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In Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, class distinctions play a very large role in human relationships. Griet, the 16-year-old girl at the center of Chevalier’s story, which was inspired by the author’s fascination with Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name, is from a poor family. Her father was blinded by an explosion at the kiln factory where he worked and the family is left even more destitute than it had been before the accident. Forced by circumstances to work long hours as a maid in Vermeer’s home and resented by the painter’s wife, Catharina, who views the pretty young woman as a threat, Griet has to daily navigate between the painter’s growing fondness for his new maid’s appreciation for art and Catharina’s jealousy. It is the class distinctions that permeate Chevalier’s novel, however, lend her story its social relevance. Griet is constantly reminded that she is of a lower socioeconomic status than her employers, irrespective of Johanne’s willingness to take her under his wing. As Griet becomes more enchanted with the symbols of wealth to which he exposed – “I wanted to wear the mantle and the pearls” – she risks losing sight of the realities of her existence as a lower-class person. Hence, the kindly Van Leeuwenhoek’s admonition that she “. . .must take care to remain yourself.” When Chevalier’s story jumps ahead ten years following Griet’s expulsion from the Vermeer household by the psychotically-jealous Catharina, who is thrown into a rage at the sight of her husband’s painting of the maid wearing her, Catharina’s, pear earrings, it is revealed that Griet had succumbed to those realities and married Pieter, the son of the local butcher. Griet had never demonstrated any romantic interest with Pieter, and clearly had hoped for something, or someone better. The revelation that she had married Pieter is the novel’s clearest indication that Griet has resigned herself to a life of poverty – further evident in her decision to sell the pear earrings that the now-deceased painter had bequeathed to her. Pearl earrings simply do not belong in her world.
That the socioeconomic distinctions that lie at the center of Chevalier’s novel exist today is readily apparent throughout the world. Class distinctions and class consciousness remain as prevalent today as at any time in history. The current social movement protesting income disparities in the United States is but the most recent manifestation of this phenomenon. What is different, however, is the willingness of lower-income people today to agitate on their own behalf using legitimate forms of social protest and lobbying of governmental institutions. An outgrowth of the aforementioned social movement regarding income disparities is the movement for an increase in the minimum wage across the United States and the efforts by supporters of that movement in Congress to advance that agenda. Griet and her family feel resigned to their plight. In nearby France a century later, however, the downtrodden would begin to take matters into their own hands. The reverberations from the French Revolution would be felt for many years to come. In the 17th Century of Chevalier’s and Vermeer’s Holland, however, such stirrings of revolt were inconceivable.
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