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Symbolism in J.M.Synge's Riders to the Sea

Updated on October 29, 2017
Soumi Das Canvas profile image

Writer and voracious reader, Soumi Das is a literary enthusiast with an Honours degree in English Literature & Postgraduate in Journalism.

Understanding Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. It gives a writer freedom to add double levels of meaning to their work: a literal one that is self-evident and the symbolic one whose meaning is far more profound than the literal one. In the use of symbolism, a word is placed in the context so as to acquire meaning appropriate to the context, an exclusive from its conventional signification. The symbolism therefore gives universality to the characters and the themes of a work in literature. Symbolism in literature evokes interest in readers as they find an opportunity to get an insight of the writer’s mind on how he views the world and how he thinks of common objects and actions, having broader implications.

Inspiration behind the composition of Riders to the Sea

W.B. Yeats had advised Synge “Go to the Aron Islands, live there as if you were one of the people themselves: express a life that has never found expression.” Encircling the islands of Inishmaan, Inishmore and Inisheer, the sea struck Synge to grant the place a strange mysterious isolation. Nature is portrayed as a repository of mysterious forces, affecting the people physically and psychologically. Speaking of the Aron Islanders, Synge had observed “their minds have been coloured by endless suggestions from the sea and the sky.”

Use of symbols in Riders to the Sea

Within the formal limits of a one act play, Riders to the Sea radiates various meanings through one comprehensive symbol – the conflict of man and nature. Here, it is the sea which symbolizes the inscrutable fates, the giver and taker; the image of man’s helpless state and his final surrender to the “Immanent Will”. The sea itself creates a perpetual gloom, heightened by a skillful use of dialogues and symbols, which produce the sense of impending calamity. Into this essentially tragic atmosphere is fused together the Celtic world of myths, legends and superstitions; the clivilised world of Christian faith and classical allusions – a Pagan desperation, balancing perfectly with the Christian faith which harmonizes the creative vision into reality. The use of symbolism begins in the play as early as with the mention of ‘the white boards’ for the coffin, which symbolize the imminence of Bartley’s death. According to critic Denis Donoghue, the water on the bodies of Patch and Bartley denote: “a symbol of the way by which Death comes, from the sea straight to the house, to the family." ‘The spinning wheel and hearth’ bear symbols of gendered labour where Bartley and Michael are depicted as providers while Cathleen is a baker. The ‘rope’ that Bartley is seen fashioning for haltering the horse will ironically be a halter on his neck thereby making it a symbol of his imminent death. The symbolism of ‘holy water’ stands in strong contradiction to the powerful water of the sea. The ‘holy water’ here stands for sanctity, purification and traditional Catholic beliefs which Maurya herself later rejects as the sense of complete loss looms to her.

Transcendence of domestic tragedy to a universal one

J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea is fraught with numerous symbols elevating the domestic tragedy to the position of a universal tale of suffering. Most of the symbols used in the play are archetypal in keeping with the classical spirit of the play. The most powerful symbol is that of Sea, the giver and the taker of life. The islanders depend on it for their sustenance but it also snatches the life it gives. Synge makes use of the popular belief that the flood tide induces birth while the ebb tide causes death, reminding us of Shakespeare’s treatment in Henry V. Like Shelley’s West Wind, it is at once destroyer and preserver of life. The sea symbolizes the tragic destiny of Aron Islanders. Synge has presented the sea as an uncontrollable force, which acts according to its mysterious and irrational laws. That is evident from Mauryas’s rejection of the young priest. Another archetypal symbol is the ‘Riders’. The men of the island are all riders who in order to keep the family wheel going, ride on the sea. Like Santiago, they venture into the sea only to be defeated, reminding us of eternal human predicament.

Tragic scheme of the play

There are several symbols associated with life and death. They exist side by side. Mention may be made of the ‘red mare’ of Bartley and ‘grey mare’ of Michael. While red stands for virility, grey symbolizes death. Bartley also sets out on his fearful journey in the shirt that his dead brother left at home. The use of the number nine is another important symbol derived from mythology. It is a triple trinity and therefore a perfect number. There is no news of Michael for nine days and Maurya weeps for her lost son for nine days. Maurya’s turning of the empty cup mouth downwards is another significant symbol suggesting a failure of Christian solace and showing the Pagan theme of suffering and renunciation. Thus, the symbols employed in the play largely focus and bring out the tragic scheme of the play.

© 2017 Soumi Das

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