The small fishing community in Riders to the Sea is organized based on traditional age and gender roles. Men are the primary providers for their families, while women handle household chores. The old guide and advise the young, who then care for the old in return. However, the relentless and inevitable pattern of death among the young men who are duty-bound to work on the sea causes a dearth of able-bodied providers in the community. Without enough young men on the islands, the traditional norms surrounding gender and age are threatened.
It is immediately clear from the beginning of the play that labor on the island is organized through traditional gender roles. Throughout the play, the women are always seen spinning, mending, cooking, cleaning, etc., while the men are only seen or spoken about in the context of their work outside the home. However, the family is suffering, since they have three women in the home and only one man, Bartley, left to provide for them. When Cathleen realizes that they have forgotten to give Bartley his bread before he leaves, Nora exclaims that he has “eat[en] nothing since the sun went up.” Bartley has thus gone without food all day, which might be due to the loss of income after Michael’s death. Additionally, Cathleen mentions that she had hung up the rope because the pig had been eating it, suggesting that the pig may not have enough to eat, either. Bartley, the only man left in the family, notes the difficulty they face with only himself remaining to work outside of the home: “It’s hard set we’ll be from this day with no one in it but one man to work.” Maurya also remarks on the women’s dependence on Bartley, saying, “It’s hard set we’ll be surely the day you’re drownd’d with the rest. What way will I live and the girls with me?” It is uncertain how they will fare without a man to do the work expected from his gender.
In addition to gender, the community follows traditional norms regarding age, with the old imparting wisdom and guidance to the young, and the young taking care of the old. This norm is also disrupted by the pattern of deaths among the young men. When Bartley does not listen to her warnings, Maurya exclaims, “Isn’t it a hard and cruel man that won’t hear a word from an old woman, and she holding him from the sea?” Bartley thus upends the traditional structure of society by not heeding the advice of the older Maurya, even though he is acting out of his own sense of duty to provide for her. Bartley’s body is also brought back to the family’s home by a procession of mostly older people. The old bringing back the body of a young man speaks to another inversion of age norms: generally, the young expect to outlive the old, but for young men on the Aran Islands the expectation is reversed.
The play implies that the repeated experience of losing her sons has caused Maurya to deteriorate, limiting her ability to run the household as she should. This is clear in her forgetting to buy nails for the coffin, which (as one of the men points out at the end of the play) should have been second nature to someone who has lost so many family members. Grief has undone the basic knowledge that she has gained from her life experiences, which leaves her particularly vulnerable: she is old, her experiences are losing their value, her words do not carry weight with the young, and she has no sons left to care for her. The play’s implication is that this state of affairs can only lead to Maurya’s own death—she will soon follow after her boys.
Since the deaths of the men in the family have begun to dismantle the gendered and generational structures, the surviving women will have to figure out how to make a living outside of the home in order to survive. The feasibility of this is left in question, however, since the women require guidance to expand into new roles, and there are few men left to guide them. All of the characters are clearly used to their gendered roles. Early in the play as Maurya tries to dissuade Bartley from leaving, Cathleen scolds her: “It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea, and who would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?” She firmly believes it is Bartley’s duty as a man to work on the sea and his alone. In the only scene when Bartley is home, he gives Cathleen advice on how to proceed while he is gone, like caring for the sheep and selling the pig. This is a hint on how gender roles might shift, though the women are so isolated in their roles that they need explicit instruction. Additionally, Maurya immediately puts Cathleen down as Bartley is instructing her, asking, “How would the like of her get a good price for a pig?” Maurya doubts that any shift in gender roles would be successful, even as she wants to save Bartley from his duty to go out on the sea. Finally, Maurya’s fixation on and belief in her own coming death makes it doubtful that she will be useful in helping Cathleen and Nora survive with Bartley gone. With Maurya gone, too, a young woman and a girl will be left on their own, without the guidance of the old or the protection of men. Thus, Synge ends the play with the implication that a radical and dangerous shift is coming to the women’s lives—one for which they seem deeply unprepared.
Age and Gender ThemeTracker
Age and Gender Quotes in Riders to the Sea
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?
It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea, and who would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?
In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.