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The sea is one of those universal symbols which is not decoded by one culture much differently from another as it is a common reference to all. First, it represents the source of life, the primeval origin of all creatures; it is the "womb of the world." Antithetically, by its sheer strength and power of destruction it represents death as well. Thus an everlasting "womb-tomb" cycle takes form, with both life and death forces taking equal part.
This idea comes over very strongly throughout this play. The sea is both the source of substenance for the family and the reason for its destruction, as one by one Maurya's sons give up their lives to the sea. There is first pathos created by the senseless fatality of their deaths, then resignation to the inevitable.
Check out the following references to glean useful information for your research. (Be sure to navigate through the subtopics as well.) You might also want to check out naturalism as a literary tendency, in which the forces of nature are considered destructive and wilfully hostile against man.
In writing your essay for this prompt, I would also suggest that you consider the sea as an example of uncertainty, especially the uncertainty of rural life in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. As the other answer to this question points out, the sea is both a giver of life (in that it supports fishing, trade, and general commerce), but it is also a deadly force and often drowns those who travel on it. Thus, in addition to exemplifying a cycle between life and death, J.M. Synge's representation of the sea also exemplifies the uncertainty of rural Irish life. The elements and forces that sustain a community occasionally also destroy said community, and so the rural life Synge is depicting is a constant balancing act and never wholly secure. By extension, Synge's exploration of the tumultuous sea reminds us that the security and safety of civilization is often an illusion, and that we are all actually at the mercy of the uncertain forces of nature, just like the main characters in Riders to the Sea.
If you're looking for books on the play, I might suggest looking at Nicholas Grene's Synge: A Critical Study of the Plays. As a former student of Dr. Grene's, I can attest to his groundbreaking work in the field of Irish drama and Irish literature in general. Additionally, it's worth checking out eNotes' helpful list of books and sources on the play, and I've provided a link to these resources below.
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