Riders to the Sea Questions and Answers by John Millington Synge

Riders to the Sea Questions and Answers


1. Theme of the Play

[Q. How does the play Riders to the Sea fulfill the themes of resignation and reconciliation?


Q. What are the themes in Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge? ]

Riders to the Sea is a play written by Irish Literary Renaissance playwright John Millington Synge. It was first performed on 25 February 1904 at the Molesworth Hall, Dublin, by the Irish National Theater Society with Helen Laird playing Maurya. A one. act tragedy, the play is set in the Aran Islands, Inishmaan, and like all of Synge’s plays it is noted for capturing the poetic dialogue of rural Ireland. The plot is based not on the traditional conflict of human wills but on the hopeless struggle of a people against the impersonal but relentless cruelty of the sea.

Riders to the Sea is a drama that concerns suffering on many levels. A mother faces the loss of six sons to the sea; the two daughters must bear their mother’s pain of loss as well as their own; the last surviving brother knows that he risks death because, out of extreme necessity, he works against an angry sea; and the islanders suffer because they share the hardships imposed on them by the changing economic conditions that have affected the Aran Islands.

The play has several layers of meaning beyond its literal statement. The title itself comes from the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus (15:1), “The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The Book of Revelation (6:1-8) also sheds light on the central incident in the play: “And I looked and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on it was Death.”

Besides the Old Testament allusions, certain actions in the play correspond to events mentioned in the New Testament. When Maurya, in the presence of Cathleen and Nora, sprinkles holy water on Michael’s clothes, one thinks of Easter morning, when three women came to anoint the body of Jesus. In this sense the scene becomes symbolic of the Resurrection. Cathleen reinforces this notion of resurrection when she refers to “when the sun rises,” voicing John Millington Synge’s intended pun on “resurrection of the son.”

The play presents a curious blend of Christian beliefs and pagan superstitions. The islanders, simple fisherfolk, would have no problem reconciling the two. When Maurya mentions sprinkling “holy water in the dark nights after Samhain,” the pagan feast (on November 11) simply becomes a way of marking time, while holy water is a religious symbol of purification.

The All-Powerful Sea Representing Fate

The sea in the play assumes a very vital role; it is the chief source of livelihood for the helpless islanders and simultaneously, a constant cause of unexpected and unavoidable death. Bartley is fully aware of how the sea has claimed the lives of his brothers, yet he desperately sails out, disregarding all odds. Determining the destiny of the islanders, the sea as such serves as fate.

Subtle Paganism Steeped in Catholicism

Synge’s observation of the keen inclination of the islanders towards Celtic paganism is brilliantly portrayed through the varied traits of the central character, Maurya. Despite being a Catholic, she invests more faith in the sea, and natural happenings are looked upon by her as a warning of impending doom. It is only after the death of her last son that she can surrender herself fully to the Catholic faith.

Tradition as opposed to Modernization

Maurya, with her rigid reluctance to leave her cottage and her belief in pagan values, stands for a traditional way of life, whereas her children embrace a modern outlook in refusing to wash away their capabilities around the uncertainties of the sea.

The theme of religions runs throughout the novel. The people living on the island are Catholics, or probably being brought towards Catholicism by the young priest, but Maurya and the other old people have their pagan beliefs and rituals. There is a kind of conflict between Paganism and Catholicism. The traditional Irish Catholicism is quite obvious in the play. There are priests, holy water, blessings, and preaching etc. But, there are several more pagan religious elements that keep challenging the Catholic beliefs.

Instead of listening to the young priest and his suggestions, Maurya keeps looking to the stars, signs, and omens. She is completely guided by warnings and signs. Since she has been living there longer than the young priest, she knows more about the island than the priest. He is an outsider there and he does not even visit the family in their cottage. She does believe in God but when it comes to taking certain actions, she gives more importance to the power of the sea than the power of God. Eventually, when she loses her last surviving son Bartley, she ends her battle with the sea and comes back to her Catholic faith. She sprinkles holy water over the clothes and the face of the body and kneels down to pray.

Through the theme of Catholicism versus Paganism, the playwright seems to be conveying a message that when all other ways are closed, humans are inevitably compelled to look to God.

The other significant theme that has its impact on the text of the play is the theme of tradition versus modernity, or old versus young. Maurya, the mother, is the noticeable representative of tradition and ancient beliefs, but her children and the young priest represent modernity. The children and the young priest do not believe in signs and omens that have noticeable influence on the life of Maurya. The priest is an outsider who preaches the divine world to the islanders, but Maurya has been living there for many years, and she knows everything about the island and its particulars.

Having gone through her character, it becomes quite apparent that Maurya’s religion is more paganistic than Catholic. She is not ready to leave her ancient that are heavily guided by signs and omens. She is not ready to accept any of the new ideas and comforts that business or the modern Catholicism is suggested to provide. She is leading her small life and she is sometimes scared of leaving her own cottage and going out. Her children are not happy with their mother’s beliefs senseless behaviour. They do not approve of her rigid adherence to her beliefs.

 Maurya is not ready to even leave her cottage, leaving aside the thought of leaving the island, but her children look beyond the island and they do want to visit the wider world and do something to make their lives better. The young priest works like bridge between the ancient world and modern world. The tension between the old and modern continues to prevail, but Bartley becomes the victim of this tension. He knows that the sea is dangerous but he knows that he must go to the sea to prove that he is a man and to earn his livelihood. He is the only surviving male member in the family and he takes it as his responsibility to secure a livelihood for his family.

There is no doubt that Maurya is defeated at the end of the play, having lost her last son, but there is a lot that the younger generation can learn from her character. There is no doubt that modernity will eventually prevail and the old ideas, beliefs, and traditions will gradually disappear, but we can clearly see that Maurya does carry on with her old beliefs and her signs and omens because she does not want to lose any of her family members. Though not expressed or spoken, her love for her children is quite eloquent.

2. The Significance of the Title

[Q. Discuss the significance of the title of Riders to the Sea.


Q. Who are the riders in Riders to the Sea? Why is ‘Riders to the Sea’ an appropriate title for Synge’s play?]

‘Riders to the Sea’ literally means people venturing out into the sea. In this play, Riders to the Sea the life of the Aran Islanders is represented through one family. The death of all its male members shows how the sea acts as an agent of fate. The sea sustains these people; it also swallows all the earning members of Maurya family. But Synge suggests the cruelty of the sea and human helplessness before its omnipotent power. Synge’s choice of title is the superb brainwork of his genius.

The title “Riders to the sea” is the most significant and symbolic to the thematic journey. The main theme of the play, Riders to the Sea is the conflict between man and the sea. The title is very attractive and thought-provoking. The readers are curious to know who the riders are. They will be deep into the sea with the riders. Then the mystery will be revealed and the readers will shed tears. The two riders Bartley and Michael represent the whole riders of the peasant families of Aran


In the play there are two riders rides on the grey pony and Bartley riders on the red mare. They ride on their horses to the sea. The Sea is the source of their living and dying. The Sea is the giver and taker of their lives. Through the riding of Michael and Bartley, we see the Aran islanders. Happiness and enjoyment bid them farewell. Sorrows and sufferings are the part and parcel of their riding. They have to fight constantly against the stony soil from which they will produce food grains after the hard toil and sweat of their body. And the hungry sea is ready to devour the riders. Firstly she tempts with the bait of their source of living and lastly, she snatches away every fisherfolk of the islanders.

The title helps us to go deep into the text and the sea. The story is about the tragic fate of Maurya, an old woman of the island. She has her father-in-law, her husband, and six sturdy sons. They are all riders to the sea. But all of them except Bartley were devoured before the curtain rose. The play is about the last rider, Bartley. Maurya’s fifth son Michael was drowned in the sea nine days before the play begins. Bartley wants to go to the sea. Maurya dissuades but Bartley says Cathleen “It’s a life of a Youngman to be going to the sea.” The sea devours him also.

The title has a biblical significance. If we have a look at the Book of Exodus in the old testament we will realize the symbolical meaning. When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tumbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. Miriam songs”Sing to the Lord, for he has/Triumphed gloriously;/The horse and his rider he had/ Thrown into the sea.”

Pharaoh’s riders are destined to die as Maurya’s ‘riders’ are fated to meet their death in the sea. The title also has a supernatural element. One of the riders is the ghost of Michael who pursues his living brother and takes him from this world. To quote T.R. Henn- “It (the sea) is the killer of the young, the breadwinners, whose life is to be upon it. The fishermen are all its riders, mysteriously linked to the human and superhuman riders, here and in tradition.”

The title also emphasizes the mythic and supernatural elements. It indicates the manner in which the final tragedy overtakes Maurya. The sea has devoured all the males of Maurya’s family. All are the riders to the sea. The lives of the Aran islanders are determined by the sea. Their fates are destined by the hungry sea, whereas Pharash’s horsemen were punished by their misdeeds. Synge with his tragic scheme pushes the riders into the sea. So all the riders have taken shelter under the sea after their death. Hence the title is very suggestive and symbolic.

J.M.Synge’s Riders to the Sea is a remarkable dramatic presentation of an elegiac situation, represented both on a personal level of individual life and on a universal

level of spiritual journey. This is implicated in the title of the play itself. On the surface, it is clearly a play about the two riders-the living man on the red mare and the dead one on the grey pony. Beneath this apparent simplification, there are echoes of Biblical archetypes and mythologies far deeper than the surface connotations.

In Maurya’s vision of Bartley and Michael on horseback, Synge uses the prose of Aran Islands to invoke the images of the Book of Revelation: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death”. Two of the apocalyptic horsemen in Revelation, one riding a red horse and capable of taking away peace, and the other riding a pale horse and called Death, are alluded to in Maurya’s vision. In Irish folklore, supernatural horsemen and horses are recurrent motifs.

The title, when seen from a more critical perspective, appears to contain a peculiar dichotomy. This, in turn, serves to highlight something special. Normally “riding” is not associated with “sea” as easily as “sailing” is. The very fact that Synge does not mention sailors in his title, directs at a deliberate strategy to create an air of un-naturality and doom. Bartley is not shown as a fisherman or sailor but as a rider, a transgressor, predestined to a fruitless extinction.

From another perspective, it can be said that every character in “Riders to the Sea”-Cathleen, Nora, Bartley and even Maurya, is part of an elemental journey, as riders to the sea of eternity. While Cathleen, Nora and Bartley represent the starting points of such a spiritual voyage, conscious of apparent reality and need for sustenance, Maurya reaches a climactic stage followed by her anagnorisis.

It is at this point that the words “riders” and “sea” go beyond their usual significations to mean something far more universal and enduring. Errol Durbach aptly points out: “… this is the nature of her (Maurya’s) revelation at the spring well-not that of death alone, but of death as inextricable in the whole cycle of life.”

One might say that death by drowning is both motif and theme, and so is waiting for this death. However, a closer look at the Biblical allusion of the “grey pony” reveals a reversal of signification. Maurya, blessed thrice by Bartley (twice at the cottage and once at the spring well), is unable to bless Bartley. Therefore, the rider of the grey pony (linked to the pale horse), does not take away peace but gives it to the beholder, unlike the Biblical rider who is expected to take away peace.

Maurya’s final realization, articulated in her elegiac outpouring, marks her own acceptance of fate. Superbly linking the spring-well vision to Michael’s and Bartley’s deaths, Synge could not have chosen a better title for his play than “Riders to the Sea”, which reminds us of Yeats’ Rilke-inspired epitaph: Cast a cold eye/On life, on death/Horsemen, pass by!

Life is seen as a brief ride, chased by Death riding behind. Realizing this, Maurya finds herself finally capable of blessing: May he have mercy on the soul of everyone”

All men are, after all, riders to the same unappeasable sea, and to accept Maurya’s blessing is to participate in the tragic experience of the play-not about

human futility but about a reconciliation between mortality and awareness, riding toward a pre-destined yet enlightened end.


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