The sea plays a vital role in the life of the Aran islanders in Synge’s one act play “Riders to the Sea” (1904). Their life and story are set up against the background of the sea. It’s unseen presence fills the mind of both the characters and the audience. As a background, as a living character, as a force of nature, as an agent of destiny, as a villain, the sea plays a great role throughout the play. To quote one critic—
“The sea becomes a living force,
A demon hungering after men.”
Now man has been trying to dominate the sea. He is successful in colonizing the sea to a specific extent. None can claim that man can control the sea. The battle continues. But there was a time when the sea controlled man’s life. The sea was then a more powerful enemy then it is now. The Aran Islanders lived in a terrible atmosphere. For them the sea was the giver and taker of life. The islanders had to ride to the sea to earn their livelihood. They had to pay a tremendous price for their survival. The people had no alternative but to live in an isolated island. They were victims of their geographical and economic conditions.
The old mother Maurya who has had the mortifying experience of seeing all male members of her family getting drowned into the sea, tries her best to dissuade her only surviving son Bartley from crossing over the sea. Maurya gets the signal of Bartley’s death. She says—
I’ve seen the fearfullest thing any person has seen since the day Bride Dara seen. The dead man with the child in his arms.”
She knows the sailing would be dangerous if the wind rises from the south, Maurya says—
“A star is up against the moon and it rising in the night.”
Bartley has to set sail over the sea to earn their bread. Mother’s words are futile to dissuade Bartley. Cathleen, the practical minded girl knows and she says—
“It is the life of a Youngman to be going on the sea.”
The sea is not merely a background for the human drama but an active participant. The sea becomes the dramatic persone is Synge’s play. It is fate in the shape of roaring, howling and hungry sea. It has devoured all the men-folk of the peasant family. The quote T. R. Henn—
The sea is a tyrant god full of mystery and power, the giver and taker of life the enemy and challenger of the young; it is the pre-existent evil and evil.”
Thus the sea is the inscrutable and powerful force which causes endless tragedy. Synge brings the sea in place of fate and at the time he juxtaposes the sea with fate. The sea becomes the Nemesis, against whom the doomed mankind must fight. And through this fight man attains dignity. Oedipus and Hecuba must suffer, but they emerge as greater human beings in the end. Maurya rises in dignity as she learns to accept. The sea is the agent of destiny, through which Maurya learns the wisdom and the truth. The tidings of the sea turn the tidings of Maurya and her two daughters. She suffers, she experiences and she learns from the sea.