Analysis of the chatacters of Cathleen and Nora as chorus in J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea

Before we set our discussion on Nora and Cathleen as a choric element in Synge’s play, Riders to the Sea, it is better to pip into the chorus first. Chorus, the term, used originally by the ancient Greeks in Attic drama of the 6th and 5th centuries bc, is a group of singers and dancers who take part in a drama and are accompanied by music. Being independent from the crux of the action they represent as objective observer, commentator, author’s point of view and even a conscience of the audience. Since its first use as a dramatic convention chorus do have many changes depending upon the dramatist’s purpose. However, the main elements remain more or less the same.

In the one act play Riders to the Sea, J. M. Synge’s dialectical rhetoric successfully creates a heroic vision of the Motherhood and heroic fortitude in the fight against the hostile nature. Naturally, the central action in Riders to the Sea of J.M.Synge comprises of Maurya’s total loss of all her sons and her heroic acceptance of her tragic destiny, in which Cathleen and Nora have no direct part to play, and accordingly, he had no room for the proper development of minor characters with in the scope of his play. Yet Synge included the characters of Cathleen and Nora with a conscious design. Actually, Synge, who modeled his plays upon Greek tragic drama, conceived of the two characters of Cathleen and Nora in the near mould of the chorus, an important convention of Greek drama. In the plays of Aeschylus, the chorus often took part in the action; in Sophocles, it served as a commentator on the action; in Euripides, it provided a lyrical event, uses them as independent of the chief action of the drama and gave relief from the sustained tragic tension. Synge made an amalgamation of the different uses of chorus in the hands of three great masters and presented Cathleen and Nora as the chorus in Riders to the Sea. They do serve choric functions such as observing and commenting upon the course of action.

            Often we see in the field of tragic drama that the chorus is responsible for the exposition of a play. The examples of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustous and Milton’s Samson Agonists really come to mind. In Riders to the Sea the very opening conversation of Cathleen and Nora form the exposition of the play. For example, we learn from their dialogues that the entire house is reeling under terrible agony of a mother who anticipates the death of a son who is feared to be drowned in the sea. Moreover, we learned that the mother is so grief stricken that she is in a state of trance, tossing in her anguish. We are thus not only informed of the basic situation through Cathleen and Nora in the beginning of the play, the information they supply also helps to build up an atmosphere of tension and suspense which contributes to the emotional effects of the play.

Here to Quote few lines:
“NORA [In a low voice.]
Where is she?
CATHLEEN She’s lying down, God help her, and may be sleeping, if she’s able.
[Nora comes in softly, and takes a bundle from under her shawl.]
CATHLEEN [Spinning the wheel rapidly.]
What is it you have?
NORA The young priest is after bringing them. It’s a shirt and a plain stocking were got off a
drowned man in Donegal.
[Cathleen stops her wheel with a sudden movement, and leans out to listen.]
NORA We’re to find out if it’s Michael’s they are, some time herself will be down looking by the
CATHLEEN How would they be Michael’s, Nora. How would he go the length of that way to the
far north?”

 This is reminiscent of the Sophoclean and Euripidean Chorus and reminds of the Eliot’s Charwomen as chorus in Murder in the Cathedral.
            Nora and Cathleen, the two sisters, primarily also provide relief amid the taut atmosphere of gloom and suspense. The two sisters give the audience temporary moments of relief. Like that of a formal chorus here from the beginning of play they emphasizes the values and culture of the Aran people. In sentiment, they become a symbol of Aran county girls and in times we can search through their words for the likes of the sea, lives of the young fisherman, what the young priest say and nearby geographical location etc. These entire things must have their interlinked association to death but for the brief moments theirs are a pause to the tragic overthrown. Again introduction to such innocent girls in the tragic plot creates a false believe that these girl can never loss their brother.

             Though unlike a full scale five act play Synge could not enjoy the liberty of giving the chorus, ample, time and space in order to comment upon and interpret the action,. Cathleen, at least on one occasion makes a comment which remains the most glaring truth about the central problem of the play. Cathleen tells Manrya while she desperately tries to prevent Bartlay from undertaking a ride to the sea that ‘It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea’, - this statement throws the most significant light upon the inevitability of being a rider to the sea in the lives of the Aran Islanders.

            As Chorus, however, Cathleen and Nora are partly unsatisfactory, since on one occasion the two sisters fail to interpret the action in the proper light. For example, when Maurya accepts her final destiny calmly, while she had howled and wailed exasperatedly on earlier occasions when her other sons had died, and particularly when Michael was lost, Nora feels that it is because Maurya loves Michael more than Bartley that she calmly accepts the death of Bartley. Nora Says, “She’s quiet now and easy; but the day Michael was drowned you could hear her crying out from this to the spring well. It’s fonder she was of Michael, and would any one have thought that?” While she bitterly lamented the death of Michael the same response in Maurya is interpreted by Cathleen in an equal mistaken manner, when she says that Maurya is placid only because she is tired after the series of tragedy that had already befallen her. Cathleen says, “an old woman will be soon tired with anything she will do, and isn’t it nine days herself is after crying and keening, and making great sorrow in the house?” Both Cathleen and Nora fail to fathom the heroic fortitude in Maurya, and it is in their failure that lays their inefficiency as chorus through the two sisters, taken together, represent the chorus, they are individualized. This is proved by the fact that they do not always speak in the same tone and that they often have different interpretation of the same event. This is proved by their different reactions to Maurya’s heroic fortitude at the end of the play.
 In conclusion, it can be said that in Synge’s play, Riders to the Sea Cathleen and Nora are integrated in the chief action of the drama and they are brilliantly attached to one another as unison. They form coherent units through which the plots are gradually developed from exposition to devastating climax. Their speech serves to reinforce leading theme of death and also make it known to the spectators the events that precede the opening of the play and often outline coming events. Truly the magical presence of Cathleen and Nora is interpretive and complex.

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