Many people accept the idea that each of us has a certain resolute innerness—a kernel of selfhood that we can’t share with others. (Levin, at the end of “Anna Karenina,” calls it his “holy of holies,” and says that, no matter how close he grows to the people around him, there will always be “the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife.”) What interested Woolf was the way that we become aware of that innerness. We come to know it best, she thought, when we’re forced, at moments of exposure, to shield it against the outside world.
There can be something enjoyable, even revelatory about that feeling of self-protection, which is why we seek out circumstances in which we can feel more acutely the contrast between the outside world and our inner selves. Woolf was fascinated by city life—by the feeling of solitude-on-display that the sidewalk encourages, and by the way that “street haunting,” as she called it, allows you to lose and then find yourself in the rhythm of urban novelty and familiarity. She was drawn to the figure of the hostess: the woman-to-be-looked-at, standing at the top of the stairs, friendly to everyone, who grows only more mysterious with her visibility. (One of the pleasures of throwing a party, Woolf showed, is that it allows you to surprise yourself: surrounded by your friends, the center of attention, you feel your separateness from the social world you have convened.) She showed how parents, friends, lovers, and spouses can become more unknowable over time, not less—there is a core to their personhood that never gives itself up. Even as they put their lives on display, she thought, artists thrive when they maintain a final redoubt of privacy—a wellspring that remains unpolluted by the world outside. “A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter,” Clarissa thinks, at the end of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Of course, it’s the chatter—the party—that helps her know that she has something to lose in the first place.