Riders to the Sea main character Maurya, an old peasant woman, standing on the coast

Riders to the Sea

by J. M. Synge

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Describe the character and role of Bartley in the play Riders to the Sea.

In J.M Synge's one-act play Riders to the Sea, Bartely is the youngest and last remaining of Maurya's five sons. Maurya's other sons, as well as her husband and her father-in-law, have all been taken by the sea, and Bartely is planning to travel by sea to Connemara to sell a horse. Bartley, too, is claimed by the supernatural forces of nature when a horse knocks Bartley into the sea, and he drowns.

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Conflict in a literary work is what moves the story forward. The types of conflict found in novels, poems, short stories, and plays include conflict with oneself—such as Hamlet's internal conflict in Shakespeare's Hamlet—conflict with others, including conflicts with individuals and society as a whole, conflict with the environment, including conflicts with nature and technology, and conflict with the supernatural, such as conflicts with "the gods" in ancient Greek tragedies, conflict with one's destiny or fate, or conflict with a supernatural entity or force.

In Irish playwright J. M. (John Millington) Synge's one-act play Riders to the Sea, the character of Bartely is involved with two conflicts: a conflict with nature, and a conflict with the supernatural.

Interestingly, though, these conflicts aren't with two different entities or forces. Synge represents these two conflicts with one entity and force: the sea.

When the play begins, Bartley's mother, Maurya, is waiting for word about her son, Michael, who's been swept out to sea. Maurya's sons Shawn, Sheamus, Stephen, and Patch, as well as Maurya's husband and his father have all been taken by the sea. Maurya is fatalistic about Michael, and holds no hope that he'll be found alive.

While Maurya waits for word about Michael, Maurya's youngest son, Bartley, makes preparations to take a horse on a boat to Connemara, where he hopes to sell it at a fair. Maurya tries to dissuade Bartley from going to Connemara, but Bartley simply continues to prepare for the journey, unmindful of Maurya's concerns:

MAURYA. Isn't it a hard and cruel man won't hear a word from an old woman, and she holding him from the sea?

CATHLEEN. 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?

As Bartley goes out the door to take the horse to the boat, Maurya laments to her daughters, Nora and Cathleen:

MAURYA. (crying out as he is in the door) He's gone now, God spare us, and we'll not see him again. He's gone now, and when the black night is falling I'll have no son left me in the world.

Maurya's words prove prophetic. Later in the play, some men and women carry in Bartley's body:

CATHLEEN. What way was he drowned?

ONE OF THE WOMEN. The gray pony knocked him into the sea, and he was washed out where there is a great surf on the white rocks.

The dual conflicts resolve in favor of the supernatural force of nature. The sea claims Maurya's youngest son, Bartley, who was destined to follow his brothers, father, and grandfather.

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