Symbolism in Riders to the Sea
Table of Contents
Distinguishing a symbol from a metaphor, Philip Wheelwright observes, “A symbol, in general, is a relatively stable and repeatable element of perceptual experience, standing for some larger meaning or set of meanings which cannot be given, or not fully given, in perceptual experience itself.” In other words, a poetic symbol suggests a reality beyond the one we perceive and thereby enlarges our vision of world and life.
As a poetic dramatist, Synge was fully aware of the possibilities of his theatre. In Riders to the Sea, he has employed various symbols verbal and visual, to sustain the major thematic strains and to evoke the vision of a world perpetually threatened by disaster. Visual and verbal symbols are made to supplement each other and thereby heighten the intensity of the tragic experience the characters pass through.
Symbolism in the Setting of Island
Riders to the Sea teems with symbols and images. The very island where the play’s scene is laid is itself a symbol. It represents any place where humans feel their isolation in the face of a universe that wars on them with winds and seas. Even the title is symbolic. The ‘riders’ has two levels of significance. On the surface of it, it refers to the human and superhuman riders- the living Bartley on the red mare and the dead Michael on the grey pony. On the symbolic level the ‘riders’ stands for the islanders or rather the people who are subject to the malignant forces of nature.
The very title of the play, Riders to the Sea, evokes a suggestion of doom for Maurya‘s sons. For, in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, Pharaoh’s horsemen who were sent to pursue the fleeing Israelites are described as riders who met their death in the sea.
In Riders to the Sea, Bartley rides to the sea on his red mare. In the vision that Maurya sees at the spring well, the dead Michael rides the grey pony and chases Bartley’s red mare. Subsequently, we learn that Michael’s grey pony pushed Bartley’s mare into the sea and thus caused his death. Synge suggests that though Maurya’s sons, and the other fishermen of Aran by implication, were not directly cursed by the Lord, their fate was hardly different. Living in these isolated islands and depending on the sea for their livelihood, these people could not help going to the sea and meeting their end there. There is something fated about the Aran islanders and the symbolism of riders aptly suggests it.
More specifically, the grey pony that Michael rides in Maurya’s vision resembles the pale horse in the Book of Revelation and symbolizes Death :
“And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider was Death.”
The fact that Michael dons clean white linen during Maurya’s apocalyptic vision at the spring well shows that he is already dead. In the Book of Revelation, it is written, “It was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” Michael has already attained that status, the purity of the dead, while Bartley who exchanged his shirt for Michael’s when he left for the sea will soon get that status. Even the exchange of the shirt has a symbolic value, though, of course, not a biblical one. For, as T.R. Henn has noted, the exchange of shirt by Bartley symbolizes the “interpretation of the world of the living by the dead.”
The biblical symbolism in Riders to the Sea performs a complex function. By evoking images of apocalypse it suggests that the Aran islanders, including all the male members of Maurya’s family, are doomed from the very beginning. The poignancy of their tragedy is heightened by the fact that though they are not cursed like Pharaoh’s horsemen, yet their fate is hardly different. What is more, belief in and prayers to God do not help. Bartley dies despite the young priest’s strong belief that
“God Almighty will not leave Maurya destitute, with no son living.”
As a result, the world of the play appears to be a painful, hopeless and Godless world
The Sea as a Symbol
A recurring symbol in the play is, of course, the sea. It symbolizes the external threat to the life of the islanders and increases the feeling of dread and terror. In the play it becomes a destructive force of nature, reducing human beings to a state of nothing. At the beginning of the play the sea’s destructive power is mentioned when Nora refers to the bundle of clothes given her by the young priest, “It’s a shirt and plain stocking were not off a drowned man in Donegal.” When the mention of Bartley’s intention to go to the Galway fair comes, Cathleen asks about the state of the sea:
“Is the sea bad by the white rocks?”
To this Nora replies,
“Middling bad, God help us. There’s a great roaring in the west, and it’s worse it’ll be getting when the tide’s turned to the wind.”
The havoc that it plays with the lives of the islanders is indicated by Nora when she asks,
“Isn’t a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher but a bit of an old shirt and stocking?”
It is only after the sea has done its worst that Maurya can afford to defy it.
The sea in the play is a literal force, but Synge elevates it to a symbolic plane by making it a representative of Necessity. It becomes a symbol for the mysterious and dreadful force which opposes and crushes man. It is all the more deadly because in the context of the play even God does not seem to have any control over it. The young priest says that God Almighty will not leave Maurya destitute, but his optimism is sadly belied. Given the ruthless power of the sea and the malicious pleasure it takes in destruction, the fate of the islanders is sealed, but Maurya’s sons become riders to it, because like the medieval knight-at-arms they go riding to it in quest of adventure, even if that adventure means death.
Symbolism of White Boards
The central theme of the play is death, indicated by the very title. Synge, therefore, uses several devices to heighten the atmosphere of death and sorrow in the play. Of these, the “white boards” are introduced early in the play and made to preside over the action. The opening stage direction reads:
“Cottage kitchen with nets, oilskins, spinning-wheel, some new boards standing by the wall, etc.”
Whereas all other things naturally belong to a fishermen’s cottage, the white boards appear out of place. But they are a visual reminder to the audience that the house is visited by a shadow of death.
The nails which Maurya forgot to buy along with the white boards suggest pain and finality.
Symbol of Red Mare and Grey Pony
There are other symbols in the play. The red mare Maurya sees Bartley ride symbolizes strength and virility, while the grey pony ridden by the ghost of Michael death, for red colour belongs to strength and virility, grey colour to death. Michael riding the grey pony with new clothes on him and new shoes on his feet is a resurrection image. Donna Gerstenberger observes, “In Maurya’s vision of Bartley on the red mare, followed on the grey pony by Michael, already nine days drowned in the far north”.
Symbolism of Michael’s Clothes
Another reminder of death in the house is the bundle containing Michael’s clothes, indicating what has been left of a man who was a great rower and a fisher. As indicated earlier, the horses, red mare and the grey pony become symbols of death, first in the vision that Maurya sees at the spring well and subsequently when the grey pony pushes the red mare, and with it the rider Bartley, into the sea.
Symbol of the forgotten cake
The bread Maurya takes for Bartley is a symbol of life, but she cannot deliver it to him as he rides away fast. The forgotten cake means Bartley’s farewell to life, because bread symbolizes life.
Symbol of Keening
Supplementing these visual symbols is the aural symbol of keening which informs the whole play. Very early in the play, we are told that Maurya would kill herself with keening and lamenting should she see Michael’s clothes. Her keening after her return from the spring well and subsequently the keening of women ritualistically symbolize the unspeakable tragedy that has destroyed all the male members of the house.
Maurya’s keening symbolizes the lamenting humanity, crying in despair at the grief that flesh is heir to. As Maurice Bourgeois has observed, the acute realization of nothingness in the lives of the fisher-folks finds a dramatic expression in
“the half-savage, hall musical melopoeia known as the keen. The lilted recitative, with all its threnetic appeal is another very impressive, pathetic note. Faintly it sounds from the opening of the piece, like some ‘unheard melody’ perceived by the spiritual car alone; but at the climax of the tragedy it rises and swells in entrancing power, and mingles with the moan of the Atlantic which, one knows without words, is dashing its surf beneath the cabin walls.”
Number Nine as a Symbol
The use of the number nine is symbolically significant in this play. Michael was missing for nine days. Maurya, like Niobe, wept nine days for her lost son. Maurya herself, recalling the drowning of Patch, reports that she “saw two women, and three women and four women coming in.” This adds up to nine again as do the numbers mentioned by Bartley himself when he says optimistically that he will be coming back in two days, or in three days or may be in four days if the wind is bad. Eight men have been drowned of Maurya’s household, her father-in-law, her husband and six sons. The ninth death which is soon to occur will be Maurya’s own. “The number nine is,” Robin Skelton says, “one familiar to all students of mythology. It is a triple trinity, and therefore a perfect number. It serves to evoke an atmosphere of mystery and terror which make Riders to the Sea so touching.”
Symbol of the Dropped Stitches
The dropped stitches of the stocking of the stocking reminds us of the Three Fates and the thread of life and perhaps Donne’s image:
“Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man.”
The water on the bodies of Patch and Bartley is a symbol of the way by which Death comes from the sea straight to the house of the family.
The Symbol of Holy Water
The Holy Water symbolizes purification, sanctity and traditional Catholicism. It is benevolent water and it stands in contrast to them powerful water of the sea.
Symbol of Spinning Wheel and Hearth
Cathleen is always involved with the spinning wheel and the hearth and they are symbols of women’s work and the pervasiveness of gendered labor. This is notable in a play so concerned with the traditional separation by gender-Bartley is the provider, Cathleen is the baker and so on. Spinning wheel is symbolic of the time period this play is set in and reflects the difficulties of the life this family lived. The whirring of the wheel and its sudden silence generate an ominous interplay of tension and urgency, intensified by the sister’s anxiety over the dead sailor’s clothes.
Symbol of Rope
The rope symbolizes Bartley’s imminent death. As he fashions (makes) a halter for the horse, he is actually fashioning a halter for his own neck. That rope was always intended to lower a coffin into the grave, and now that grave will be of Bartley.
The symbols and the images, set in their matrix of rhythmical speech of great subtlety, permeate the whole play. They dissolve, coalesce, combine in tension to give depth of irony. They set the imagination in motion and extend it beyond the bounds of the apparent simplicity of the plot. The symbols and images help greatly to build up the atmosphere of gloom, mystery, terror and foreboding and evoke a sense of the precariousness of human life on earth.