Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1634
In her novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier tells the invented story of the girl who modeled for Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting by the same name.
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It is 1664, and Griet, who is sixteen years old, must leave her family to work as a maid for the Vermeer family. Griet’s father is a well-respected man who used to paint tiles for a living. However, since he was blinded in an accident, his family has struggled. The painter Vermeer has agreed to take on a maid in order to help the family. Vermeer and his pregnant wife, Catharina, come to meet Griet. Griet is preparing vegetables for a soup and she has organized them by color in a circle. Vermeer instantly notices that she has arranged the vegetables by color and asks her how she decided to arrange her vegetables. Griet, who is always careful not to betray her feelings, does her best to avoid his questions. Catherina also inspects Griet’s work. She knocks a knife to the ground, and Griet quickly returns it to the table. When they leave, Griet presses her lips together, which is enough to signal her discomfort to her mother. However, Griet’s mother reminds her that their family is no longer able to support itself. Already, an attraction between Griet and Vermeer has been established—and it clearly threatens Catharina.
The Vermeer home, which is located in Papist’s Corner, a Catholic neighborhood within Delft, Holland, is unusual to Griet. She was raised a Protestant, and the paintings of religious scenes, such as the crucifixion, unnerve her. The family also surprises her, especially the children, of which there are several. Maertga is roughly the same age as Griet’s younger sister, Agnes. The younger daughter, Cornelia, catches Griet’s attention—she can tell Cornelia will make mischief. When Cornelia laughs at one of Griet’s instructions, the latter slaps her. Griet knows that this will not be her last confrontation with Cornelia.
The other maid, Tanneke, shows Griet around the home and explains her many duties. She spends a significant amount of time doing laundry, which she knows will dry and chap her hands. Another of her jobs is to go to the market to buy meat. The Vermeer family uses a different butcher than Griet’s. Griet feels turned off by Pieter the butcher and his son, also named Pieter, because they serve their customers in the same bloody apron in which they do their work and because their hands are bloody from their work. Griet is given a room and a bed in the cellar. Even this room contains a crucifixion painting, which keeps Griet from sleeping soundly.
Although Griet does not feel that she is being worked any harder than she would have been in her home, the work here is much lonelier. Tanneke is moody, Cornelia is always plotting, and Catharina clearly distrusts Griet. Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins, is quite clever, but she and Griet do not share a warm relationship. Griet does, however, share an intense connection with the master of the house, though at first she is only aware of him looking at her from the window of his studio. No one but Maria Thins, who arranges his business, is allowed to enter the studio. Before long, however, Griet is asked to clean it. She is careful to place things exactly where they belong; she quickly grasps how important the positions of the objects are to Vermeer’s painting. She even knows not to clean the windows because doing so could affect the room’s lighting and consequently ruin his painting.
When Griet goes home on Sundays, she always describes Vermeer’s paintings. In response to the plague, which claims the life of Griet’s younger sister, Agnes, a quarantine is issued around her parents’ neighborhood. Griet misses her weekly visit, and she realizes that she has begun to be separated from her family.
Before long, Griet’s work begins to change and Vermeer has her mixing colors. Maria Thins recognizes that this speeds his painting to support his ever-growing family, but Catharina would not approve of it. At first Griet is forced to make a series of excuses for spending time in the studio, and both Maria Thins and Vermeer help her. Vermeer manages to move Griet’s bedroom to the attic, and Maria Thins does her best to keep Catharina from finding out what is happening. Griet comes to love mixing colors for her master, and she even begins to develop a strong eye for painting. Vermeer comments that he never would have thought to learn about painting from a maid. Griet prefers living in the attic and working in the studio, but Cornelia nevertheless manages to make mischief. She attempts to frame Griet for stealing Catharina’s comb, and it is only Vermeer’s defense on her behalf that saves her, which Griet feels puts her in his debt. This changes the dynamics of the household, and Maria Thins comments that no other maid ever made so much trouble within the house.
Vermeer’s paintings are always produced in his studio. He works for hire, and his patron is van Ruijven. Pieter tells Griet that van Ruijven once took a liking to a maid and had Vermeer paint them together. Before long, she was pregnant. Now she has disappeared from polite society. Van Ruijven quickly takes a liking to Griet, whom he calls the “wide eyed maid.” He first meets her at the celebration of the birth of Catharina’s son. Pieter, the butcher’s son, is there. He quickly calls for wine, which saves Griet from van Ruijven’s advances but leaves Griet in his debt. Pieter plans to marry Griet, and soon rumors of his affections reach Griet’s increasingly desperate parents. Hungry for the meat a butcher’s son could bring them, they encourage Griet in the match, which both Griet and Pieter know adds to her debt to him.
Before long, van Ruijven demands that Vermeer paint Griet. His intention is to have a painting made of him with Griet, but Vermeer and Maria Thins manage to arrange it so that Griet is always out on her duties when van Ruijven arrives. However, when he notices that Griet is at home, he always tries to corner her in a private place where he can fondle her. Griet manages to escape his sexual advances, but not without difficulty. Van Ruijven decides to obtain Griet in another way and commissions Vermeer to paint her portrait.
The painting is begun, though it is kept secret from Catharina, who is pregnant again. Griest asks not to be painted as a maid; she wears a fancy blue and yellow headdress instead of her usual cap. Griet is always careful to keep her hair covered, which is
long and could not be tamed. When it was uncovered it seemed to belong to another Griet—a Griet who would stand in an alley alone with a man, who was not so calm and quiet and clean.
One day, Vermeer follows her into her changing room and sees her wild hair. She leaves to find Pieter and lets him have sex with her in an alley. Back in the studio, the work progresses, but it is missing something. Griet quickly realizes that the painting needs a bright focal point, an earring. Eventually Vermeer realizes this as well. He leaves it to Griet to pierce her ears, which she agrees to do because he has seen her wild hair. She pierces her left ear, which is facing the painting, in secret.
Before she can pose with the earring, Pieter shows up to announce that Griet’s parents have agreed to their marriage. Instead of leaving with him, Griet scolds Pieter for making this announcement in public and returns to the studio to pose for Vermeer. When he sees her, he insists that she piece the other ear as well. The piercing is painful, but Griet does it. She then wears Catharina’s pearl earrings and poses for the final touch of the painting.
Griet never gets to see the final painting, however. Cornelia arranges for Catharina to see Vermeer’s painting of Griet. When Catharina sees it, she is furious. She accuses Griet of stealing the earrings. She grabs a knife and tries to stab the painting, but Vermeer forces her to drop the knife. Rather than picking the knife up like she did during their first meeting, Griet leaves.
Ten years have elapsed when the action continues. Griet has married Pieter and they have two children together. Her father has passed away and now her mother stays with them. Although Griet had always hated the blood on Pieter’s hands, she finds that she has gotten used to having bloodstains on her hands and the smell of blood on her clothes. One day, Tanneke arrives asking for Griet to return one more time to the house in Papist’s Corner.
Vermeer’s family is now in debt, and they even owe Pieter money. Pieter often refers to that debt in jest as the price he paid for a maid. Vermeer has passed away; he asked for the pearl earrings to be left to Griet. Catharina, who has now had eleven children, resentfully gives them to her. Before she leaves, Cornelia says that Griet could give the earrings to her. Griet slaps her. After she leaves, she sells the earrings so she can tell Pieter that she was called to the house to collect the debt owed to them. As the novel ends, Griet reflects:
Pieter would be pleased with the rest of the coins, the debt now settled. I would not have cost him anything. A maid came free.