Analysis of structure, narrative, and irony in Synge's "Riders to the Sea"
John Millington Synge is considered to be one of Irish literature's most influential writers. Born near Dublin in 1871, he was highly interested in studying music before turning his attentions to literature. In 1898, Synge made his first visit to the Aran Islands, which he continued to visit at various intervals for the next four years (J.M. Synge, n.d.). It was during this time that he began to study the way of life on the islands. "On they rocky, isolated islands, Synge took photographs and notes. He listened to the speech of the islanders, a musical, old-fashioned, Irish-flavored dialect of English. He conversed with them in Irish and English, listened to stories, and learned the impact that the sound of word could have apart from their meaning" (J.M. Synge, n.d.). The influence of his visits to the Aran Islands can be seen in "Riders to the Sea" (1902). Despite the play being only one act, it provides "a window in to the life of the people in ancient times: the life of the Aran community is archaic: untouched by modern life, untouched by colonialism" (Notes on Synge's "Riders to the Sea," n.d.). Synge provides commentary on the sea's power over people in "Riders to the Sea." It is both a force of life and one of death. Through the play's structure, narrative, and irony, Synge is able to show how a family is forced to sacrifice everything they have to survive on the islands and how they manage to maintain their faith despite their many losses.
The structure that is utilized by Synge in "Riders to the Sea" closely resembles that of a Greek tragedy. In keeping with Aristotle's definition of tragedy, "Riders to the Sea" has unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. In the play, unity of place is maintained by having all the events take place not only on the island, but in the family's home. Unity of time is achieved by having the play take place during the course of a single day. The beginning of the play begins with Bartley, Maurya's last surviving son, making preparations to go on a journey to the mainland. By the end of the day, Maurya is informed that her son, like all the other men in her family, has fallen victim to the sea's cruelty and devastating force. Unity of action is maintained by focusing on a single family and the women that are left behind after the sea takes the men from their family. Moreover, unity of action is maintained by having the events in "Riders to the Sea" play out in chronological order (Synge, 1902). The elements of tragedy are additionally successful because of the play's one act format.
The play's narrative intertwines tragedy and social commentary. Synge is able to transport the reader to the Aran Islands by demonstrating how close-knit communities and families are and by demonstrating how hard life is and can be on the island. While the play focuses on a single family, Synge is able to show how much families rely on each other and how their lives are changed when they lose a member of their family. By the end of the play, Maurya has lost every male family member to the sea. Because the family's livelihood depended on them risking their lives on a daily basis, they had no choice but to face the dangers of the sea for the benefit of their family. This obligation was one of many sacrifices the family made throughout the play. At the beginning of the play, Bartley, Maurya's last surviving son, is making preparations to head to Connemara to try and sell a horse so that the family can be able to live. Synge provides social commentary on poverty through Bartley's need to go to sell a horse. Bartley knows that taking the trip may cost him his life because of the unpredictability of the sea, but he has no other choice than to proceed with his task. Moreover, it appears as though Maurya, having lost so much already, is prepared for the worst upon his departure as she exclaims,…