The main female character in this important novel is that of Emma, who only seems to appear as part of fragments of Stephen's earliest childhood memories. He certainly is never able to connect with her as a real individual, and in the novel it is clear that she turns into a symbol of a love that is based on purity rather than the confusing sexual desires that Stephen comes to experience as he matures. The way in which Stephen pedestals Emma as a paragon of purity is demonstrated when he links her in his imagination with religion. Remember that when he passes through his stage where he ascribes to a strict religious practice, he associates being together with Emma in heaven as his reward for the earthly sacrifices that he makes in this plane.
Interestingly, it is when he reaches university that he has his first proper conversation with Emma. The diary record of this meeting shows that Emma is actually rather normal and very different from the divine figure that Stephen had made out of her before. This symbolises the way in which Stephen as a character has moved away from religious extremes of sin and purity and is now adopting something of a third way and happy medium between the two ends of the spectrum. Women therefore are used to indicate the kind of development that Stephen as a character undergoes.