Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 640 words.)