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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What is Nora's role in Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge?

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Nora in Riders to the Sea serves as a conduit for religious and spiritual communication, often echoing the priest's reassurances to her family. She represents a hopeful, albeit passive, presence compared to her sister Cathleen, striving to comfort their mother, Maurya, with the priest's words and religious rites. Moreover, Nora provides crucial background information throughout the play, intensifying the tragic narrative by describing the ominous signs of death that surround her family.

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Nora is the younger daughter in the family; her role in the play is to be a voice for the church. At the beginning of the play, she tells her sister Cathleen what the young priest told her when they are trying to figure out if their brother Michael has been drowned. The priest says to tell their mother that Michael has "got a clean burial by the grace of God." Nora repeats the priest's words to her sister, who later repeats these words to her mother.

Later, after Nora figures out that her brother Michael has been drowned and that her brother Bartley is likely to be drowned, she says of her mother, Maurya, "Didn't the young priest say the Almighty God wouldn't leave her destitute with no son living?" Nora trusts what the priest says and believes that God will not leave her mother without any sons (though this is eventually her mother's fate). In the end, it is Nora who hands her mother the holy water to sprinkle on Michael's clothes. Nora is the character in the play who is most closely associated with religion and the Catholic church.

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Nora is more sympathetic to her mother while Cathleen directly challenges her mother to be more positive, to stop her relentless, gloomy negativity. However, at first, both daughters attempt to keep the evidence (clothes) of Michael's death from their mother, Maurya, so that she might not lament. Eventually, Cathleen hands Maurya the clothes confirming Michael's death. Cathleen is certainly more direct with her mother. Nora, being the younger daughter, is a bit more passive. Maurya does seem to feel closer to Nora and this is illustrated by the fact that Maurya, at times, addresses Nora directly; she never addresses Cathleen. Nora also plays the role of a kind of commentator by giving background information as the play develops. For example, when men, offstage, are carrying in Bartley, Nora provides the description: 

They're carrying a thing among them and there's water dripping out of it and leaving a track by the big stones. 

Nora does this a few times; including the words the priest has said about Michael and that he would not stop Bartley from going out. 

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