“The Price of A Maid”: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chavalier
“He saw things in a way that others did not, so that a city I had lived in all my life seemed a different place, so that a woman became beautiful with the light on her face” – Griet
I have read this book about three times now. I think it’s fascinating how Tracy Chavalier thought of Griet’s story by looking at Vermeer’s painting. Every time I read this book, I am amazed by how Chavalier herself seems to be the true artist in this book from the way she paints the scenes for readers. For example, the story begins at Griet’s house, when she is about to meet Johannes Vermeer and his wife for the first time. Griet is chopping vegetables in her kitchen when she hears voices outside her door, “…a woman’s, bright as polished brass, and a man’s, low and dark like the wood of the table [she] was working on” (3). In their voices, she hears “rich carpets…books and pearls and fur” (3), while in her mother’s voice, she hears “a cooking pot, a flagon” (3). It is the way Chavalier phrases things, like how Vermeer speaks his wife’s name “as if he held cinnamon in his mouth” (4) that draws me to this book.
What stands out to me the most is the story behind the earrings Griet wears in the painting. It didn’t occur to me in the past, but for some reason, I realized how unhappy I was for Griet and how her story turned out. When Catharina sees her husband’s painting of Griet, she raises hell, as everyone expected her to. She turns to her husband and asks, “Why have you never painted me?” and he says to her, “You and the children are not a part of this world. You are not meant to be” (215). Even though he loves her, and speaks her name as if he held cinnamon in his mouth, he seems to have a clear boundary between the world that belongs to his paintings, and the world that doesn’t. Therefore, despite the strong feelings Griet has for him, in Vermeer’s eyes, Griet may have just been a maid, albeit an interesting one. When Vermeer asked her to wear his wife’s earrings for the painting, Griet had refused, saying “Maids do not wear pearls” (194). To which Vermeer replied, “You know that the painting needs it, the light that the pearl reflects. It won’t be complete otherwise” (195). So in the painting, Griet is looking over her shoulder, her wild curly hair hidden, her mouth slightly open like Vermeer asked, with Vermeer’s wife’s earrings in her ears. For such a painting, she had to sacrifice her position as a maid. Although, the fact that she, the maid, had feelings for Vermeer, an artist with a family, was never a good idea to begin with.
Book: Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring. Plume, 1999.