Pearl Earrings & Prudence: On Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring

*There may be some potential spoilers revealed in this book review. Read at your own discretion.*

In Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, the mythic quality of the muse comes to play. As a reader, one goes into this novel, understanding completely that this story couldn’t be farther from the actual truth of the inspiration behind Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting. Little is actually known about the inspiration, which led to the timely creation of Girl With a Pearl Earring. Even so, we as readers, buy into the myth because we want to. We want to understand the muse behind this renowned painting. We want to see her story unfold on the page.

Perhaps, above all else, this is one of the main reasons why Chevalier’s novel is successful. From the beginning of the story, the novel is painted not through Vermeer’s eyes, but rather through the eyes of our protagonist Griet — a maid from a modest family who is well aware of the restrictions, which singlehandedly mark her future and her stature in life. In this manner, Griet is wise beyond her years even as she is naïve and hopeful for a better future for herself where her livelihood will not be connected to marrying the butcher’s son.

For me, the most interesting scenes were the ones in which the reader began to see how Vermeer viewed the world through his painter’s eyes. Nevertheless, these scenes were a precious gem, which appeared few and far between compared to the other events at play within Griet’s life.

Suffice it to say, there still is something magical about this novel, which I’m having a hard time putting my finger on directly. I think it must be located within what we never had the chance to see directly unfold across the span of these pages; it must be isolated within the liminal space this novel consciously creates.

For one: the curiosity about the seemingly romantic relationship between Vermeer and Griet comes to mind. Although nothing ever directly came to pass between them, I still wonder about the few scenes they shared while Vermeer painted Griet with the pearl earring. Like Griet, I am saddened to hear about Vermeer’s death by the end of the novel. In more ways than one, I still occupy the same space Griet did as both the muse and the heroine who was curious about the power of this whimsical painter but simultaneously was still like any other woman for her time — a woman who, in time, would choose to give away the pearl earrings gifted to her in the name of prudence and some extra coins she will never come to use.

I’m not sure what this means at the end of the day, but I think there’s something incredibly lovely and important about all this. I believe there is a value in the intersections of Griet’s identity and how, if for but a moment, we as the reader have the chance to sit beside both the muse and the heroine.

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