Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

In the postmodern era, a number of historical figures have been re-created in literature and film. With the novel, most authors begin their stories with the famous person and work back to the work of art. Tracy Chevalier reverses this process, beginning with the painting and working back to the...

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In the postmodern era, a number of historical figures have been re-created in literature and film. With the novel, most authors begin their stories with the famous person and work back to the work of art. Tracy Chevalier reverses this process, beginning with the painting and working back to the artist. Her focus, however, is not on the painter Vermeer, but on the painting—Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665).

Chevalier’s methodology was to examine the famous painting and to infer from it aspects of the model’s character. Because historians agree that Vermeer often used servants as his models, Chevalier had devised a fictional servant named Griet for her story. After closely examining the painting, Chevalier formed her story around the incongruity displayed in the painting: Griet is a servant wearing an unusual headdress and luminous pearl earrings. Her wide eyes stare provocatively at the painter (or viewer), and her half-open mouth is sexually suggestive.

Griet lives by a strict Protestant moral and social code and is uncomfortable in the Catholic household of her employer. Properly cognizant of the mores of her position, she refuses to take off her maid’s cap for her sitting with Vermeer.

Griet, too, is on the verge of a sexual awakening, a subtle development by Chevalier that is one of the beauties of this coming-of-age novel. While the attentions of Pieter, the butcher’s son, do not awaken her sexuality, and van Ruijven’s attentions repulse her, she is attracted by Vermeer’s presence and artistry. She is too inexperienced to understand where her fascination might lead, but gradually her feelings grow from simple awe to admiration for Vermeer’s talent to a real emotional investment as she becomes virtually his collaborator. When he inserts the pearl earring into her newly pierced ear, the consummation is complete.

The character of Vermeer is a mystery, just as the actual Vermeer remains a mystery to historians. The few facts known about his life are that he fathered eleven children, painted thirty-six paintings, and died at the age of forty-three. Chevalier wisely refrains from providing a more fleshed-out character, allowing Vermeer to be seen only from Griet’s perspective. There are, however, glimpses of the man: He disappoints Griet by not acknowledging her assistance to Catharina, but he recognizes her native intelligence and intuitive artistic sense. Despite their close working relationship, he maintains his distance from her and seems to view her only as a servant. However, his gift of the earrings in his will is a marvelous touch by Chevalier. Griet had long ago decided that she meant nothing to him, but the gift contradicts that perception. It indicates that his feelings for her had been deep.

Chevalier also presents a realistic and authentic picture of the town of Delft in the seventeenth century. The city itself takes shape, pulsing with activity. Chevalier accurately depicts Market Square and its stalls, the canals, the churches, and the neighborhood where Griet’s family lives. Chevalier also cleverly includes detailed descriptions of several Vermeer paintings, as told by Griet to her blind father. Other items that add to the novel’s verisimilitude are a celebratory birth feast, with Vermeer wearing a paternity cap; the experience with the camera obscura, which some historians believe Vermeer used for his work; the existence of the plague and its effects; and the making of Delft tiles.

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Girl With a Pearl Earring