Riders to the Sea

July 12, 2017 | Author: Mouparna Sen | Category: Religion And Belief
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SYMBOLISM J.M.Synge’s Riders to the Sea is abundant with infinite symbolism. Synge unravels its story through a meticulous employment of this literary device, which allows for the incorporation of the reader’s personal associations with those those are traditionally ascribed or inherited. For today’s audiences, such mental engagement requires the use of an imagination, awareness in tradition, and a disposition for analytical thinking; while most of the audiences in the 1900s would have instantly interpreted the significance of a given symbol. The symbols operate along with the narrative in order to communicate its central theme of mortality. Upon close examination of the play, it becomes evident that it employs over twenty symbols. Many of the stage props that establish the provincial reality of an Aran peasant’s cottage may also be symbolically interpreted to evoke a sense of foreboding, as they all allude to death and transience. These symbols include the sea, net, spinning-wheel, wooden boards, rope, horse, fire and the well. One of the strongest symbols employed within Riders to the Sea, is that of the sea. The degree of its importance becomes evident through its inclusion within the title of the play. In ancient Mexico, the sea is considered to be “the watery underworld” and the symbol of fertility. In the Christian tradition, the sea is often associated with the “mankind and its dwelling by the flood”. In the mythology of Ancient Egypt, “the coming into being of earth and life was conceived in terms of emergence from the sea”. Hence, it is interesting to note that each of these seemingly unconnected sources have some relation to either the processes of coming into or departing from this world, in other words with the process of life and death which can also be interpreted with reference to Riders to the Sea. On the one hand the sea provides the Aran islanders with their livelihood and on the other hand, it is the reason for the death of generations of Aran fishermen. Maurya too has lost her father-in-law and her husband to the sea and in the course of the play we see that the sea is again either directly or indirectly responsible for the death of all her sons. The very opening scene includes such specificity as “Cottage kitchen, with nets, oilskins, spinning-wheel, some new boars standing by the wall…”.The cottage kitchen suggests that it is the place where food is being cooked which supports life. The visual images of the opening scene indicating both life and death are presented in the very same sight. The inclusion of nets within the set is significant, due to their immense symbolic relevance. Nets bring to us the idea about man being trapped in the nets of destiny. In Riders to the Sea, the male characters desire to remain within, rather than depart from this world, but their lives are unwillingly withdrawn from them, and they are not able to escape the laws of the universe. Furthermore, according to the Old Testament, nets are “an expression of anguish”, which can be attributed to the protagonist of this play. The fact that nets are often associated with the entrapment of spiritual power further establishes the idea that with acceptance of mortality comes spiritual and physical freedom. By the end of the play, Maurya experiences a definite growth in the form of spiritual development, and she is able to attain peace and serenity as a result The set description mentions the presence of a spinning-wheel, which is


abundant in symbolic relevance. The spinning-wheel indicates the main profession of the Aran women. Cathleen and Nora represent the young women who will sustain the circle of life by replenishing the earth through their own offspring, thus filling the void, which has been created through the passing of their brothers and father. Within the context of the play, the symbol of the spinning-wheel can be interpreted as the symbol of fertility. It represents the wheel of life and reminds us of the classical allusion of the three sisters of destiny in Greek mythology who spin the wheel – one sister provides the cotton, second spins the thread and the third cut the thread. This symbolizes birth- life-death for mankind. This indicates that this is a drama involving many deaths and surprisingly many deaths occur in the course of the play. According to Jean Chevailer and Alian Gheerbrant, the wheel symbolizes “cycles, new beginnings and renewal” (1099), which directly correlates to the theme of mortality. In Buddhism, Buddha set in motion the Wheel of Law, which is the Law of Karma. This law states that “there is no power able to reverse the direction in which the wheel revolves”. This notion can be attributed to fate, which seizes the power to control over one’s future, out of human hands of the Higher Power. Synge repeatedly employs the symbol of fire, which is immensely rich and multifaceted. The stage directions to the character of Nora, instructs her to put down the kneaded cake in the pot-oven by the fire. In fact all of the proceedings within Maurya’s house seem to transpire within the vicinity of the fire, which appears to be located in the center. The fire represents the still center, while the characters can be regarded as human incarnations of the solar constellations, which are drawn towards the fire through an unconscious desire to reach warmth and restore energy. Juan E.Cirlot, in A Dictionary of Symbols, suggests that it is associated with the concept of life and health as well as superiority and control, and has developed into the “expression of spiritual energy”. Maurya too experiences spiritual growth by the end of the play; however, it is attained at a high cost. She only realizes what was always true after the death of her last son, and the closer she gets to fully internalizing the concept of inevitability of death, the closer she comes to being burned by the fire herself, which with time, similarly to death, consume all. Fire is the “agent of transmutation”, considering that all things derive from and later return to fire. This is quite significant because this notion supports the established theme of the cycle of life and death. Fire is the “mediator between forms which vanish and forms in creation”. It represents destruction, transformation and regeneration as similar to the qualities of the sea. While talking to Bartley, Maurya says, “If it isn’t found itself, that wind is raising the sea, and there was a star up against the moon, and it rising in the night. 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?” This passage is significant because of the symbol of the horses. It is interesting to note that in Germany and England, to dream of a white horse is considered to be an omen of death. Horses also stand for intense desires and instincts. Despite the dangerous conditions, Bartley plans to sail to the Galway fair in order to sell the horses at the fair. He does this without the consent of his aging mother. This intricacy illustrates one of the examples through which Synge establishes the female dominance, in relation to intuitiveness, insightfulness, and sharp-mindedness. When Maurya saw Bartley riding the red mare and being followed by Michael on the grey pony, she was not grief-stricken to know that Michael has died but what horrifies her is that she can interpret Bartley’s death because


in Bible (Revelation chapter), the red horse represents life and the rider on the dark horse represents death itself. After Maurya comes back, having failed to bless Bartley and give him the bread, she begins to explain a frightful sight that she had witnessed. She says, “I went down to the spring well, and I stood there saying a prayer to myself. Then Bartley came along, and he riding on the red mare with the grey pony behind him. …. The Son of god spare us, Nora!” This passage is significant because of the symbolic relevance of the well. In all traditions, wells are ascribed a sacred character. The spring well in the Aran Islands, is famous for supernatural visions and the water of this well is said to have miraculous powers to heal blindness. Maurya was saying a prayer by the well, at the bottom of which is the same substance that was the cause of most of the deaths and suffering in her family; however, without this substance the entire human kind would perish. This presents circularity in its symbolism which is appropriate to its round physical form. Synge has exploited colours and numbers symbolically to create a sense of tragic suspense. He has repeatedly used and emphasized on the colour “black” in expressions like “pig with the black feet”, “black night”, “black knot” and “black hags”. Black is the colour that recurs throughout the play symbolizing death, danger and evil. When Synge refers to the red mare and the grey pony, the colour ‘red’ conveys the vitality of life and ‘grey’ suggests the shadow of death. Synge constantly harps on the mysterious number three and its multiples throughout the play with expressions like “three days”, “for two weeks or beyond” referring to three weeks, “nine days”. This enhances the sense of evil and ominous atmosphere prevailing throughout the play. The complete comprehension of the thematic undercurrents within the narrative of Riders to the Sea, by J.M.Synge, strongly depends on the understanding of its symbolic content. Upon consideration of its numerous symbols, the reader or spectator uncovers layer of profound truths, which would have been unreachable without a closer treatment of the text. Upon such analysis it became evident that all of the considered symbols are tightly interconnected amongst each other. Furthermore, they all possess another common denominator, which is a strong relation to the theme of mortality and its inevitability.



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