Character of Maurya in Riders to the Sea
Table of Contents
Maurya is the protagonist and the most memorable character in Synge’s Riders to the Sea. The whole play turns round her bereavement and calm resignation. The sea has been devouring her near and dear ones down the years and causing her unbearable mental agony. It has already doled out deaths to her five sons, her husband and father-in-law. The fate’s malignancy has broken her, but failed to bend her spirit. The character of Maurya resolves itself into the following characteristics.
Maurya: An Affectionate Mother
Maurya is an affectionate mother. She loves her children dearly and is deeply concerned about their well-being. She passes sleepless nights praying for the safety of the son who might be out on the sea. She is painfully acquainted with the risk of sailing on the sea in the face of the rising storm. That is why she shudders to hear that Bartley, her last surviving son is sailing over to the Galway fair to sell horses. She asks him to postpone his journey because going to the stormy sea is but the other name of death. To her nothing is as precious as the life of her son. She says to Bartley,
“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?”
She is not only worried about the well-being of her living son, but also at pains to ensure peace to the departed soul of her dead son by giving him a deep burial with the coffin made of costly white boards. She is a poor woman eking out a meagre existence, but she bought costly white boards in Connemara for Michael’s burial. Though overwhelmed with grief she does not forget to perform all the funeral rites for Bartley. She sprinkles holy water on Bartley and keens over him.
Maurya is not a mere private mother; she is a universal mother. After the death of Bartley she rises above her selfish concern for her near and dear ones and thinks of all men. Thus she invokes the blessing of God not only on the souls of her sons, but also on the soul of everyone left living in the world. T. R. Henn rightly says, “In her elegiac blessing of the living and the dead Maurya attains the stature of a priestess”:
“May the Almighty God have mercy on Bartley’s soul, and on Michael’s soul……..and on the soul of every one is left living in the world.”
She brackets the fate of her menfolk with that of all men who are subject to the tyrannies of the forces (like the sea) they little understand. On taking Michael’s stick to assist her steps on the stony path she says:
“In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.”
Maurya: A Pious Christian
Maurya is indeed a symbol of the universal mother. Her concern and worries for her near and dear ones become a mother of all ages and places.
Maurya is a pious Christian. She believes in the power of prayers to ward off evils, specially death. She passed sleepless nights praying for the safety of her menfolk out on the sea when the storm broke from the south. In order to save Bartley, her last surviving son, from the jaws of death she said prayers to the Almighty God in the dark night even when he fell asleep and could not hear her pray. She said a prayer when she stood at the spring well to give Bartley bread and blessing. But all her prayers could save none of her menfolk. Still she does not desist from prayers. She prays softly for the peace of Michael and Bartley’s departed souls.
Though a devout Christian, she does not take the words of the young priest to be a gospel truth. She speaks slightingly of his assurance that “the Almighty God won’t leave her destitute with no son living.” She dares to say, “It’s little the like of him knows of the sea.” Maurya is well ahead of the other islanders in her attitude to religion and religious sentiments. It is really a wonder of all wonders that a woman of a primitive community seeks to filter her religious views through her observations and reason.
Maurya: A Superstitious Woman
Maurya shares superstitious beliefs with other islanders. Like them she believes in portents, omens and signs etc. She believes that the appearance of a star close to the moon is an ominous sign portending a violent storm in the sea. She shares the common belief that the sight of a dead man pursuing a living man forebodes the death of the living man. When she finds the dead Michael riding the grey pony behind Bartley on the red mare, she is left with no doubt that Bartley will soon join the company of Michael in the world of the dead. She also believes in the efficacy of the Holy Water got in the dark nights after Samhain.
The superstitions of Maurya can be traced back to the sea ceaselessly devouring her menfolk one by one. When a people are constantly haunted by the fear of death coming from the malignant natural forces which they live off and as such cannot keep away from, they, specially their womenfolk develop superstitious beliefs and practices to give death the slip.
Maurya: A highly emotional woman
Maurya is a highly emotional woman. It is emotion which stirs her whole being and shapes her utterances. When Bartley tramples on her solicitude not to go to the Galway fair across the stormy sea and departs hastily, she is overpowered with an emotion of agonized fear and bursts into an ominous prediction like Cassandra :
“He’s gone now, God spare us, and we’ll not see him again. He’s gone now, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left me in the world.”
Her lament, after the dead body of Bartley is laid on the table, scales the height of the emotional speec :
“It isn’t that I haven’t prayed for you, Bartley, to the Almighty God. It isn’t that I haven’t said prayers in the dark night……..but it’s a great rest I’ll have now.”
Almost all the speeches of Maurya are emotionally charged.
Moving transformation of Maurya
The character of Maurya undergoes a moving transformation in the final episode. With the dead body of her last surviving son brought to her cottage she ceases to be a pathetic, querulous woman. The horizon of her mind is widened. She rises above her selfish consideration only for her near and dear ones, and thinks of all who are left living in the world. Her concern about the whole living humanity deepens her tragedy brings out her dignity and makes her magnificent amidst her colossal defeat at the hands of inscrutable, relentless destiny.
She now realizes that the very fact of birth consigns all living to inevitable death. If Michael and Bartley did not die just now, they would have surely died sometimes in future. She also sees all her men-folk lost their lives in order to maintain their family’s existence and to fulfill themselves. Going to sea is as inevitable as death. This realization leads to her resignation to her lot and she says like a philosopher,
“No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.”