Implications of Keening

      ‘Keening’ is the other symbol, which suggests us something havoc in the play. In the very beginning of the play, Cathleen hides the clothes of Michael because her mother would die of keening at the loss of her son. The vision of Michael’s ghost seen by Maurya, compels her to keen and wail, as the death of Bartley is inevitable. So, we see that all the Islanders, like Maurya, are living under the fear of death. An acute realization of the hovering nothingness in their lives finds dramatic expression in the ‘half—savage half musical melopoeia known as the ‘keen’. Synge did not use keen for any dramatic purpose; but the life of the Islanders is always under the impression of this word ‘keen’, and what is perceived by the Playwright and used with much brilliance.

Credibility in Supernatural

      Synge has depicted us the life of Islanders, who are full of superstitions and beliefs. So, the Playwright has beautifully interwoven the reality with his imagination and thus the product is not only excellent but also convicting to the sophisticated audience. In the words of T.R. Henn. “So the symbols, set in their matrix of rhythmical speech of great subtlety and complexity, permeate the play. They dissolve, coalesce, combine in tension or opposition, to give depth or contrapuntal irony pertaining always their essential nature, which is to set the imagination in motion, to extend it beyond the bounds of the apparent simplicity of the plot.”

University Questions

The Symbols, set in their matrix of rhythmical speech of great subtlety and complexity, permeate the play Rider to the Sea,
How does symbolism gives a touch of melodrama to Riders to the Sea?
What are the features that render Synge’s treatment of symbols unique?
Discuss with reference of Riders to the Sea.
How does Synge make the supernatural look natural, with the efficient use of symbols in Riders to the Sea?

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