See "Street Haunting: A London Adventure" in The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf. Must Have Books: Victoria, BC.
Content warning for caricaturing of disabled women and repeated use of the word "dwarf"
Pardon all the missing page references, indicated with a (*)
“For the eye has this strange property; it rests only on beauty.” (*)
Woolf’s essay narrates a walk across London. During the first part of the walk, the narrator enjoys a sort of moving reverie, keeping her mind afloat, not imagining too much into the lives of the people she crosses paths with.
“The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.” (35)
She wants the humanity around her to remain apparitional, because
“We are in danger of digging deeper than the eye approves; we are impeding our passage down the smooth stream by catching at some branch or root. At any moment, the sleeping army may stir itself and wake in us a thousand violins and trumpets in response; the army of human beings may rouse itself and assert all its oddities and sufferings and sordidities Let us dally a little longer, be content still with surfaces only--the glossy brilliance of the motor omnibuses; the carnal splendor of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.” (*)
One of the (many) things I would say makes Woolf a great writer is her transitions as she moves through thought, character, space, and time. But, in this essay, she shoehorns in a scene change by having the narrator step into a boot shop, where she is given occasion to ask the question, ‘what, then, is it like to be a dwarf?’ ” when a 'dwarf' enters
“escorted by two women who, being of normal size, looked like benevolent giantesses behind her. Smiling at the shop girls, they seemed to be disclaiming any lot in her deformity and assuring her of their protection. She wore the peevish yet apologetic expression usual on the faces of the deformed. She needed their kindness, yet she resented it. But when the shop girl had been summoned and the giantesses, smiling indulgently, had asked for shoes for ‘this lady,’ and the girl had pushed the little stand in front of her, the dwarf stuck her foot out with an impetuosity which seemed to claim all our attention. Look at that! Look at that! She seemed to demand of us all, as she thrust her foot out, for behold it was the shapely, perfectly proportioned foot of a well-grown woman. It was arched; it was aristocratic. Her whole manner changed as she looked at it resting on the stand. She looked soothed and satisfied. Her manner became full of self-confidence. She sent for shoe after shoe; she tried on pair after pair. She got up and pirouetted before a glass which reflected the foot only in yellow shoes, in fawn shoes, in shoes of lizard skin. She raised her little skirts and displayed her little legs. She was thinking that, after all, feet are the most important part of the whole person; women, she said to herself, have been loved for their feet alone. Seeing nothing but her feet, she imagined perhaps that the rest of her body was of a piece with those (37) beautiful feet. She was shabbily dressed, but she was ready to lavish any money upon her shoes [...] at length, the pair was chosen and, as she walked out between her guardians, with the parcel swinging from her finger, the ecstasy faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a dwarf only.” (*)
The narrator leaves the boot shop and resumes her walk, but finds her encounter with the disabled woman:
“had changed the mood; she had called into being an atmosphere which, as we followed her out into the street, seemed actually to create the humped, the twisted, the deformed.” (*)
A few pages later (39), the narrator is asking “Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?” (*)
She enjoys her own experience of unimpeded seeing, of moving through the city aloof from human transactions and the demands of others on her personality; compare that freeing to the disabled woman’s fleeting and contingent thrill at feeling herself seen the way she would like to be seen through the eyes of others.