Tragic Atmosphere in J. M. Synge's play Riders to the Sea by means of hints and forebodings

Riders to the Sea dramatizes the archetypal struggle of man against the hostile natural forces and rends man’s inevitable defeat in the war against destiny which brings out the tragic effect of the play. Man as rendered in Riders to the Sea is, as if pitted to undergo the sinister attack of an unsympathetic death. Maurya, the protagonist has to suffer the loss of all men folk in her family. The hungry Atlantic has mercilessly devoured her husband, her husband’s father and her four sons, before the play began, and the play ends when all her six sons are dead. Maurya’s life is a long tale of agony. Her life records a history of unmitigated pain. Tragedy gains poignancy through the excruciating against suffered by this mother excruciating figure under the crushing burden of death. Right from beginning, as a matter of artistic strategy Synge focused on the ultimate disaster of Maurya’s life through different hints and forebodings.

                The very setting as described by the dramatist himself shows that Maurya’s household is under the shadow of death. When Synge describes the opening scene in the cottage kitchen she mentions the presence of the new boards standing by the wall. The presence of the new board signifies that death had already visited Maurya’s cottage (for boards are necessary for coffin making) and in the process will revisit it.

                A little later Maurya is seen so exasperated by objecting to the idea of Bartley’s side not only because the wind is raising the sea but also because she has seen the sight of a star up against the moon is traditionally excepted as an evil omen, and as such, is necessarily a foreboding of the death of Bartley. This image has already been employed by Coleridge in order to suggest a sinister atmosphere in Rime of the Ancient Mariner where after the mariner has killed the albatross and was guilt stricken, the mariner saw the sight of:
                “The moving moon went up the sky
                And no where did abide
                And softly she was going up
                With a star or two beside”.
The reiteration of the moon image in Synge is therefore effectively for bodes the macabre death of Bartley.

Bartley’s death has further been suggested by Synge through an ominous hints. When Bartley deports, he anxiously waits for blessing of Maurya but it is very much tinged with tragic irony that the ever effectionate mother is so much engrossed with the turmoil in her mind that she forgets to bless him when Bartley is embarking on a hazardous journey; this aptly suggests Bartley’s journey would not be peaceful.

                Synge has artfully manipulated certain events where the living and the dead intermingled even in their possessions. The stick that Maurya takes in her way to the spring well to support her belongs to dead Michael. Bartley is wearing Micheel’s second shirt that is because the girls cannot compare it with the drowned man’s shirt when they open the percel. Bartley’s wearing Michael’s shirt points out effectively that Bartley will join Michael in the company of death. Moreover the rope which was to be used in the coffin making of Michael is taken by Bartley to serve as a halter for the horse. This is also suggestive of the above mentioned fact. Not only that it is also refered that a pig with a black feet was eating the rope. This very appreciation of the pig with a black feet is also suggestive of  disaster because the image of such a pig has sinister associations for the Island folk.

                The final forewarning comes in the form of Maurya’s previsions. The coloure of Bartley’s mare is red. The colour red is the symbol of life. But Michael’s grey pony follow him. The colour grey is unmistakably the symbol of death. So, the image presents that the symbol of life is being followed by the symbol of death. It means that Bartley is haunted by death from behind. Not only that, when Maurya meets Bartley she sees Michael sitting on a gray pony behind Bartley. Maurya is so thunderstruck that she again can not afford to bless him. This vision of Maurya and her inability to bless her son clinch the issue. Later on, when the audience learns that Michael’s grey pony had knocked Bartley down into sea they are not at all surprised for the news of Bartley’s death has been already for boded by Maurya’s prevision.

                Thus Synge has effectively employed the method of forewarning the audience of the ultimate disaster through hints and forebodings, and as such it is artistically satisfying that the news of Bartley’s death does not came very abruptly. Thus Synge caters to the traditional precept that the final event in the drama should have a probability and should not come as a sudden shock which would be detrimental to artistic pleasure.    

Ardhendu De         

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