Throughout literature there are numerous examples of characters that are mentioned in the work and yet never actually make an appearance onstage or in the book; famous examples include Godot in Waiting for Godot, or Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. These “unseen” characters hold a certain power and terror for the characters of the work, as well as the audience that they are intended for. These characters are never seen, only mentioned with a certain reverence or awe, and thought of as all powerful beings.
They leave something to the imagination for a reader or audience member, we can imagine the worst about these characters, what kind of power they hold over the beloved characters in the story because we don’t know what they look like and therefore cannot be proven wrong by their physical limitations. This literary device can even be seen in the way people worship God from the Bible, no one has truly ever seen Him (depending on your beliefs), and yet He is worshipped, loved, and feared all at the same time.
In Riders to the Sea by John M. Synge, the sea can also be thought of as one of these “unseen” all powerful characters. The sea so intricately affects the lives of the members of the poor Irish family in this play, as well as the people of the Aran Islands. They live off of the sea, yet the sea is also a taker of life. The sea is a natural disaster that shows no remorse for those that fall victim to it. It is like a pathological serial killer with no emotions whatsoever.
On one side of the spectrum the sea is a positive force that provides a source of food, income, and a mode of for the families of the island to the main land. It is how the men provide sustenance, and how the women support their men in this endeavor. The women know that they cannot fight this force; the men must do this for it is their fate, and therefore all the women of the islands can do is bless the men on their journeys. They think that by blessing the men this will somehow appease the sea, and therefore the sea will show mercy on their men and return them safely home.
Within the play Maurya’s daughters urge her to go after their brother and bless him on his journey to the main land to sell horses. Yet their mother refuses to do this, saying “If it wasn’t found itself, that wind is raising the sea, and there was a star up against the moon, and it rising in the night… 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, and I an old woman looking for the grave? ” –Maurya Riders to the Sea.
The sign that she speaks of is a star-dogged moon, called “hurlbassy” by Irish and English sailors, which predicted tempests and unfair weather conditions in the sea. Bartley would have known about this sign, and yet he chose to ignore it. In his mother’s eyes, she could already tell that the sea was angry and Bartley was going to die to the hands of the sea because he is not heeding the warning that the nature is presenting him with. Maurya is aware that the sea will make him pay dearly for his stubbornness; her blessing will do nothing for him.
The sea is juxtaposition in itself; it is anthropomorphic which Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines as “ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman things”. The sea is a bipolar character in this play, something that needs to be appeased, like a petulant child, a toddler that throws a temper tantrum when it does not get its way, yet because of all the force that the sea encompasses and all of the power that it possesses, the sea embodies a strength that should not be reckoned with.
The people of this island have lived with the sea all of their lives, they know the signs to look for, and they have an idea of what will help to keep the sea at peace with their people, in doing so the sea will supply food, and act as a means of transportation from the island to the mainland. As much as the sea helps the people and provides for them, it is also a merciless being. The sea takes lives, wrecks ships, and causes damage to the land, yet because of the relationship between the sea and these people of the Aran Islands, the people must depend on it and cannot turn against it.
It can be equated to the relationship between a lord and his peasants. The lord provides the peasants with land to live off of; a means to grow their own food and provide for themselves, in return the peasants must remain loyal to him and give a portion of their earnings to him. This is like the sea taking the men of the Aran Islands, and the women must deal with the consequences and the loneliness. Maurya laments about this in her final speech of the play, seen as the marker that makes this play a great Irish tragedy. raising her head and speaking as if she did not see the people around her) “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other.
I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening. -Muarya Riders to the Sea (pg. 18) Maurya is at peace now with the sea, she has nothing left to give to it, all six of her sons, her husband, father and farther-in-law have all fallen victim to the sea. She has succumbed to the power of this sea, in a sense it is like sending soldiers off to war, and them not returning. The women at home, especially during the wars before the 20th century, had no clue what the wars looked like. The wars that their men participated in were unseen powerful forces that could take their men away from them at any time forever.
They were characters in these women’s lives that they cannot see, but know they are there and can only pray that the war will be merciful and return their men safely. Throughout this play the sea act as an unseen and powerful character that is always mentioned with a sense of reverence and fear at the same time. It can provide life and sustenance, and can also take it away. The people of the island must live with this knowledge that they cannot fight the sea, the men see it as their fate to make their living from the sea, and the women view the loneliness from the loss of their men as a virtue to come to terms with.
As a literary device, John M. Synge presents the sea as a powerful and mighty being. He writes the sea with human characteristics so that the audience will feel the fear that the people of this island feel for it as well. By leaving it unseen from the audience or describing it in the stage directions the reader is left to imagine what the sea would act like, the power behind its force, and the strength in its waves.