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 are the lives and beliefs of people of the Aran islands conveyed in Riders to the Sea?

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The Aran Islands, besides being an actual group of islands in the Atlantic, stood as symbols for Synge of isolation, independence, attachment to the natural elements (in opposition to human society and psychological “rules”).  The families’ attachment to the sea was both economic and spiritual—the dependence on fishing as a trade, together with the automatic danger of being at the mercy of the sea’s power, even to connect with the mainland, gradual built in the community a quasi-religious belief in the inevitability of death at sea, with its concomitant illusions (such as Maurya’s seeing her son’s ghost on the horse.)  Interesting also is the juxtaposition of “scientific” cause-and-effect reasoning (logic), such as identifying a drowned body by recognizing a unique flaw in the knitting of a sweater (in real life, too, each family had its own knitting pattern).  Synge conveys these beliefs and traditions by dramatizing the attrition of Maurya’s children, and her gradual acceptance of the Biblical meaning of “riders to the sea.”  Her acceptance of her last son’s fate is further conveyed by Synge’s treatment of the daughters, themselves inevitably future mothers of future dead sons.  Synge’s other important “isolation” play, Playboy of the Western World, continues to dramatize the dichotomy between social “laws” and the “laws” of Nature (sexual attraction, alienation of generations, etc.), but here in a comic motif.

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