An Analysis of Girl With a Pearl Earring
Written by Flora Carr.
“I waited for a moment, my hair out over my shoulders, but he did not come. Now that the painting was finished he no longer wanted me” (Tracy Chevalier 222)
Set in the Delft of mid-seventeenth century Netherlands, Chevalier’s 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring depicts the life of artist Jan Vermeer and a fictionalised account of his relationship with his servant Griet, the eponymous ‘Girl’. This analysis will outline how Chevalier’s reinterpretation of Vermeer’s portrait lends itself, firstly, to the novel’s position within a context of rewriting the female figure in history. Secondly, Chevalier’s evocation of the titular painting and the artistic sphere Vermeer inhabits serves to highlight the primarily spiritual – rather than physical – nature of Griet and Vermeer’s relationship.
In lending a voice and identity to Vermeer’s ‘Girl’, Chevalier reappropriates the masculine form of portraiture, disrupting the discourse of the male gaze and the objectified female sitter. However, Chevalier’s rewriting of masculine narratives extends beyond portraiture. Girl with a Pearl Earring is an example of the historical romance fiction written during the late 1990s and early 2000s which ‘provid[ed]… a counter-narrative to male-authored histories which precede[d] them’ (Cooper and Short 3). Authors like Sarah Waters and Philippa Gregory spearheaded this movement. In their introduction to The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction, Katherine Cooper and Emma Short state that ‘in recent years, the female figure in history has become increasingly visible’ (1). Historical fiction written by and aimed at women had previously been dismissed as ‘escapist’ and historically inaccurate; a stigmatisation compounded by the emergence of Sir Walter Scott’s historical fiction novels (Diana Wallace ix). With ‘emphasis placed on their basis in historical fact’, Scott’s novels established a ‘gendered distinction’ between male and female authored historical fiction (Cooper and Short 2). The undermining of women’s histories meant that female historical figures ‘were… understood solely through male-authored narratives’ (3). However, recent female-authored historical fiction has served as a ‘feminist intervention’, depicting female figures as central and active characters. Thus in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the ‘Girl’ is no longer passive and nameless, but Griet, whose first person narration places her at the centre of the novel.
Written by ‘female authors… for a largely female audience’, the contemporary female reader dictated the rewriting of historical romance fiction during the late 1990s and early 2000s (3). The 1990s female reader had grown-up with the legacy of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s, and had a renewed interest in the ways in which historical women negotiated social, personal and economic demands. This intersected with the popularity of ‘authentic’ historical recreation and retelling ‘without glamourisation’; for example, the 1991 BBC2 series A Secret World of Sex included ‘uncomfortable’ testimonies of women incarcerated for having under-age sex (Helen Hughes 142-3). Hughes states that ‘to experience the past, warts and all, allows us to live more comfortably in the present’ (40). Thus, Chevalier avoids glamourising domesticity in Girl with a Pearl Earring; Griet’s hands ‘have the scars of rough work’ (48). This is starkly contrasted to the portrayal of domesticity in Vermeer’s paintings, for example The Milkmaid, which is described in Chevalier’s novel (40). Vermeer’s idealised paintings are presented as an example of masculine historical narratives subverting the reality of women’s lives.
Vermeer, Jan. The Milkmaid. c. 1658. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum.
The desire for grittier retellings of female historical figures during the 1990s-2000s did not preclude the escapist element of historical romance narratives. Liora Brosh claims that the numerous adaptations of nineteenth century domestic novel during the 1990s, for example the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice television series, provided an attractive counter-narrative to ‘the background of ever-rising divorce rates and increasingly fluid gender identities of the 1990’s’ (4-5). The historical romances of the 1990s and early 2000s navigated the reader’s desire for both escape and a realistic feminist retelling. Emphasis is placed on historically accurate depictions of, for example, sumptuous birth feasts in Girl with a Pearl Earring (83). Therefore the text functions as both ‘escape’ and ‘education’ (Janice A. Radway 61). However, unlike the popular television adaptations of nineteenth century novels, the 1990s-2000s historical romances addressed issues of sexuality, romance and marriage without idealisation. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example, Vermeer is already married when he meets Griet. The text speaks to the contemporary female reader preoccupied with rising divorce-rates; in the novel, divorce is comfortingly unavailable, yet sexual and emotional betrayal is still discussed.
Furthermore, the dichotomy between escapism and harsh reality often results in a characteristically bittersweet ending to the 1990s-2000s historical romances. In Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, the heroine is granted a happy ending, but her sister Anne Boleyn is beheaded. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Griet gains self-knowledge but is barred from a future with Vermeer. The ‘ideal romance narrative’, discussed by Radway in Reading the Romance, is therefore disrupted, most notably in the rejection of the ‘happy ending’ (67). As ‘depictions of the female figure in historical fiction often reveal… more about present-day attitudes and ideologies than those of the period’ represented (Cooper and Short 9), the confused (historical) romance narrative reflects back onto the confusion underlying 1990s romantic cultural narratives.
Chevalier therefore adopts some, yet reinterprets other elements of the conventional romance narrative; this extends to her use of tropes and characterisation. Her initial portrayal of Griet adheres to the conventional characterisation of the romance heroine. Radway states that ‘the ideal romance begins with its removal from a familiar… realm usually associated with her childhood’ (134). Girl with a Pearl Earring begins with Griet leaving home to join the Vermeer household, working as a servant in order to compensate for her father’s recent blinding. The narrative therefore includes the ‘sacrifice motif’: reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, a female character must leave home as a sacrifice, to compensate for a male relative’s failings (Hughes 125). By default, Griet possesses a further character trope associated with the romance heroine: ‘female tenderness’ (Hughes 136). Griet is portrayed as innocent, repeatedly referred to as ‘the wide-eyed maid’ (162) who, unlike other maids, is not predisposed to gossip. However, Griet’s loss of both worldly and sexual innocence is foreshadowed by the description of her first night in the Vermeer household. Griet’s bed faces a painting of the Crucifixion scene, and she finds the painting ‘disturbing’; as dawn breaks ‘the painting appear[s]… again and [she is] … sure the Virgin Mary [is]… looking down on [her]’ (32). Whilst the stressing of the ominous Virgin Mary figure connotes sexual purity, the Crucifixion evokes associations of death, endings and also new beginnings; one infers that Griet’s move to the Vermeer household will mark a new stage in her life, and one that will test her virginity. This is exacerbated by Chevalier’s use of a painting as signifier; as I will discuss later, art is the primary medium through which Griet and Vermeer communicate.
In addition to Griet’s ‘innocent’ portrayal (239), Chevalier also invokes the romance fiction ‘cliché of the spirited heroine’ (Radway 123). Radway identifies the heroine’s desire to ‘hide… her hair’ – and thus reject her femininity – as a marker of the spirited heroine (123). This trope is evident in Johanna Lindsey’s 1980 novel Fires of Winter, whilst in Georgette Heyer’s 1926 novel These Old Shades the heroine Leonie goes so far as to cut her hair off to protect her male alter-ego. Griet’s hair is a governing image within Girl with a Pearl Earring. The heroine’s beauty serves as an indicator ‘to the hero and… reader that the heroine is sensual’ (Radway 124); when Vermeer first sees Griet’s hair he ‘gaze[s]’, temporarily rendered speechless (Chevalier 207). However, whilst Radway states that the ‘ideal romantic heroine’ is ‘unaware of their beauty and its effect on others’ (126), Griet is conscious of the link between her hair and its reflection on her carnal potential. Her hair is ‘long’ and cannot be ‘tamed’, and Griet indicates that it belongs to another, more sensual side to her: ‘a Griet who would stand in an alley alone with a man’ (130). Griet keeps her hair ‘completely hidden’ in order to hide any ‘trace of that Griet’ (131). Chevalier therefore takes a nuanced approach to the spirited heroine cliché. She employs the image of the heroine’s hidden hair, drawing on its association with desire; however, by also making her heroine conscious of the association, Chevalier depicts Griet’s inner-turmoil.
Similarly, Chevalier both invokes and disrupts the romantic figure of the Byronic hero in her depiction of Vermeer. Griet’s first person narration only refers to Vermeer as ‘he’, imbuing him with mystery. His physical description is largely in keeping with the ‘hard… dark’ Byronic hero (Radway 128); Vermeer appears with ‘the light behind him so that [Griet can’t] … see his face’ (29). Furthermore, in an erotically charged moment, Vermeer ‘insert[s]… the earring’ into Griet’s earlobe for his painting of her (221). Whilst the motion has clear phallic connotations, Vermeer’s insistence that Griet ‘wear the other’ earring – although wearing one clearly causes Griet ‘pain’ already, and the other earring ‘can’t be seen in the painting’ – is suggestive of sadomasochism (221); Vermeer’s treatment of Griet complies with the ‘cruel hero’ (Radway 129). However, the straightforward ‘transformation’ of the hero’s character – elicited by the heroine – does not occur (Radway 128); instead, Griet’s presence enables Vermeer to fulfil his artistic potential, illustrated and embodied by his painting of her.
Griet and Vermeer’s relationship largely plays out not in the physical, but in the artistic and spiritual sphere; the titular painting of Griet serves as the climax of this relationship. At their first meeting, Vermeer questions Griet’s separation of differently coloured vegetables; he is impressed by her knowledge of how ‘colours fight when they are side by side’ (5). Griet’s journey to selfhood begins with Vermeer illustrating the complex colour of clouds, after which she ‘[can]not stop looking at things’ (108). Griet sleeps in Vermeer’s studio at night, associating the studio with privacy and sex. The intimacy of Griet’s description of sitting for Vermeer’s painting –“I shivered, although I was not cold” – stands in for the intimacy of sexual intercourse (180). Although the novel is narrated in first-person, Griet never states explicitly that she desires Vermeer. Instead, the reader must read into the subtext of Griet’s narration, which is paralleled by communications between Griet and Vermeer; for example, they converse through Griet’s alterations to Vermeer’s artistic sets, and his silent choice to interpret and adopt them: “He had resketched… the folds of the blue cloth. He had made my change” (144).
The artistic sphere that binds Griet and Vermeer also excludes two of the novel’s foils: Pieter, the butcher’s son in love with Griet, and Catharina, Vermeer’s wife. Griet’s preoccupation with Pieter’s ‘animal smell’ and blood-stained hands (170), in contrast to Vermeer’s ‘very clean’ hands, denotes the sexualised, animalistic world Pieter represents (74). Griet can only elicit sensual pleasure from Pieter’s touch ‘if…[she thinks] of grinding lead white’ or finding ‘colours besides white in a cloud’, indicating her desire for Vermeer instead of Pieter (185). Meanwhile, Catharina embodies the female foil who ‘flaunt[s]… her sexual availability’ (Radway 131). Catharina’s excessive fecundity and swollen pregnant belly (which cannot ‘grow much bigger’) are depicted in grossly visceral terms (57-8). Chevalier also stresses Catharina’s ‘clums[iness]’, thus placing her in a semantic field of distinctly physical imagery (58). Catharina’s exclusion from Vermeer’s spiritual world comes to a head at the novel’s climax, when Catharina discovers his painting of Griet. When Catharina asks Vermeer why he has never painted her, he responds: “You… are not part of this world” (227).
Vermeer invites Griet to enter into his artistic sphere, and develops a sexual interest in her. Nonetheless, his desire for Griet only extends up to the completion of his painting of her. During Griet’s final sitting prior to the painting’s completion, Chevalier establishes an atmosphere of fraught sexual tension, using short sentences and the repetition of ‘he’ – “He traced… my face… He ran his thumb over my lower lip” – creating a cumulative effect. However, the completion of the painting serves as a substitute for the sexual climax; Griet finds that ‘he no longer want[s]… her’ after ‘it [the painting] is done’ (222). Vermeer has realised his artistic potential, and he no longer needs Griet, leaving her once again outside his artistic sphere.
Therefore, Chevalier uses the governing image of Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring and artistic imagery to highlight not only Griet and Vermeer’s relationship, but also the novel’s position within the context of the 1990s- 2000s feminist historical rewritings. The anonymity of the ‘Girl’ is undermined through Griet’s first person narration; Vermeer’s ‘Girl’ is no longer nameless or voiceless. The 1990s reader’s dual desire for both romantic escapism and historical realism results in a hybrid of conventional romantic tropes and deviations from the ideal romance narrative. The bittersweet ending of the novel – foreshadowed by the Crucifixion painting – sees Griet lose Vermeer but gains self-knowledge, reemphasising a departure from traditional romance narratives in favour of feminist rewriting.
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