At the end of chapter 2, Stephen Dedalus has sex with a prostitute. This is not an incident that Stephen takes lightly: during the encounter, Stephen is full of acute emotions. The narrator describes him as on the cusp of “hysterical weeping.” However, as chapter 3 starts, “the wave of vitality” that accompanied his first exchange with a sex worker has settled down. Stephen has since patronized other sex workers, and these encounters have produced “a cold indifference.”
Stephen’s coldness relates to God as well. Stephen thinks about how his visits to the sex workers might compromise his soul and land him in hell. Yet Stephen refuses to pray to God or to make any gestures that would let God know that he’s sorry for what he’s been up to. According to Stephen, reaching out to God would be “false.”
At this point, it’s not God who Stephen turns to for potential repentance, it’s the Virgin Mary. Stephen seems to have a particular admiration for Mary. He feels that his sin has concealed him from God. But when it comes to Mary, she can see Stephen fine. She looks on him with “mild pity.” Stephen doesn’t feel that Mary will try to “humiliate” him. She comes across as an understanding, admirable figure. If Stephen chooses to repent, it will be because of her and his wish to be her “knight.”
Soon, the Virgin Mary is as distant a figure as God. After reflecting on his lust for Emma and his cache of pornographic pictures, Stephen adopts a different perspective on Mary. Now, both are “too far from him.” God is too “great and stern” and Mary is too “pure and holy.”
Stephen’s changing relationship to Mary appears to parallel his uncertainty about repentance and fully embracing Catholic beliefs. Ultimately, what brings Stephen to repent is not Mary so much as Father Arnall’s vivid presentation of hell and Stephen’s own nightmarish vision.