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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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

I hung it up this morning, for the pig with the black feet was eating it.

Black is, of course, a symbol normally associated with death, and it is used extensively by Synge throughout Riders to the Sea. The reference in the above quotation is to a pig with black feet that has been chewing on a rope that Bartley plans to use on the gray pony—the very same gray pony that will eventually drag him to his death.

It is notable that, in ancient cultures, pigs were regularly sacrificed to the gods. Though the isolated community depicted by Synge no longer engages in such practices, their sons now take on the role of sacrificial victims: sacrificed to the cruel and heartless sea.

Bartley came first on the red mare; and I tried to say “God speed you,” but something choked the words in my throat.

Maurya wants to bless Bartley before he makes his perilous journey, but somehow the words can’t come out. Maurya has had a terrifying vision that Michael has passed over into eternity and that Bartley will be next, and so she doesn’t feel that blessing him before his departure would be appropriate.

What this episode highlights is the fact that fate is more powerful in this community than formal religion. If fate dictates that a young man will be lost at sea, as it does with frightening regularity, then there is nothing that a formal Christian blessing can do to challenge it. In this remote coastal community, one must somehow learn to live with fate; it cannot be changed.

What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

This quotation, the final lines of the play, makes a similar point. Maurya has resigned herself to the power of the sea, which in its own way resembles the power of fate. It is something primeval, a primitive force of nature which cannot and should not be resisted. Now that all her sons have been taken from her, Maurya is no longer in thrall to the sea and can turn for support to the comforting platitudes of the Catholic Church, which she had always resisted while her sons were still alive.

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