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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Is Maurya in Riders to the Sea considered a tragic hero? Why or why not?

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Opinions vary on whether Maurya in "Riders to the Sea" is a tragic hero. On one hand, she is seen as such due to her predetermined tragic fate, as she loses all her male family members to the sea, marking her destiny as tragic. However, others argue that according to Aristotle's criteria, Maurya does not qualify as she doesn't fall from a high place, has no tragic flaw causing her downfall, and there is no catharsis involved.

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In many ways, Maurya is a tragic hero. In Greek drama, a tragic hero is someone destined by the gods to a tragic fate; try as the hero might, there is nothing he or she can do to alter this fate. When the play opens, Maurya has already lost her husband, father-in-law, and four of her six sons to the sea. Only Michael and Bartley are still alive among her sons, but Michael is already lost. At the beginning of the play, before Michael's fate is known, Nora says that according to the priest, "Herself does be saying prayers half through the night, and the Almighty God won't leave her destitute...with no son living." Despite the priest's faith that God will not take away all of Maurya's sons, Michael's body washes ashore, and Bartley is thrown by his horse into the ocean. After Bartley dies, Maurya says, "They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me." In other words, she understands that the sea was bent on taking all her sons and the other men in her life and there was no resisting this fate; however, now that she has suffered extreme loss, she has nothing left to lose. Her tragic destiny marks her as a tragic hero. 

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It would be quite a stretch to call Mauyra a tragic hero, using Aristotle’s criteria, based on the plays of Sophocles and Euripides. First, the tragic hero must "fall from a high place.” Even on her small Aran Island, she is not exalted -- she is a “typical” Irish mother of a family of simple fishermen and daughters. Secondly, she does not “fall" in any substantive way, despite the loss of her sons and the vision of her son’s ghost on a horse. Next, she has no tragic flaw in her personality that would cause such a fall. Finally, there is no catharsis or cleansing of the cast or the audience. It could be argued that the “one-place; one-day” requirements of classic tragedy were met, but what people today mean by “tragedy” is that the story of the play does not have a “happy” ending, that the play is “not a comedy.” After the Renaissance and especially during the Victorian era, drama genres began to be given such names as “melodrama,” “domestic comedy,” and the like.

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In Riders to the Sea, is Maurya considered a tragic hero?

Riders to the Sea can be read as a kind of updated Greek tragedy, and Maurya has many traits of the classical tragic hero. Her suffering, emotional strength after so many of her children die at sea, and eventual triumph over adversity put her in the tradition of the famous Greek tragic figures such as Oedipus and Antigone.

There are several important differences, however. Maurya, unlike the Sophoclean tragic heroes, is not highborn, nor does she suffer from a tragic flaw. Maurya is not proud to a fault, for example; unlike Oedipus, who unwittingly brings all his troubles onto himself, Maurya is a passive sufferer, enduring the repeated drownings of her children with stoic resolve. Her "flaw" is existential—she suffers the fate of all mothers on The Arans. Even though she intuitively knows what will happen to Bartley if he decides to sail to Galway, ultimately she is powerless to stop it. By submitting to God's will, Maurya attains a kind of tragic glory.

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