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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How does Synge depict the uncertainty of human life in Riders to the Sea?

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In Riders to the Sea, Synge depicts the theme of the uncertainty of human life by presenting the deaths of two brothers and their surviving family members’ reactions. Michael is lost before the play begins, but his sisters’ confirmation of his death is part of the play’s action. The mother’s concern for Bartley, even before she learns of Michael’s death, highlights the fragility of making a living from the sea or near it.

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In J. M. Synge’s play, the uncertainty of human life is a theme that is closely connected with the sea. The play revolves around the deaths of two brothers, who are the last two male children of Maurya. In the early part of the play, as it seems very likely that Michael has been killed at sea, his sisters must identify his personal possessions in order to confirm his death. Beyond that, they must also try to keep the likely situation from their mother until his death is a certainty.

Because Maurya has grown up in an island community where most of the men make their living on the sea, she has learned to expect that the sea will also take those lives. Her knowledge of the constant uncertainty with which they live is partly presented in her logical reasoning about the dangers of going to sea. In addition, she believes that what she sees in visions is a concrete indicator of additional perils. On the one hand, it would seem that Bartley is less endangered because he is not a sailor. The play’s irony lies in the fact that this is not the case. Even though Bartley is on dry land with the horses, the sea takes him nevertheless. Synge thus suggests that practical precautions are only marginally effective in a hazardous environment.

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