The protagonist in J. M. Synge's one-act play Riders to the Sea, Maurya, is a peasant woman belonging to the Irish fishing community of the Aran Islands. In the social status, Maurya is thus distinctly different from the towering classical protagonists such as Oedipus, Agamemnon and Antigone, all of whom are highborn. While classical and Renaissance tragic protagonists undergo suffering owing to their 'hubris' or 'hamartia', Maurya appears to be a passive and helpless victim in the hands of the destructive sea. In Maurya's case, no profound question seems to be raised about the intricate relationship between human will and predestination. Yet, she resembles the great traditional protagonists in her heroic power of endurance and the spiritual transcendence over her suffering.
In Riders to the Sea, Maurya at first appears to be a weak and helpless victim as he has lost her husband and four of her six sons in the sea. She is crazed and disoriented by the disappearance of her fifth son Michael, missing at sea for nine long days. The intensity of her suffering in the hands of the cruel and unpredictable sea is no less than that of the classical protagonists who are victimized by the malice and caprice of the fate. The final climax to her tragic experience is foreshadowed when her only surviving son, Bartley, insists on sailing during tempestuous weather.
Maurya's desperate attempt to prevent Barley from sailing comprises of one of the most dramatic moments in the play. While Maurya insistently cites several reasons to dissuade her son, he offers a passive resistance by refusing to address her queries with definite answers. While Maurya had previously refused to admit the possibility of Michael's death, she readily acknowledges it only to hinder Bartley. She opines that Michael's body is recovered, a man would be required to arrange for the funeral rites that would be impossible without Bartley's presence. When no excuses suffice, she candidly exposes the raw core of her suffering heart, pleading Bartley not to devastate her by adamantly sailing to his death. Though she accuses Bartley of being hard-hearted and indifferent, the pain of separation surpasses her accusation.
Unlike the classical tragic protagonists, Maurya has not been characterized by the Aristotelian attributes of 'hubris' and 'hamartia'. Her suffering is not based on individual volition or responsibility. She is a sufferer from the very beginning of the play and has been described as frantically praying and pleading to God for the safety and security of her sons. Though she is a Christian, she cannot rely on the superficial consolation offered by the young priest who insists that "Almighty God won't leave her destitute with no son living". Like all other Aran mothers, she is a pagan at her heart, believing more in dark and destructive supernatural forces governing human destiny than the will of the benevolent and merciful Father.
Through Maurya, Synge depicts the tragic foreknowledge of most aged Aran mothers. Being accustomed to repeated bereavement, Maurya possesses the intuitive knowledge that Bartley's decision to sail to Galway to sell the two horses is a fateful one. It is this tragic wisdom that makes her cry out over her son's inevitable destiny during his departure – "He's gone now, God spare us and I will not see him again. He is gone now and when the black night is falling, I'll have no son left me in the world." Traumatized by fear and anxiety, she is unable to bless her son or handing him his piece of bread – all these being symbolically interpreted by Maurya's daughters and the rustic audience as an ill omen or a curse. Maurya's culminating tragic experience of losing her last son is therefore a predictable one.
The dramatist reveals to us the uncorrupted and untamed folk-imagination of Maurya through the supernatural vision that she witnesses at the spring-well. The strength of her intuition makes her envision the spectre of Michael adorned in new clothes and shoes on the gray pony, following Bartley, riding the red mare. Reminiscent of the red and the dark horses in the biblical Revelation, the rider of the dark horse is emblematic of death. Following the rider on the red mare, symbolizing life, the rider of the dark horse symbolically anticipates Bartley's death. This supernatural vision of Maurya universalizes the intricate relationship between life and death.
Maurya's suffering reaches its climactic moment towards the end of the play, reminding us of the destinies of Hecuba and Niobe. Her initial response to Bartley's death is one of stoic defiance when she declares with a challenge, "There's no harm the sea can do t me". In the perpetual battle between the life-giver and the destroyer, between the mother and the destructive sea, Maurya, at last, ironically, is triumphant. Having lost all her sons, she has been emancipated from the everlasting cycle of suffering and bereavement. At this point, she seems to withdraw her sympathy from the community of mankind when her disillusionment compels her to state – "I won't care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening."
The final phase of Maurya's suffering reveals a transition from misery to a profound tragic transcendence. Like the Sophoclean protagonists, she achieves knowledge and enlightenment out of misery and heroically accepts her tragic predicament. Tragic wisdom illuminates her mind into the understanding that death is an essential episode in the universal cycle of life. Instead of accusing God, she reconciles to her fate bravely and gracefully and accepts her destitution as the sublime will of God. Reconstructing a broken life into a new existence of faith and altruism, she achieves tragic dignity and elevation in the eyes of the audience. She reflects the true spirit of Christian humanism, invoking God's blessings upon all – "… may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and the soul of everyone is left living in the world". She further states – "no man at all can be living for ever and we must be satisfied". It is this spiritual sublimation of misery that gives Maurya the status of a great tragic heroine.
In Riders to the Sea, Synge transforms a common Aran peasant woman to a universal mother. Through her, the dramatist provides us with a glimpse into the strength of the human spirit that can spiritually triumph over the worst form of adversity. Instead of being a victim of destructive forces, as the modern tragic protagonist usually is, Maurya is raised to a position of tragic glory. Thus, he creates a new dimension in depicting the character of a tragic protagonist who is none but a down-to-earth sufferer.