Throughout the novel, many characters are envious of what they perceive others as having. As Griet spends more time with the Vermeer family, she comes to envy the wealth and social status that allows them to own luxurious goods and throw elaborate parties. She envies Vermeer for being able to devote his life to art and the creation of beauty, and as her attraction to the painter grows, she also envies Catharina for the sexual and romantic relationship she shares with him. While it makes sense that Griet, with a lower economic and social position, would be envious of characters with more elevated status, the novel also shows that characters of all ranks experience envy. van Ruijven is very envious of the familiarity and access that Vermeer has to the attractive young Griet, and this envy drives him to assert power over the painter. Catharina, despite her status as Vermeer's wife and the lady of the house, envies Griet for the access she has to the studio and for the intimacy that develops between her and Vermeer. By showing that envy is a force that can be experienced no matter how much one has, the novel reveals that wealth and power are not guarantors of happiness or peace.
In the 17th century, religion was a major force in people's lives. Prayer, ritual, and attendance at church were activities that were taken for granted, but also formed a key part of someone's identity. The division and suspicion between individuals who were Protestants and individuals who were Catholic were very deep, as illustrated in the novel by the deep discomfort that Griet feels living and working in a Catholic family. However, as time goes on and Griet gets to know the family better, religion becomes another way in which she sees that apparent distinctions between people may not be as clear-cut as she had believed. When she asks Vermeer if his paintings are Catholic, the two have a philosophical conversation and Griet realizes that both types of Christian faith can be valuable in different ways, and may be more similar than they appear. This helps her to see that creating rigid divisions based on class or religion may be restrictive and narrow-minded.
The novel shows how powerful a force desire is, and how it can revolve around a number of objects. Although Griet seems quiet and restrained in her outward behavior, she is capable of strong desire and sensual pleasure. She feels desire for the luxurious and beautiful objects she first encounters in the Vermeer household, such as the yellow satin mantle, the fine furs, and the pearl jewelry. As time goes on, Griet's desire becomes more explicitly sexual as her attraction to Vermeer increases. By the time he paints her portrait on the day that she poses wearing the earrings, she is very responsive to being close to him and having him touch her. Griet's brother Frans also experiences the combination of desire for a better life and sexual desire when he begins an affair with the wife of his master. Desire is shown to be an animating force in the novel: van Ruijven's desire for Griet drives much of the action, and the parallel desires of Pieter and Vermeer push her into situations where she has to navigate between the competing men. At the same time, the novel does not advocate for the reckless fulfillment of desire. While there is a great deal of sexual tension between Griet and Vermeer, the two never act on it, and it remains largely unspoken. The novel suggests that desire is both a motivating force for many actions and choices, but also does not guarantee fulfillment.
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, she has an instinctive sensitivity to colors and design. As she spends more time with Vermeer, he is impressed by her ability to notice subtle details about the composition of his paintings, and make suggestions about how to improve them. By showing Griet's creative and artistic spirit, the novel suggests that creativity can be found within all kinds of people and can develop without formal training. At the same time, Griet's class and gender position ensure that she will only have very limited opportunities to express her creativity. Her decision at the end of the novel to marry Pieter and settle into a stable and uneventful life may be interpreted as a kind of renunciation of creativity.
The class position of different characters and how this defines their choices and opportunities is a major theme in the novel. Because Griet's family is working-class and not wealthy, she has to accept the position to work as a maid, even though she is reluctant to do so. It also makes her more likely to seriously consider marrying Pieter because he will be able to provide her with a stable economic future. Even though Griet is intelligent, perceptive, and sensitive, it is largely her class position which determines how other characters perceive her. With a few exceptions, such as Vermeer, Maria Thins, and van Leeuwenhoek, many characters assume that because Griet is a maid, she exists only for their pleasure and convenience. By interacting with characters of a higher class, Griet realizes both that they are not so different from her and that at the same time, she will never be able to enter into their world and escape from her class position. At the end of the novel, by marrying Pieter, Griet embraces her class position and works to create a happy life for herself. At the same time, she is never able to fully escape dreams and aspirations of what might have been.
Many characters are shown performing various kinds of work throughout the novel. Griet's life is largely defined by the domestic labor she is hired to perform for the Vermeer family. Her work is difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting, showing the kind of labor that has to go on behind the scenes to allow a wealthy family to live comfortably. Even when Griet is given the opportunity to do more fulfilling and exciting work by helping Vermeer in his studio, she still has to balance this with her obligation to work as a maid. Vermeer himself, while having a lot of flexibility, still has to perform his artistry as a kind of work. He has to paint faster than he would like to, and he is not completely free in choosing the subjects of his paintings. The novel reveals that both Griet and Vermeer have their lives circumscribed by the work they are required to perform. This work defines their choices and determines their reality.
Power appears in a variety of forms in the novel, and there are also surprising revelations about who has power. As soon as Griet arrives in the Vermeer household, she realizes that although Catharina is apparently the mistress of the household, most of the decisions are made by her mother Maria Thins. Griet learns from this, coming to realize that she can assert power and influence in the household, provided she does so discreetly and never makes these assertions visible. She is able to contribute quite actively and assertively to Vermeer's artistic work by using subtle influence. Despite this evidence of having more power than might be expected for a young, working-class woman, Griet also reaches the limits of her power. Her own desire for Vermeer compromises her ability to say no, even to risky activities such as posing while wearing Catharina's earrings. Griet's decision at the end of the novel to marry Pieter and build a life for herself can be seen as a decision to choose a future where she will genuinely be in an empowered position.
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.