I could not say why I had laid out the vegetable as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.
"I see that you have separated the whites, " he said, indicating the turnips and onions. "And then the orange, and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?" ....
"The colors fight when they are side by side, sir."
This conversation takes place between Griet and Vermeer the first time they meet, when he comes to her parents' home and notices the way in which she arranges the vegetables she is chopping. The quotation is significant because it reveals Vermeer's eye for detail and his ability to carefully observe, which influence his personality as an artist and the way he paints. It also shows the connection between Vermeer and Griet: no one else has ever noticed this behavior on Griet's part, or found it noteworthy, but he does. The behavior reveals that Griet has an intuitive artistic sense, noticing how colors pair together. Her artistic tendencies will surface throughout the novel, but this is the first time they are revealed. It is implied that when Vermeer sees this behavior, he believes he can trust Griet in his studio, and this confirms the decision to hire her.
"I wanted to wear the mantle and the pearls. I wanted to know the man who painted her like that."
This quotation reveals Griet's thoughts the first time she sees a painting by Vermeer. The painting is an unfinished portrait of the wife of van Ruijven, painted with yellow satin, ermine fur, and a pearl necklace. The quotation reveals that Griet is capable of intense desire, and that different desires intermix and become tied to one another. Firstly, she desires the experience of being wealthy and able to access the luxurious goods that are far out of her reach. At the same time, she craves not just status but also aesthetic experience: Griet has already been shown to be highly visual and sensitive to beauty. Her desire for beauty and status is tied to the first hints of desire for Vermeer: in painting a woman, he expresses his recognition of her beauty, and Griet longs to have him lavish her with this careful attention. The idea of knowing him also suggests that she already feels curiosity and a kind of kinship with the man she has only interacted with once or twice, and wants to spend more time with him and understand him better.
I became so excited that I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time.
This quotation shows the emotional impact of Vermeer's education and instruction on Griet. While she displays an innate artistic sensitivity from the very beginning of the novel, he greatly expands her perspective and understanding by talking with her and pointing out the subtle details he notices in the world around him. In this quotation, by describing how she feels as though she is seeing a simple everyday thing (clouds) for the first time, Griet highlights how her contact with Vermeer is transforming her life. As Richard Eder writes, "“What Vermeer means to her is transformation, the awakening of a larger life and an unsuspected power (the power of art, in short)." At the same time, she still feels self-conscious and awkward in his presence: she describes herself as "actually pointing" with a tone of embarrassment about this childish act and how it betrays her wonderment. With the idea of a new perspective, and a suddenly awakened awareness, this passage also foreshadows how her attraction to Vermeer will spark a sexual awakening for Griet.
My hair was long and could not be tamed. When it was uncovered it seemed to belong to another Griet--a Griet who would stand in an alley alone with a man, who was not so calm and quiet and clean. A Griet like the women who dared to bare their heads. That was why I kept my hair completely hidden---so that there would be no trace of that Griet.
This quotation gives insight into Griet's character and the aspects of her inner self which she tries to keep hidden. As a woman living in 17th century Holland, there was strong social and religious pressure for her to maintain her chastity and behave in what was considered an appropriate way. Modest dress, including covering one's hair (as is still the case in some cultures), indicated that a woman was respectable. Griet greatly values this social perception, and also wants to protect herself against the idea that she might be sexually available, since various male characters already pursue her even without additional encouragement. However, as this quotation reveals, underneath this exterior, Griet is passionate and capable of feeling strong desire. Paradoxically, it is because she knows that she has this side to her personality that she works even harder to contain any evidence of her desire and give the impression of a chaste exterior.
"There needs to be some disorder in the scene, to contrast with her tranquility," I explained. ....
There was a long pause. He was gazing at the table. I waited, wiping my hands against my apron.
"I had not thought I would learn something from a maid," he said at last.
This dialogue takes place after Griet has rearranged the folds of the cloth in the second portrait of van Ruijven's wife. Vermeer maintains the changed composition, but then asks Griet why she made the change. Griet's response reveals that she is developing a keen sense of artistic sensitivity, and that she is aware of how small details and tiny changes can affect the final result. Because she has never received any artistic training other than informal observation and conversation with Vermeer, this indicates that anyone is capable of creativity and artistic aptitude. Her decision to rearrange the composition also shows how much her confidence has developed: she is assertive enough to make the change, and to defend her decision to do so when questioned. Vermeer's response indicates humility in showing that he has learned something from Griet, and that he respects her judgement and explanation. At the same time, by using the word "maid" when referring to Griet, he highlights how the power imbalance remains even though she has shown herself to have her own artistic talent. "Maid" refers both to a young, virginal woman, and also to a specific job. Griet's identity will always be linked to her gender and class, even at the moment when she shows her capacity to reach beyond the expectations of these roles.
I knew before he did. When I saw what was needed--that point of brightness he had used to catch the eye in other paintings---I shivered. This will be the end, I thought.
I was right.
This quotation recounts the moment when Griet, looking at the nearly finished portrait of herself, realizes what needs to be added to the painting in order for it to achieve maximum effect. Although she does not say so at this moment, it is implied, based on the reader's knowledge of the finished portrait and the novel's title, that Griet understands that she should be shown wearing a pearl earring. In addition to revealing how well Griet understands principles of composition, dark and light, and how to provoke visual response, the quotation serves a number of functions. It foreshadows negative events to come by revealing that Griet has a sense of foreboding. By telling the reader that dramatic events are soon to occur, this passage also creates suspense. The passage also reminds readers that Griet is narrating retrospectively, looking back at these events from a later point in time. This also creates suspense, in that the reader wants to see how her life has unfolded since these events took place.
He stepped up to my chair. My jaw tightened but I managed to hold my head steady. he reached over and gently touched my earlobe.
I gasped as if I had been holding my breath underwater.
He rubbed the swollen lobe between his thumb and finger, then pulled it taught. With his other hand he inserted the earring wire in the hole and pushed it through. A pain like fire jolted through me and brought tears to my eyes.
This quotation describes Vermeer inserting the earring into Griet's recently pierced earlobe as they prepare for the final sitting of the portrait. Griet has boldly requested that he insert it for her, signaling the kind of recklessness she feels as she makes a risky choice, knowing it will likely lead to her dismissal. The moment is highly sexually charged, and in fact functions as a kind of symbolic substitution for the sexual activity in which Griet and Vermeer do not engage, even though they experience an intense attraction to one another. The insertion of the earring into Griet's body involves phallic symbolism, especially when she asks that Vermeer wield it, thereby symbolically penetrating her body. She experiences both pain and pleasure in the moment, reflecting both the fulfillment of her desire that Vermeer touch her, and the bittersweet knowledge that this is the closest they will ever be able to be to one another.
Catharina was no fool. She knew the real matter was not the earrings. She wanted them to be, she tried to make them be so, but she could not help herself. She turned to her husband. "Why," she asked, have you never painted me?"
This quotation takes place after Catharina has seen the painting showing Griet wearing her earrings, and has accused Griet of stealing. She is now confronting her husband, extremely angry and upset. The quotation reveals that, although she has often appeared to be naïve, Catharina is not actually blind to the emotional and sexual connection that exists between her husband and Griet. This explains why she is so angry about the portrait: it is a tangible sign that the two have kept secrets from her. She also knows that she does not share in the artistic sensitivity that draws the two together, and often feels shut out and excluded. The quotation helps to create sympathy for Catharina. Even though she is often an unlikeable character, it is understandable that she would feel jealous, betrayed, and hurt when she is faced with the knowledge that her husband has chosen to include Griet in the parts of his life which he prevents her from accessing.
I was meant to pick it up. That was what maids were meant to do---pick up their master's and mistress's things and put them back in their place.
This quotation is located immediately after Catharina tries to destroy the portrait of Griet by stabbing it with a knife. When Vermeer prevents her from doing this, the knife falls on the floor. Griet knows that she is expected to pick it up. Logically, it is part of what she is hired to do: take care of menial and unpleasant tasks so that her master and mistress do not have to be inconvenienced. As the quotation reveals, there is also a symbolism to the idea of her picking up the knife. To do so would be to show her submissiveness, and her commitment to discreetly coping with the emotional drama of the household. It would signal that she will continue to do whatever is convenient for the individuals who have greater power than she does. The choice of whether or not to pick up the knife comes to represent whether Griet can bear to continue in a life of servitude, or whether she needs to assert herself and choose to follow her independence.
I separated five coins from the others and held them tight in my fist. I would hide them somewhere that Pieter and my sons would not look, some unexpected place that only I knew of.
I would never spend them.
This quotation takes place at the very end of the novel, after Griet has sold the earrings to the pawnbroker. She gives most of the money to her husband, but is left with the remaining five coins. Her decision to keep them a secret and hide them reveals her lingering feelings for Vermeer. She wants to have a memento of their experience, and her secret past, and she does not want her husband and children to know about that past. Even though she has created a new life and identity for herself, the secret place in which she hides the coins will symbolically represent the secret place in her heart that will remain reserved for him.
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.
They were not much. Getting married and raising kids were about it. Griet's father asks Griet if she likes spending her life as a model in a studio, "This is what you like best about your new life." Griet's choice to model was not a common thing...
Creativity is a theme in the novel in that it is a large part of the bond that draws Griet and Vermeer together. Even at the beginning of the novel, when Griet is uneducated and has had little exposure to art,...