Inside the tavern, Raskolnikov meets a drunk man who looks like a retired government official. The man’s physical appearance has obviously suffered as a result of his habitual drinking. Although his clothes are tattered, he manages to convey an air of dignity and education. Despite the jeers of the tavern’s patrons and staff, the man proceeds to tell his life story to Raskolnikov. He is a self-professed drunkard married to a proud woman of noble background, Katerina Ivanovna. She married him out of desperation after a bad first marriage that resulted in three children and her disinheritance. The man, whose name is Marmeladov, has a daughter of his own, named Sonya, who has been forced to prostitute herself to support her family. Recently, Marmeladov managed to regain a job in the civil service, raising the hopes of his wife, but he lost the job in a fit of drunkenness and has not dared return home for five days. Throughout his story, Marmeladov alternates between self-reproach and justification of his behavior. He leaves the tavern for his home, taking Raskolnikov with him. The nearby Marmeladov household is a scene of misery. Though no older than thirty, Katerina is sickly and agitated. Upon seeing Marmeladov, she grabs him by the hair and loudly criticizes him. Other tenants arrive to mock the family squabble, and the landlady orders Katerina to move out. As Raskolnikov departs, he leaves the family a small amount of money, something he promptly regrets doing. He holds the Marmeladovs in disdain, especially for forcing Sonya to sacrifice herself for their sake.
The next morning, Raskolnikov, in his room, is awakened by the maid, Nastasya, who brings him tea and soup and a letter from his mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna. Nastasya tells him that the landlady wants to evict him for not paying rent. In the letter, his mother relates the experience of his sister, Dunya, as a maid. Dunya was trying to earn money to help support Raskolnikov but her employer, Svidrigailov, made improper advances toward her and her reputation in the town was nearly ruined. She has now accepted a proposal of marriage from a man named Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, who wants to marry her because she is poor and thus will regard him as her savior. Pulcheria Alexandrovna adds that she and Dunya were not sure about the marriage at first but that Dunya agreed to it after much consideration. Both hope that Dunya’s new husband will eventually be able to help Raskolnikov with his career. Mother, daughter, and fiancé will be arriving in St. Petersburg shortly. Crying, Raskolnikov finishes reading the letter and goes for a walk, talking to himself like a drunk.
On his walk, Raskolnikov decides that he will not allow the marriage to take place, as Dunya is plainly sacrificing herself to help him. Luzhin sounds stingy and disrespectful, and Raskolnikov develops a passionate hatred of him. The sight of an older man pursuing a drunk young woman interrupts his thoughts. Disgusted, he confronts the older man. A policeman shows up, and Raskolnikov explains the situation, giving the policeman some money for a cab to take the girl home. The girl goes, followed by the stranger and the policeman. Raskolnikov grows annoyed at this waste of money. The policeman, he thinks, will let the man have the girl as soon as Raskolnikov is out of sight. He suddenly realizes that he has been walking toward the home of his best friend from university, Razumikhin, whom he has not seen in four months. Razumikhin is described as warm and outgoing.
Chapter II vividly illustrates the characters of Marmeladov and his wife, Katerina Ivanovna. Each is pathetic, he in his way and she in hers, but, at the same time, each possesses an inherent sense of pride. Marmeladov is an interestingly paradoxical figure, largely because he refuses to accept responsibility for his actions even though he acknowledges that his behavior is at the root of his family’s problems. Unable to escape a cycle of failure and unemployment, he goes on his drinking binge in part as a reaction to the respect and esteem that his wife gives him upon hearing of his new job. It is almost as if success of any kind is too much for him; as soon as he can, he ruins his prospects of making money and bringing the family out of its abject poverty. Nonetheless, he clings to a shred of dignity in public, and Raskolnikov can discern that he is an educated man despite his degenerate appearance. Katerina is an even more tragic figure than her husband; unlike him, she bears almost no responsibility for her condition. Her illness and bad luck in her choice of husbands has doomed her to a life of weakness and squalor. But, despite these overwhelming obstacles, her pride and dignity still remain strong.
The Marmeladovs’ suffering constitutes a major subplot of the novel. Their trials and troubles are interesting in their own right, as Katerina, Marmeladov, and Sonya struggle to make ends meet and overcome daunting circumstances. Their poverty also allows Dostoevsky to include striking examples of the damaging effects of urban deprivation on quality of life. The Marmeladov subplot also intersects with the main plot at various points and illustrates aspects of Raskolnikov’s character. One such point occurs at the end of Chapter II: Raskolnikov’s gift of money to the Marmeladovs seems to reflect the awakening of his compassionate side. But his pride extinguishes this sentiment almost as soon as it is kindled, as he congratulates himself that “they would be in great straits tomorrow without that money of mine!” Instead of feeling pity for the family, he judges them coldly as cowards who profit willingly from Sonya’s degradation and then curses himself for having given them money, which he is certain that they will waste. This pattern of acting compassionately and then pushing away the objects of his compassion repeats itself throughout the novel as Raskolnikov struggles to reconcile his haughty disdain for others with his desire to rejoin society.
Raskolnikov’s pride is explored further in Chapters III and IV. The devotion of his mother and sister, who are willing to make enormous sacrifices for him, can be seen as another source of Raskolnikov’s haughtiness. His reaction to Dunya’s engagement further reveals his self-absorption, as he assumes that she is marrying solely for his sake and ignores the possibility that she might be marrying Luzhin to provide a better life for herself and her mother. He determines not to let her sacrifice herself for his sake, self-importantly declaring, “No, mother, it shall never be, not whilst I live. I will not have it.” Whether or not Dunya herself wishes it never enters his mind.
The character of Raskolnikov’s mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, comes through clearly in her letter. She is devoted to her son, even ready to condone her daughter’s self-sacrifice for his benefit. Her letter to him serves the important role of introducing the subplot of Dunya’s engagement. The letter also discusses and introduces Dunya’s former employer, Svidrigailov, who becomes important to the development of the plot, and his recently deceased wife, Marfa Petrovna. Dostoevsky skillfully uses Pulcheria’s letter as a device to provide these bits of context and background, so that when Raskolnikov first talks to his mother, sister, and Luzhin, we have a deeper sense of the meaning of the interaction than we would have if the characters had not already been described.