Riders to the Sea

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Here are the notes for the chapter Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge for students studying in Class 10 under Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE). However, the notes/solutions should only be used for references and should be modified/changed according to needs.

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SUMMARY/PLOT: Riders to the Sea written by John Millington Synge revolves around a tragic family which has lost a number of its members to the sea.

The play begins with two sisters Nora and Cathleen talking about a bundle containing the clothes of a dead person which they received from a priest and wondering if it was their brother Michael who went missing some time ago. After Michael, they had now only one male member in the family, their brother Bartley, who was planning to go to Connemara to sell a horse. Their mother Maurya, however, didn’t like the idea of him sailing there and said that she would soon have no sons. Bartley, nevertheless, decided to sail and the two sisters sent their mother after him to give him her blessings.

After Bartley and Maurya left, the two sisters opened the bundle and confirmed that the clothes indeed belonged to their brother Michael. Soon after, Maurya returned and mentioned to the two sisters in horror that she saw the ghost of Michael following Bartley. Towards the end of the story, a few people entered their house with the dead body of Bartley, who had also drowned in the sea.

A. Reference to Context

1. 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 windbreaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf in the west, making a great stir when 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.

a) Who is the speaker?
b) ‘They’re all gone now’. Whom does ‘they’ refer to here?
c) ‘I’ll have no call…and I won’t care’… What is the emotion expressed in these lines?
d) What is keening? Why would the other women be keening? Why won’t the speaker keen anymore.

Answer: a) The speaker here is Maurya.

b) Here, ‘they’ refers to the loved ones of Maurya, particularly the male members of the family.

c) Here, Maurya is heartbroken after all the deaths that she has seen of her loved ones. Over the years, she has had prayed without ceasing for her children, husband and other members of her family so that they could stay safe in the sea. But all her prayers proved futile as the sea consumed each one of them. Previously, she would constantly be thinking about the condition of the sea as her loved ones’ safety depended on it, but now since all of them have died, she does not care about the condition of the sea anymore. Maurya is emotionally drained and exhausted.

d) Keening means wailing in grief for a dead person. The other women will be keening because they have their loved ones still alive and death is approaching them and the grief of their death is still to haunt them.

The speaker won’t be keen anymore because all her loved ones in the sea have died and she has suffered all the grief there was.

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3. 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 whiteboards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.

a) What is the tone of the speaker in the above lines?
b) Explain the significance of the line ‘What more can we want than that?’
c) According to the speaker, with what should they be satisfied?

Answer: a) The tune of the speaker in the above lines is of remorse and at the same time of accepting the tragedy as a way of life.

b) The line ‘What more can we want than that?’ precisely sums up the significance of how insignificant our needs are as we die. We live life trying to get everything we need, but no matter what amount of treasure we gather, after death all becomes meaningless.

c) According to the speaker, they should be satisfied with whatever they have had and the time they had spent with their loved ones when they were alive as no one can live forever and thus they should be contented with how life treats them as they cannot change a thing.

B. Read and Write

1. Why did Bartley try to take the pony to Connemara in spite of his mother’s warnings?

Answer: Bartley tried to take the pony to Connemara in spite of his mother’s warnings because he wanted to sell the pony in a fair at Connemara and he had heard people saying that it would be a good fair for horses.

2. Why was the mother unable to bless her son, Bartley?

Answer: Maurya was unable to bless her son Bartley while he was in the house because she wanted him to not go into the sea fearing for his life, but when she went after Bartley to bless him, she couldn’t say anything to him as something choked the words in her throat. Also, she was terrified of seeing Micheal upon the grey pony riding behind Bartley.

3. Why did the priest refuse to stop Bartley from going to the Galway fair?

Answer: The priest refuses to stop Bartley from going to the Galway Fair because according to him, God would listen to the old woman’s prayer not to leave her destitute with no son living. The priest believed that God would not be so merciless that Maurya would not have any son left.

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7. Trace the change in Maurya’s attitude from the beginning of the play to its end.

Answer: Maurya remained a tragic yet strong character throughout the play ‘Riders to the Sea’. At the beginning of the play, she is very much insecure and unstable compared to the end. When the play starts, her one son is missing and she’s certain that he has died and therefore she sounds emotionally unstable and wants to stop Bartley from going to the sea fearing he might face a similar fate, though Bartley needs to go to as he is the only provider in the family now. Maurya is peevish and superstitious and wants to control things but she fails and this makes her visibly frustrated. Spiritually, in the beginning, she is more in alignment with Catholic sentiments. Towards the end, however, when Bartley dies, she feels like a burden of uncertainty has been lifted from her and she reaches a stage of emotional stability as her worst fear is now over. She declares that no man can live forever and they must be satisfied. She also appears to be more leaned towards pagan beliefs.

Extra questions and answers

1. What are Nora and Cathleen discussing when the play opens?

Answer: When the play opens, Nora and Cathleen are discussing the shirt and stockings that the priest had handed over to Nora to verify whether those belong to Michael. Since their mother is at home, they are worried about verification.

2. Why does the priest refuse to stop Bartley from going to the Galway fear?

Answer: The priest refuses to stop Bartley from going to the Galway Fair because according to him God would listen to the old woman’s prayers and would not leave her destitute with no son living. The priest believed that God would not be so merciless that Maurya would not have any son living.

3. What do Nora and Cathleen wish to hide from their mother?

Answer: Their wish to hide from their mother the bundle which the priest had given to Nora. It contained the clothes of a person who was found dead and they wanted to verify whether the dead person was Michael who had not returned home.

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8. What are the two main themes of the play Riders to the Sea?

Answer: The two main themes of the play Riders to the Sea are provider and destroyer. The people who live on the seashore depend on the sea for a living but also at the same time are at the risk of the angry sea. While the sea provides the people with a livelihood, it also takes the lives of the men.

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