Riders to the Sea Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The first of Synge’s two masterworks, Riders to the Sea did not encourage censure or controversy when first performed, but it stands as a perfect articulation of themes and ideas that appear in later plays. Events take place entirely in a single room as two sisters, Cathleen and Nora, hide from their mother, Maurya, the news that their brother Michael, a fisherman lost at sea, has washed ashore far north of their cottage. The remaining son, Bartley, sets off to sign on with another departing fishing vessel, after Maurya fails to persuade him to stay. No sooner is Michael’s death confirmed than Bartley is thrown from his horse into the sea, where he also drowns.

The complex appreciation that Synge held for nature is evident in the play; it is depicted as a grandly magisterial force that envelops and exceeds all life and human comprehensibility. It is seen as a cruel master, remorselessly taking life out of the world, leaving the destitute even more impoverished. As Maurya reveals, she has lost eight men in her life to the implacable forces of nature, and the same universal patterns that Synge detected on the Aran Islands are at play here.

The setting and characters reveal Synge’s interest in peasant life, and the play offers a clear glimpse into the realities of a rural family. Details of domestic economy, farm duties, livestock trading, and fishing are presented with delicate precision. These activities, however—specific as they are to these lives—are significant for revealing a broader human condition. All people must struggle against the contingencies of their lives, and death, nature’s great inevitability, visits everyone. The impulse to depict these people as quaint or noble is suppressed; instead, the raw realities of their existence are placed squarely before the reader.

The harshest of these realities is the sense of doom and foreboding that hovers about the play. The sisters resist accepting Michael’s death until they examine the paltry remnants recovered from the ocean. Both Maurya and the reader know that he is dead, and when confirmation arrives it comes as no surprise. Similarly, Maurya fears for Bartley, and when returning from seeing him off, she narrates a sinister vision. As Bartley rides off on a white mare, trailing a gray pony, Maurya spies Michael’s ghost astride the second horse. She is convinced that it is an evil omen, and, indeed, shortly thereafter neighbors arrive with Bartley’s body. She expresses her hopelessness in the play’s last lines, “What more can we want than [a grave for the dead]? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.”

Synge’s wary view of religion is also subtly at play in Riders to the Sea. Nora tells Cathleen of the consolation that a young priest has offered, but in Synge’s world God is either a phantom of the imagination or a force absent from the lives of humans. In spite of all Maurya’s prayers, the well-meaning words of the priest, and the sprinkling of holy water, divinity does not prevail over the several inevitabilities of nature. Religion offers no hope and only cold comfort against the numbing pain of existence.

Riders to the Sea Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Maurya, an old peasant woman, is worried about her son Michael. Her husband, her father-in-law, and four of her sons have been drowned in earlier sea accidents, leaving her with two sons, Michael and Bartley, and two daughters, Cathleen and Nora. Now Michael is missing at sea. As Maurya sleeps, Cathleen works at her spinning and makes a cake for Bartley, the younger of her two remaining brothers, to take on a trip. Bartley is planning to go to the horse fair on the mainland. Nora comes into the house with a bundle of clothes a priest has given her. The clothes, a shirt and a stocking, have been taken from the body of an unidentified young man found floating off the coast of Donegal to the north. Hearing their mother stir, Cathleen and Nora decide to hide the clothes. They plan to examine them later to see if they are Michael’s before saying anything to Maurya.

Cathleen asks Nora if she asked the priest to urge Bartley not to sail in the stormy weather. Nora says that the priest told her to trust God not to leave Maurya without any sons. Cathleen climbs into the loft and hides the clothes. When she hears her mother getting up, she pretends she has been fetching turf for the kitchen fire. Maurya scolds her for wasting turf.

Maurya asks where Bartley is, and Nora tells her that he has gone to check on the boat schedule. Moments later, Bartley hurries into the room looking for a piece of rope to make a horse halter. His mother tries various arguments to stop Bartley from going to the horse fair. She tells him that he ought to leave the rope where it is because they might need it to lower Michael’s coffin into his grave if he has drowned. When Bartley tells her it is expected to be a good fair, Maurya replies that a thousand horses cannot be worth as much as a son. Bartley continues with his plans anyway, knotting the rope into a horse halter and giving Cathleen last-minute instructions for looking after things during his absence. Bartley and Maurya leave, and Nora decides not to mention anything about the hidden clothing until Bartley returns safely.

When Maurya returns after seeing Bartley off, she sits by the fire and begins to moan and cry. Nora and Cathleen demand to know what is wrong, and she tells them that she has seen Bartley riding the red horse, with Michael, in fine clothes and new shoes, riding behind him on the gray pony. When she tried to call her blessing to them, her voice choked in her throat.

Shocked by her mother’s words, Cathleen gives in and tells her that Michael has drowned. Maurya continues to speak as if to herself, recounting her losses one by one, as other old women come into the house, cross themselves, and kneel to pray. Cathleen hands Maurya the bit of Michael’s clothing, and then Maurya knows it is true that he is dead.

They hear a sound outside and find that it is men carrying Bartley’s wet body. The gray pony had knocked Bartley down in the surf, and he had been swept out with the tide and drowned. Now Maurya realizes the finality of her loss. She will never see Michael again, and Bartley, her last son, is also dead. She says there is nothing left to threaten her now. The men prepare to build a coffin for Bartley from the white boards Maurya had earlier gotten for Michael’s burial. Maurya sprinkles the last of the holy water on Michael’s clothes in final benediction and asks for God’s blessing. She notes that no one can live forever and that one must be satisfied with a decent grave.