ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      Biswajit Saha 

      9 months ago

      The level of your thinking and then writing is undoubtedly unique.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)