At the age of sixteen, Stephen makes many visits to prostitutes. He believes that he is in danger of eternal damnation for these mortal sins. He does not bother to pray for forgiveness, believing that his sin is too great for him to offer any false repentance or remorse to God. But at the college he has a reputation for piety, which has resulted in him being named a prefect. On Saturdays he leads a group of boys that meets in the chapel to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. But in his own mind he has sunk to a low spiritual level, on the principle that a person who breaks one commandment is guilty of breaking them all.
Stephen attends an annual retreat at the college in honor of the sixteenth century Jesuit saint, St. Francis Xavier. He sits on the front bench of the chapel to listen to Father Arnall's introduction to the retreat, in which he says they will concentrate on the four last things from the Catholic catechism: death, judgment, hell and heaven. He reminds the boys that there is only one thing that is important in life: the salvation of the soul. Whoever remembers the last things will live a good life and die a good death.
That night Stephen is deeply conscious of his own state of sin, and he feels in a fog of despair. The next day Father Arnall lectures on death and judgment. He speaks of how God will reward the good and punish the wicked. There will be a day of judgment and no human being can avoid it. Stephen feels all this keenly, as if every word of the lecture is aimed at him. As he walks home he hears a girl's laughter, and shame floods his being. He is ashamed of the sins of lust he has committed, but he imagines himself with Emma, being forgiven by the Blessed Virgin.
The next day Father Arnall tells the boys about the creation story: Adam and Eve sinned and were driven out of the Garden of Eden, but God promised that he would send a redeemer. This was Jesus, born of Mary, who preached the new gospel and was crucified. Then Father Arnall gives a long exposition of the nature of hell in which he explains every detail of what the damned souls endure. Hell is a prison the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick. The damned souls lie in darkness, since the fires of hell give heat but no light. There is an awful stench. But the worst torment is fire, which burns forever but does not destroy the things it burns. The fire afflicts the damned not only from without but also from within. Their blood and their organs boil. The fire is of great intensity, as it is an instrument of the wrath of God. The torments of hell are also increased by the company the damned souls keep. They yell and scream at each other; there is no sense of humanity. Finally, the damned are reproached and mocked by horrible devils.
Stephen is deeply affected by the sermon. He again feels that every word is aimed at him and feels almost in hell already. He appeals to the Virgin to save him. He promises to repent. But when the time comes for confession in the college chapel, he cannot bring himself to go. Instead, he plans to go to confession in another chapel, somewhere away from the college, where he is not known.
The next day, Father Arnall considers the spiritual torments of hell. The greatest of these is the pain of loss, the knowledge that the damned are completely cut off from the divine light. The second pain is the pain of conscience, a perpetual remorse for sins committed. The next spiritual pain is the pain of extension, in which all the torments are experienced at the same time. There is also the pain of intensity, because unlike on earth, in hell there is nothing to soften the pains. There are no comforts, because everything that is a comfort on earth (company, for example, or knowledge) is a torment in hell. The crowning torture in hell is the eternity of it. It lasts forever, in a way that the human imagination can barely grasp. Father Arnall concludes with a prayer for the repentance of sins, because God is merciful and does not wish the eternal death of the sinner.
Stephen waits until everyone has gone and then repeats the act of contrition with fervor. He goes to his room and prays, bitterly conscious of what he believes are his terrible sins. He is so distressed he goes to the washstand and vomits. In the evening he walks into town, seeking a chapel where he can make confession to a priest and be absolved from his sins. Finally making his confession to an understanding old priest who comforts him, he feels a tremendous sense of relief. He believes he is once more living in the light of God's grace.
This chapter shows how firmly Stephen is held in the grip of the Catholic religion in which he was raised. His belief that he is in a state of mortal sin following his visits to the Dublin brothels tears him apart, and Father Arnall's terrifying sermons on hell, which are based on old Jesuit texts, are enough to send him to confession. He does not yet have the maturity to seriously question the basic framework of Catholicism, as interpreted by the Jesuits who are in charge of his education.
In spite of this, however, there are some signs of Stephen's growing independence of mind. He has acquired a reputation for asking his masters awkward questions about doctrinal matters. Although he does this only so he can feel more deeply his own damnation, his questions suggest the germ of a critical attitude to some of the more esoteric aspects of Catholic doctrine.
It is clear from this chapter that Stephen is set apart from most of the other boys. He responds intensely to the visual imagery in the sermon on hell, quite unlike the other boys, who do not take it so seriously. ("I suppose he rubbed it into you well," says one, of Father Arnall's sermon). By the sensitivity and depth of his response, Stephen shows himself capable of great imaginative experience. His own state of mind is almost as tormented as those of the damned souls he has just been hearing about.