At the end of the last chapter, Raskolnikov notices an apparently disturbed person in the tavern drinking. After his visit with Alyona Ivanovna, he feels the need of a drink, and the lonely man begins a conversation with him. He identifies himself as Semyon Marmeladov, a clerk in the Civil Service. He has neither undressed nor washed for five days. His greasy red hands were dirty, his nails filthy, and his clothes disreputable.
Marmeladov spills out his entire recent history, telling how he had been in government service but had lost his position because of alcoholism. However, he had recently been reinstated as a clerk in a government office, but as of now, he has been drinking constantly for five days and is now afraid to go home. He tells of his marriage to Katerina Ivanovna, a widow of a higher social class and a mother of three young children who married him out of destitution. He also reveals that he has a daughter Sonya who has entered into prostitution because there was no other way to feed the family. He stole the money his daughter earned from prostitution to pay for his five-day binge. He asks Raskolnikov "Can you say with conviction that I am not a swine?"
He asks Raskolnikov if he knows what it is like to have absolutely no place to turn to, to be in utter despair and to suffer without recourse to any action. He took Sonya's last 30 kopecks to buy drinks. He is scared to go home because Katerina will beat him and he deserves it.
Raskolnikov, who has wanted to leave, decides to help Marmeladov home where he sees the abject poverty that he, Katerina, and the three children live in. After witnessing a horrible scene between Marmeladov and Katerina, he scrapes through his pockets and leaves them some of his scant money.
The introduction of Marmeladov at this point is central to Raskolnikov's theories. He has just left a woman (Alyona Ivanovna) who is filthy, greasy, and lives the life of a "louse"; he is repulsed by her and plans to murder her. Yet, here he meets Marmeladov who is also filthy, greasy, with dirty hands and is a horrible, abject creature who has allowed his own daughter to enter prostitution so as to help support his drinking habits; yet rather than seeing him as a "louse," the opposite feelings are evoked in Raskolnikov — he responds with sympathy and compassion to this outwardly useless creature.
This meeting with Marmeladov this early in the novel establishes Raskolnikov's dual personality. Throughout the novel, we should remember that Raskolnikov functions either as a warm, compassionate, and humane individual willing to help the downtrodden, or else as a cold, detached, intellectual being who must stand apart from others in order to justify his theories of the Ubermensch. At the beginning of Chapter 2, he has avoided all society of late but after his meeting with the pawnbroker (Alyona Ivanovna), he has a desire to embrace humanity. And his humanitarian impulses cause him to leave all (or most) of his scarce money to Katerina, but almost immediately, he changes his mind and "would have gone back."
The meeting with Marmeladov is also important in establishing future relationships. First, Marmeladov's narration introduces Sonya and the entire Marmeladov family. It prepares Raskolnikov to look upon Sonya as a victim and see in Marmeladov's own sufferings the sufferings of Sonya. He is attracted to her because of her suffering. Then, at the end of the novel just before his confession, he acknowledges his attraction to her because she represents "the suffering of all humanity."
Marmeladov's story also reflects Raskolnikov's own personal condition. The discussion of hopelessness, "when one has no one, nowhere else one can go," becomes one of the dominant motifs throughout the rest of the novel. This discussion reoccurs later as Raskolnikov is forced to consider the hopelessness of his own life. After the actual murder, Raskolnikov remembers Marmeladov's impassioned cry of "having absolutely no where to go."
Finally, Marmeladov's story stresses the alcoholic as a human being whose family is starving while he drinks, whose daughter had to enter into prostitution in order to support the starving family, and whose life has been one of degradation. Since Raskolnikov's murder will be based partially on the rationale that certain people fit into a category of being a "louse," this story should indicate to Raskolnikov that his theory should apply directly to Marmeladov, especially when Marmeladov cries out, "Dare you assert that I am not a pig?" But rather than despising Marmeladov as a louse (or a pig), Raskolnikov feels great sympathy for him and for his suffering, thus contradicting his own theory, and making him doubt the validity of his theory: "What if man is not really a scoundrel. . .then all the rest is prejudice."