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The solitary drinker who fascinates Raskolnikov at the end of the first chapter dominates Chapter 2 with his tortured confession. Unlike the morose, brooding Raskolnikov, the drunken Marmeladov is talkative and seems almost to enjoy describing his misery and self-hatred. He recounts every bitter detail of the ruin he has brought on his family. The most pathetic is the miserable story about his daughter, who has been driven to prostitution by the family's poverty.
Marmeladov calls Sonia meek, a word with Christian overtones, and describes her as a fragile wisp of a person without education or skills. He has failed her as a father, and her stepmother has taunted her into providing money for the starving family with her only asset: her body. Sonia's prostitution is a social commentary on the breakdown of traditional family structure and emphasizes the desperate plight of poor women.
But Sonia is also eternally forgiving, according to her father. She gives her family money when she has nothing for herself; Marmeladov calls her a saint who will be forgiven by God for her sins. That hope keeps him alive.
It is ironic that Marmeladov, a degenerate drunk, introduces the
religious ideas that are so important to the rest of the novel. He believes
in forgiveness, mercy, and the power of suffering-ideas that, at first,
are totally alien to Raskolnikov's way of thinking. Repeatedly, the older
man insists that everybody needs somewhere or someone to turn to. Without
that refuge, he says, a person is doomed. Marmeladov believes that even
he will be forgiven, although you may not be convinced he should be. Dostoevsky
never lets on what he himself really thinks about Marmeladov, so you have
to decide for yourself.
When Raskolnikov escorts the drunkard home, the young man is appalled at the squalor in which the family lives and the evidence of the consumption (tuberculosis) that is killing Marmeladov's wife Katerina Ivanovna. Dostoevsky also shows us the violence that poverty can bring. Katerina Ivanovna abuses her children, and she assaults her husband when he returns penniless, jobless, and drunk.
Impulsively, Raskolnikov leaves them money on the windowsill, but he hates himself for being so soft. Dostoevsky is showing us a new side of his character, an ability to feel sorry for people worse off than he is.
Though he speaks of Sonia ironically as their gold mine, you can find evidence of his capacity for compassion when he thinks about how her family takes her money: "They wept at first, but now they are used to it. Men are scoundrels; they can get used to anything!"
We learn in this chapter of the 30 silver roubles Sonia earned on her first night as a prostitute. This is a clear reference to the thirty pieces of silver that Judas got for betraying Christ. References to betrayal, death, and resurrection occur frequently in the novel and are directly linked to the theme that suffering is rewarded. The allusion to the Christ story works, even though Sonia-unlike Judas-is the betrayed, not the betrayer. You might even say she's the one who is Christ-like.
This chapter is important because it shows a new side of Raskolnikov's character, and because he hears about Sonia. You'll see later why that matters.