Act I starts off with a bright ray of hope – this time Mary has really kicked morphine. O'Neill, in typical O'Neill fashion, doesn't wait long to beat the drums of doom. By the time Act II rolls around, Mary is already descending the stairs bright-eyed from a hit of morphine. A heartbroken James asks, "For the love of God, why couldn't you have the strength to keep on?" (2.1.125) That's a very good question Mr. Tyrone. Let us examine.
First, what are the causes of Mary's addiction? Edmund seems to get the blame most of the time, simply for being born. The birth was evidently quite painful for Mary. We have a sneaky suspicion that this pain wasn't just physical. Mary says that, before Edmund was born, there wasn't "a nerve in [her] body" (2.2.102). But why did Edmund's birth shatter Mary's nerves so badly? What did she fear?
The source of Mary's fear isn't much of a mystery when she says things like "I knew I'd proved by the way I'd left Eugene that I wasn't worthy to have another baby, and that God would punish me if I did" (2.2.105). Mary feels extremely guilty over the death of her second son. She thinks that, if she'd been there, she could've stopped little Jamie from giving Eugene that lethal case of measles.
It's likely that Mary was afraid something awful would happen to Edmund as well. This mental anguish, coupled with the physical pain of childbirth, was probably pure torture for Mary. The cheap hotel doctor that James dug up to help her came in with very little understanding of the complexities of her torment. He saw only a lady in pain. So, what did he do? Prescribed one of the most effective legal painkillers of the day – morphine.
Morphine, like its cousins, opium and heroine, is almost instantly addictive. Mary had no idea the sort of dangerous medicine she'd been given. She only felt euphoria and, for a sweet moment, a release from her anguish. If only she'd known how much more pain it would cause her in the future. Before she knew it, she was trapped in addiction's vicious cycle. (For a discussion of how this cycle reflects the structure of the overall play, check out "What's Up with the Title?")
What causes Mary to start using morphine again in Act II? Could it be physical? She does have rheumatoid arthritis, which causes constant pain, though there are other painkillers she could take. There are also the physically addictive properties of morphine to consider. The withdrawal is hideously painful, but then Mary has just gotten out of rehab. Isn't she past the hard part? Maybe not. Maybe the really hard part for Mary is returning to normal life. But what stresses cause her to relapse? Let's investigate.
First there's poor Edmund's illness. Once again he seems to help push his mom toward drugs. Just like with his birth, however, it's not his fault. (This guy can't win.) He has consumption (tuberculosis). Mary's father died of the same thing. So, she gets freaked out and turns to morphine for comfort. You can tell how much Edmund fears this scenario when he says, "I want you to promise me that even if it should turn out to be something worse, […] you'll keep on taking care of yourself" (1.1.224). Mary gives him her word of honor. Unfortunately, her word is just no good where morphine is concerned.
When looking at why Mary returns to morphine, let's not overlook Mary's loneliness. Mary has lived a lonely life. Right after she married James, many of her old friends stopped talking to her. Why? For one, James is an actor, which isn't considered a respectable profession. Then, not long after they were married, one of James's old mistresses sued him. It was quite the scandal. Mary says that her "old friends either pitied [her] or cut [her] dead" (2.2.95).
After the marriage, Mary's isolation worsened. She spent years alone in cheap hotel rooms, waiting for James to get done carousing with his theatre buddies. She laments to Edmund, "If there was only […] some woman friend I could talk to – not about anything serious, simply laugh and gossip and forget for a while" (1.1.209). There's no such person in her life, though. She may turn to morphine to lessen the feeling of loneliness.
Wait a second. Doesn't Mary have her family around her when we see her relapse? Why is she so lonely? At the beginning of the play the other Tyrones are all being really nice to her. That's just it though, we guess. Everybody's being too considerate. She says to Edmund, "It makes it so much harder, living in this atmosphere of constant suspicion [that she's back on morphine]" (1.1.106). Is it suspicion or consideration? Probably a little of both. Whatever the case, it serves to isolate her even more, pushing her back into drug abuse.
With all of the above in mind, (Eugene's death, Edmund's birth, cheap doctors, Edmund's illness, Mary's loneliness, the family's suspicion) doesn't the choice to use morphine still fall on Mary? The fact is that Mrs. Tyrone likes to blame others – this might be her greatest weakness. She's so good at coming up with excuses, that she very rarely has to face the fact that ultimately it's her decision. No one else is making her use the drug. In fact everyone around her is trying desperately to get her to stop. Tragically, on this very long day, she's just not ready.
Note: Make sure and check out "What's Up With the Ending?" and "Character Roles." Both entries talk about how Mary's character functions in this work of fiction.