Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Girl with a Pearl Earring

This novel is reminiscent of the equally popular “Memoirs of a Geisha”. The theme of both books is that beautiful women, especially of an earlier age, are not in control of their destiny with regards to men. Henry James said exactly that in “Portrait of a Lady”.

In the case of “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”, the maid Griet, her beauty attracts the interest of powerful men—in this case the painter Vermeer and his patron. Tracy Chevalier, the author, gives us clues that their interest is dangerous and could lead to tragedy. When a gentleman fondles a maid in 1665 the maid cannot offer much resistance owing to her low status in life. More likely than not, as with Fantine in “Les Miserables”, it is the maiden who is cast into trouble.

The beauty of this novel, for a male reader like myself, is that is draws you into the perilous existence inhabited by young women. Prior to this I always thought young women like Griet were just glittering beauties sailing easily through life on their good looks. It’s kind of like reading the diary of a teenage girl—highly guarded and something to which one would not normally be privvy.

This novel is erotic too, but in a 17th century demure sort of way. Griet, we learn, is loath to let her full head of hair be seen by any man and she would never been seen with her lips held open. When she is intruded upon with her long mane of hair freely unfurled the reader’s heart flutters and it must have for the young girl. And when she moistens her lips and holds them open at the request of the portrait painter Vermeer we are absolutely aghast and tingling with erotic excitement.

The other theme of this novel is the brutality of being poor and female in earlier ages. This is much like “Memoirs of a Geisha” where the two sisters are pushed into the business of entertaining men by their impoverished family. Griet is pushed into working as a maid because her family is poor as well. The women who work as maids of geishas have a brutal pecking order and are quite cruel to one another. An unattractive woman in the Geisha household is call “Pumpkin” because that is the shape of her head. Griet undergoes similar cruelty by Vermeer’s children and the other maids in the large house.

For me, the most thrilling parts of the novel are where the young maid Griet is allowed to go into Vermeer’s studio. This creates much jealously in the Vermeer household--not even the painter’s wife is allowed into the room where the master creates his masterpieces. This is what is meant by the book jacket blurb that she is “drawn into an artistic wakening”. Griet learns the subtlety of light, how to grind various potions from the apothecary into vivid blues and reds, and the way a painting is made. It is assembled not by drawing an initial outline as one would imagine. Rather layer upon layer of color blotches are laid down until the final form takes place.

No comments: