Significance of the Title of Riders to the Sea

January 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the tragic spectacle of Riders to the Sea, John Millington Synge explores an essentially Pagan situation. There is a degree of deliberation in the choice of the title and its application is both literal and metaphorical since it is an extended metaphor meaning “we are all moving toward mortal death”. The title mainly embodies the Biblical allusion: in the book of Exodus there is a mention of how Pharaoh’s horsemen pursued the Israelites to the sea but themselves perished in the process. Miriam, the prophetess, sang the glory of Lord for “the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea”. Obviously Pharaoh’s horsemen, the riders to the sea, were cursed by God and they met their death in the raging waters.

In the play, Maurya may or may not have been cursed by the Lord but there is something ill fated about their journey, a fact that Maurya knows too well. Having lost her husband and her four sons, she tries to prevent her last and youngest son, Bartley from going into the sea despite the young priest assuring her that “Almighty God will not leave her destitute with no son living”. Here the priest himself is seen as a piece of fragile optimism since Maurya’s religious beliefs hasn’t been of much help in the past and thus, she brusquely dismisses the priest’s assurance stating, “It’s little the like of him known about the sea”. Unfortunately, what Maurya apprehends turns out to be true; Bentley too perishes at the end of the play.

The title, The Riders to the Sea is a constant reminder of the reality of Maurya’s predicament that the members of her family have a sealed destiny like that of the Pharaoh’s riders. They will ride to the sea with confidence and hope but will never return alive. However, the main difference lies in the fact that the inhabitants of the Aran Islands posed no challenge to the mighty sea. In fact, they are simple, innocent villagers who are actually dependent on the sea for their livelihood and obviously do not pose a threat to its rage and power. Yet they are fated in such a way that there is no escape from their destiny; the riders are caught in an exorable cycle where they are always the victim of the invincible force of the sea hungering after them. The playwright himself stayed in Galway Coast off Southern Ireland for a considerable time in an effort to write literature with a purely Irish influence. Thus, Riders to the Sea brilliantly captures the plight of these men and women struggling against the force of nature to sustain themselves. These villagers, mostly Catholic also struggle with the potential contradictory implications of the Catholic faith.

In a more immediate and dramatic context, the term “Riders” has a particular reference to only two riders in the play. One is the doomed Bartley and the other is his spectral brother, Michael. The living Bartley rides on his “red mare” while his dead brother is carried on the “grey pony” behind. This is the “fear fullest thing” envisioned by Maurya. This awful vision lies at the center of Synge’s play for apparition of the non human rider Michael passes Bartley’s imminent doom. In Michael’s elegy, their poor mother talks about Bartley like he has already died, stating, “I’ve had a husband and a husband’s father and six sons in this house…but they’re gone now, a lot of them”. It is indeed heart wrenching when a mother has to deliver the elegy of all her children when in fact the sons died for no fault of their own. Michael, Bartley, and the other young men of the Islands are all “riders” to the sea and in a fatal turn of events the living and the dead mingle together somehow to create an atmosphere of an impending tragic doom. Therefore, the title emphasizes the mythical and supernatural trappings of Synge’s tragedy.

The implication of the “riders” widens and Bartley and Michael become human symbols of the men folk of Aran Islands who have faced the sea in the past and fearlessly braved its might. The title reinforces the overwhelming theme of death that pervades the whole play. It is not only Maurya who has witnessed her whole family perish in the waves; on a macrocosmic level, the death of Michael and subsequently of Bartley is a metaphor to explain what the villagers experience on a daily basis.

But the kernel of the tragedy is the heroic struggle of the character against all odds and the final vindication of the greatness and sublimity of the indomitable human spirit. The particular satisfaction of tragic comes from a feeling that the protagonist’s spirit is way superior to the catastrophic power of the sea which has the capacity to toss and turn and engulf any puny man in no time. In Riders to the Sea, the characters wage their struggle against a destiny that shows no mercy and ultimately defeats them. The riders venture out, despite their knowledge that their fathers and grandfathers met with the same fate. But life is not a static, it must go on and thus, the men ride out to the sea in spite of knowing that they may never return home again. So Bartley does a similar thing when he decides to brave the sea by turning a deaf ear to his mother’s pleadings. This notion of the unflinching human spirit is illustrated through Cathleen’s speech, “It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea and who would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?”.

In conclusion it can be said that J.M. Synge while representing the young men as riders to the sea, he also suggests their heroism. On one hand there is an element of helplessness among the island dwellers while on the other, the undaunted gallantry of the men that impels them to take on the challenges and face whatever Nature thrusts them with. Thus, the title highlights the rhetoric of this heroic gesture on the part of the weak fated doomed mortals. It is therefore highly appropriate since it suggests not only the contextual and symbolic framework of the play but also indicates the nature of the horrific in Synge’s one act tragedy.

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