Riders to the Sea

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The White Boards Symbol Analysis

The White Boards Symbol Icon

The white boards that Maurya bought to build Michael’s coffin are onstage for the entirety of the play, and their presence is an omen of death that implies that another fatality will occur before the play’s close. Maurya refers to these boards often, which makes clear that death weighs constantly on the minds of the characters. Furthermore, the ambiguity of whose body will go in the coffin underscores the notion that death on the Aran islands is common and encroaching. Though the boards are meant for Michael, his body has not yet washed ashore, which means that the coffin can hold someone else. While Maurya suggests that the boards could be for her, since she won’t live after all her sons are gone, Bartley’s body is the first to be returned to the house. Despite the implication that the coffin is Bartley’s, the boards remain onstage, unbuilt, until the close of the play, since Maurya has inexplicably forgotten to buy the nails needed to build the coffin. Thus, even as the curtain drops, the boards still lean ominously against the wall, implying more death to come.

The White Boards Quotes in Riders to the Sea

The Riders to the Sea quotes below all refer to the symbol of The White Boards. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Spirituality and Mourning Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Riders to the Sea published in 1993.
Act 1 Quotes

It’s a hard thing they’ll be saying below if the body is washed up and there’s no man in it to make the coffin, and I after giving a big price for the finest white boards you’d find in Connemara.

Related Characters: Maurya (speaker), Michael
Related Symbols: The White Boards
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Maurya is brooding about the injustice of not having Michael’s body to bury, while simultaneously trying to persuade Bartley to stay home from his ocean voyage. Thus, her sentiment here seems both manipulative and genuine. On the one hand, she is genuinely worried that if Bartley is at sea when Michael’s body washes up, then no man will be present to build the coffin, which will leave the family helpless in the face of tragedy. On the other hand, Maurya is desperate to keep Bartley from danger and it’s not clear that she truly believes Michael’s body will wash up—perhaps, then, she is simply saying this to convince Bartley to stay home. Her motivation is likely a combination of these two sentiments, and this statement shows, above all, her desperation.

This passage also makes clear the strict gender boundaries on the island. Even though Maurya has buried her husband and her other sons, she is not capable of building a coffin by herself—she needs a man to do it for her. Her inability even to make a coffin without Bartley hints at the dire predicament the family will face once Bartley, the last remaining son, is gone. It’s also significant that Maurya brings up the price she paid for the boards. The family is clearly struggling financially, so the “big price” of the boards adds to the significance of the boards’ presence onstage. In other words, Maurya’s emphasis on the quality and price of the boards intensifies their potency as an omen of death and adds an absurdity to the situation. Maurya has sacrificed tremendously to buy boards to bury Michael, whose body might never be returned to them, but the family can barely afford to eat and the situation is unlikely to improve. Thus, death is consuming the family literally, financially, and emotionally.


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Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

Related Characters: Maurya (speaker), Bartley, Michael
Related Symbols: The White Boards
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Delivering the very last lines of the play, Maurya finishes performing rites over Bartley’s body and accepts the manner of burial that each of her sons will receive: Michael has been given “a clean burial” in the sea and Bartley will have “a fine coffin out of the white boards.” This acceptance comes despite the fact that Maurya is only able to give one of her sons the traditional burial, since Michael’s burial was chosen by God and by the sea. In asking, “What more can we want than that?” Maurya illustrates the helplessness of herself and her community. They will always lack control over their lives—it is out of their hands to cultivate prosperity and happiness or avoid grief and suffering. Maurya acknowledges that it is every human being’s fate to die and that fighting this truth is futile. Though her reaction may spring from a numbness born of the vast amounts of grief and suffering that she has experienced (rather than true acceptance and wisdom), it’s clear that Maurya thinks it wise to surrender to the power of the natural world.

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The White Boards Symbol Timeline in Riders to the Sea

The timeline below shows where the symbol The White Boards appears in Riders to the Sea. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Fate and Mortality Theme Icon
The Power of the Sea Theme Icon
...washes up. She then reflects on the injustice of having paid so much for the white boards to make Michael’s coffin since there’s no body to bury yet, and Bartley dismisses the... (full context)