In Riders to the Sea, the community’s fragile existence depends on their young men’s ability to make a living from the sea—the very force of nature that often takes their lives. Because of this, Riders to the Sea is centrally concerned with past deaths and the threat of death in the future. Maurya and her family struggle to retain a hold on the lives of the young men that they still have, though they seem to understand that death at the hands of the sea is inevitable.
Throughout the play, Synge presents multiple omens and symbols signifying death, which foreshadow Bartley’s fatal accident and remind the rest of the characters of their own mortality. The white boards that Maurya bought for Michael’s coffin are onstage during the entire play, strongly implying that there will be at least one death. Maurya refers to these boards often, which makes clear that death weighs constantly and heavily on the minds of the characters. Bartley’s death is also foreshadowed by the rope he uses to make a halter for his horse. The rope bears resemblance to a noose, an instrument of execution, and it is also associated with death through Maurya’s statement that they might need the rope to lower Michael’s body into a grave. Additionally, the belongings of the dead have a strong pull on the living, which is particularly apparent in how Michael’s belongings affect Bartley and Maurya. Maurya is holding Michael’s walking stick when she sees his ghost riding behind Bartley, and Bartley wears Michael’s shirt when he is thrown into the sea. It seems that the dead want the living to join them, and Maurya seems to believe that death will also be her fate, saying that all of her men are together now and that she will soon be with them.
In light of all of these omens, it’s not surprising that Maurya predicts Bartley’s death. Throughout the play, she believes that it is his fate to die in the sea just as it was the fate of her other sons and her husband. However, she still desires to save him from this fate, even while believing that she is powerless to help him. Maurya attempts to persuade Bartley not to go to the sea by telling him outright that he will die. She says, “It’s hard set we’ll be surely the day you’re drownd’d with the rest,” and she tries various strategies to keep him home, including telling him not to take the rope that he needs to halter his horse. Despite her efforts to keep him home, she seems to know that his death is inevitable, since she continues to claim that Bartley will die until his body is finally brought into the house.
Bartley’s death is shown to be part of a pattern of deaths in Maurya’s family. All the men have died in the sea, and thus Bartley’s eventual death in the same manner was inevitable. It is the fate of the young men in the community to go on the sea, since they must make a living for their families, despite that their lives are at risk each time they go out. Bartley thus had no choice, despite his mother’s pleading; he had to go to sea and eventually die like his fathers and brother in order to keep his family alive. Bartley’s death is foreshadowed to such an extent that it is not necessarily a surprise when he dies, but rather the culmination of the pattern of death that has afflicted the family. With Bartley gone, Maurya achieves a weary calm, delivering the last line of the play, “No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.” Thus, the play acknowledges that fate cannot be avoided—it is every character’s fate to die, not only the men.
Fate and Mortality ThemeTracker
Fate and Mortality Quotes in Riders to the Sea
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.
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.
And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher, but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking?
He went by quickly; and “the blessing of God on you,” says he, and I could say nothing. I looked up then, and I crying, at the gray pony, and there was Michael upon it—with fine clothes on him, and new shoes on his feet.
There does be a power of young men floating round in the sea, and what way would they know if it was Michael they had, or another man like him, for when a man is nine days in the sea, and the wind blowing, it’s hard set his own mother would be to say what man was it.
It isn’t that I haven’t prayed for you, Bartley, to the Almighty God. It isn’t that I haven’t said prayers in the dark night till you wouldn’t know what I’d be saying; but it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and it’s time surely.
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.