What is the role of the sea in Riders to the Sea?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the play Riders to the Sea, the sea represents not only the way in which the people on an island to the west of Ireland can make a living, it also represents the cruel hand of fate. Maurya, the widow at the center of the play, has experienced the drowning of four of her sons and her husband when the play opens (her fifth son, Michael, drowns shortly after the play begins). During the course of the play, she tries to prevent her final son, Bartley, from setting sail to sell a horse. She says the following to him:

"If it was a hundred horses, or a thousand horses you had itself, what is the price of a thousand horses against a son where there is one son only?"

However, Bartley ignores her and sets off. He feels a responsibility to support the family as the one remaining man. Even before Maurya hears news of Bartley's drowning (which occurs when the horse throws him into the sea), she says, "He's gone now, and when the black night is falling I'll have no son left me in the world." She has accepted her fate—that the sea will swallow up all her sons.

At the end of the play, she is relieved that there is not much more that fate, in the form of the sea, can do to harm her. She says, "They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me." After a lifetime of suffering, she is left without much more that can be taken away by the sea, which represents inescapable fate. 

Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Synge's "Riders to the Sea," the sea is that which provides a living, such as it is, for the characters of the small cottage.  Unfortunately, it is also that which causes their suffering. 

The men of the family, past and present, were and are trapped, in a sense.  To make a living, they must go to sea.  But the sea is the bringer of suffering and tragedy.  They are, in effect, in a no-win situation.  They must go to sea to survive economically, but death on the sea is so common that all of Maurya's sons, as well as her husband, are killed on it.

Set on an island, the play's characters are, of course, constantly surrounded by the sea.  The sea, therefore, pervades the play, contributing to the tragic mood.  For Maurya, the only escape is to lose every male in the family.  She finds a sort of peace when she loses everything she has to lose.  Having nothing left for the sea to take, Maurya no longer has reason to fear it.  She is a tragic figure resigned to her suffering.