When describing the elaborate feast held by the Vermeer family to celebrate the birth of their son Franciscus, readers are given vivid sensual imagery. There is the visual imagery of the gleaming, freshly cleaned house, the sounds of the music and the guests, the scents of the elaborate food and drink, and, when Griet is given the chance to sample a few delicacies, the exposure to unfamiliar tastes. This imagery shows the wealth and opulence that the Vermeer family is able to display, even if they also sometimes struggle economically, and how it must be dazzling to Griet, given her more humble background. At the same time, this luxurious imagery contrasts with the hardships experienced by other characters. It is also made clear that it is only because of the hard work of Griet and Tanneke that this experience can be enjoyed, and yet their work is never acknowledged or appreciated.
As Pauline Morel points out in her article on the novel, imagery of circular shapes reoccurs frequently in the novel. Examples include the circle of vegetables Griet lays out in the opening scene, the description of the knife spinning in circles after Catharina drops it during the confrontation in the studio, and the circle formed by the eight-pointed star at the center of the Market Square. The circular imagery suggests that rather than moving forward in a linear way, experiences tend to come back to where they start. The novel's entire structure might be seen as circular in that it begins and ends with Griet going into the Vermeer house, coming full circle with her leaving an empowered, self-sufficient woman, and slapping Cornelia again, symbolically closing off the circle of their antagonism. It also suggests a relationship to history in that experiences and concerns present in the 1600s continue to be important today.
Imagery of pearls reoccurs often throughout the novel. Catharina owns pearl jewelry that she both wears herself and that is featured in Vermeer's paintings. Griet has the opportunity to observe this jewelry many times before she actually wears it, and it inspires desire and longing in her. The imagery of the pearls reflects her desire to both be able live a life surrounded by beauty, and to create beauty herself by using objects. Vermeer's paintings are frequently associated with the inclusion of pearl jewelry, which features in eleven of his thirty-four surviving paintings. As art critic Robert Baldwin explains, "Vermeer painted everything with a cool, silvery palette and layered, translucent oil glazes, dissolving all material reality with a pearl-like luminosity . Visualised this way, Vermeer's beautiful women, ornamented with pearls, took on the familiar, pearl-like beauty of contemporary love lyrics where outer loveliness dissolved into an inner radiance." The imagery of pearls that Vermeer and Griet so appreciate in the novel reveals how they share similar aesthetic sensibilities.
Light and dark
Imagery of lightness and darkness is important to the novel. Vermeer's studio and the paintings he produces there depend on a meticulous balance of light and dark to achieve the precise visual effect he desires. This same balance can also be achieved through the insertion of visual detail. The need for the inclusion of the pearl in Griet's portrait is explained because of how it will balance the dark background with a droplet of light. The cost of this inclusion is high: Griet knows that it will spell her ruin. The imagery of dark and light suggests that individuals are complex, and have different aspects to their identity. Griet herself is a mixture of control and discipline, but also of passion and desire; Vermeer is both generous and self-absorbed at the same time. Just as with the play of light and dark in paintings, these attributes need to be balanced in order for an individual to have a happy life.
Girl With a Pearl Earring Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Girl With a Pearl Earring is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The price of Griet’s new life has been giving up fantasies of the life she might lead. Griet knows the pearls are inappropriate and useless for the person who she is now, and she is no longer interested in playing at fantasies of being someone...