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Literature / Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) is a historical fiction novel, fictionalizing the circumstances of the painting's creation. In the novel, Johannes Vermeer becomes close with a fictional servant named Griet, whom he hires as an assistant and has sit for him as a painting model while wearing his wife's pearl earrings. The novel inspired the 2003 film and a 2008 play of the same name. The novel sold over two million copies in thirty-six languages.

Delft, Holland, 1664. After an accidental kiln explosion leaves her father blind and her family desperately poor, sixteen-year-old Griet becomes a maid to the Vermeer family. She is to clean the master's studio, which their current maid cannot do to his satisfaction. With her artistic eye and practice caring for a blind father, Griet is a prime candidate. Though the Vermeers appear to be wealthy, at least to Griet's eyes, she soon finds out that this is a fa├žade and the family is actually in ever-deepening debt and they can barely afford to pay her.

Griet is quickly tangled in a complicated world of strange interpersonal relationships, particularly with Catharina, Vermeer's wife, who is nominally the mistress of the house but in reality is caught between the decisions of her husband and her own mother. The children mind Griet sometimes, not always, and Cornelia never. The other maid, Tanneke, is at turns helpful and suspicious. All the same, they become like a second family to her, and Griet endeavors to keep her two families, her two lives, separated from each other. This is more difficult than in seems, particularly when one person, the Vermeers' butcher's son Pieter, endeavors to court Griet, straddling that divide between her two worlds much to her dismay.

And then everything gets more complicated when Vermeer asks Griet to help him in his studio. The two of them begin to grow closer in ways the rest of the world does not understand and cannot know about, but it's very hard to keep secrets in a house full of children.

Girl with a Pearl Earring includes examples of the following tropes

  • Attempted Rape: Van Ruijven begins making moves on Griet immediately after spotting her and tries repeatedly through the book to force her into sex.
  • Babies Ever After:
    • Catharina tries to create this in her home, but the stress of having so many children pushes her husband away instead of pulling him closer.
    • In the final chapter, Griet is married to Pieter. They have two children.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Inverted. Every new baby in the Vermeer family is another mouth to feed and more stress on their already strained finances.
  • Betty and Veronica: A gender-flipped example: Pieter the son as Betty and Vermeer as Veronica, with Griet as the Archie.
  • Big Fancy House: The Vermeers' house, at least to Griet.
  • Birds of a Feather: Griet and Vermeer are attracted to each other because of their similar ways of looking at the world.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Cornelia seems like a perfectly sweet, if rambunctious, little girl when she wants to, but she is devious and she turns that on Griet.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Griet marries Pieter and they build a good life together, but Vermeer dies young and deeply in debt.
  • Body Motifs: Hands have a particular significance to Griet. When she compares Pieter and Vermeer, she is usually noting how the former always has blood under his nails, which repulses her, while the latter's hands are always clean, which she likes. When she thinks of what the hard work of being a maid does to her body, she doesn't think of her back or her feet, but her hands and how rough and cracked they are from endless mountains of laundry.
  • Book Ends: The first and last time Griet comes to the house, she encounters four children, has a conversation with Maria Thins where she non-verbally conveys everything she's thinking, and slaps Cornelia.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Cornelia.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Inverted. Most people in Delft are Dutch Calvinists, and it is the Vermeers and their Catholicism that are strange and out of place.
  • City of Canals: Delft.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Catharina is constantly trying to get her husband's attention, and is jealous that he never paints her.
  • Color Motif: White, yellow, and blue are the colors associated most with Vermeer, and the colors that appear most in his paintings (the pearl and the scarfs Griet wears while modeling for example). Only one painting is noted for its use of red, where a maid was painted with van Ruijven and eventually either seduced or raped. Red, being the color of blood, is one Griet identifies as negative.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Griet, who leaves home and falls in love for the first time among other things.
  • Control Freak: One of the less flattering traits that Vermeer and Griet share. Everything has to be just so, or they get upset. Griet is particularly bothered by the sight of blood and dislikes that the butcher has bloody hands and a bloody apron, even though that level of cleanliness is impractical.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: Catharina miscarries in the studio.
  • Converting for Love: Vermeer was a Protestant until he converted to marry Catharina.
  • Distant Finale: The last chapter takes place ten years after the main story.
  • Empty Nest: After Agnes dies, Griet's parents are all by themselves, which is very hard for them since before the father's accident, they had three children at home.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the very first scene of the book when the Vermeers come to meet Griet, Catharina is talkative, clumsy, impulsive, knocks a knife off the table, and doesn't pay attention to the vegetable slices; Vermeer is quiet, watchful, has a strange, subtle sense of humor, and asks Griet about the layout of the vegetables; and Griet does her best to hide what she's really thinking and feeling, isn't as good at it as she believes, and hates it when Vermeer deliberately disturbs the vegetable slices.
  • Extreme Doormat: Van Ruijven's wife. As both a wife and a model for paintings, it would appear that if she had any spirit at one point, it's long gone.
  • Eye-Obscuring Hat: Griet uses her cap in this way to hide her face and her reactions.
  • Full-Name Basis: Maria Thins is always Maria Thins.
  • Good Parents: Griet's parents, while from her point of view they may seem narrow-minded, are genuinely invested in giving their children the best chances they can have in life.
  • Keeping the Enemy Close: Catharina agrees to let Griet sleep in the attic, where she is not allowed to go, on the condition that she get to lock the door to the studio so Griet doesn't make off with her jewelry.
  • Lady in Red: The infamous maid in the red dress. Sadly for her, she was not a seductress, she was a victim.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Pieter wants to get more physical in his relationship with Griet, which she is much less enthusiastic about, even though everyone expects them to get married one of these days.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Griet and what she called "another Griet," the girl she is when her hair is down. With her hair tucked away she is calm, quiet, and clean. With her hair down, she fears that she will become something wild and sexual.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Vermeer and Catharina have five children and one on the way. Catharina is pregnant again before the end. By Vermeer's death, there are eleven children in all.
  • Meaningful Name: Griet is the Dutch from of 'Margaret,' which is Greek for pearl.
  • Multigenerational Household: The Vermeer family lives with Maria Thins in her house.
  • Muse Abuse: Vermeer's tendency to prioritise art above everything, even if it means neglecting and exploiting the people in his paintings, is what eventually causes the novel's tragic climax.
  • Never Bareheaded: Griet always, always, always wears a cap, and while most women allow at least some hair to show, she does not.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Vermeer and Pieter. Griet notices this more than she admits, because she tends not to admit Vermeer's faults. Both men have tendencies towards control, Vermeer expecting things to be done a certain way for his art and Pieter expecting certain rewards for his kindnesses towards Griet and her family.
  • Old Retainer: Tanneke has been with the family since she was fourteen years old, half her life at the start of the story. She is fiercely loyal to Maria Thins, and even once threw herself in harm's way for Maria Thins and Catharina when Catharina's brother tried to attack them in the street. She continues to remain with the family years after Griet leaves.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. The butcher and his son are both named Pieter. One of Vermeer's children is named Johannes after him.
  • Parental Favoritism: Cornelia is Catharina's favorite child, because Cornelia is the most like her.
  • Perpetual Poverty: The Vermeer household looks well off but lives on the verge of going bankrupt every day and only goes deeper into debt, to the point that Catharina has accidentally trained the children to talk about it.
  • Raised by Grandparents: In the strict sense, no. The Vermeer children have both of their parents. However the unpleasant but necessary aspects of raising them, things like actually having discipline in the house, fall on Maria Thins.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Griet is never actually fired, she just runs away and never comes back.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: After Griet leaves to become a maid, her family slowly falls apart. Her sister dies, her brother runs away, and her parents can feel her slowly moving away from them, though they don't know how to stop it. Griet notably doesn't go back in the end, but goes to Pieter to be married.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Griet, most notable in her depictions of Vermeer and Catharina.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Vermeer and Griet. It never resolves.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Griet's eyes appear to have an entrancing affect on a few characters, all who say something along the lines of: "You have very wide eyes." They're given a lot of attention in the book, also being described as "quite luminous", like "liquid were spilling into them."
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child: Catharina is a flighty mistress and mother, particularly when she's pregnant. Taking care of the children tends to fall on her eldest daughter.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Frans eventually runs away from his horrible apprenticeship. The characters, and the reader, never see him again, and we have no idea what happens to him.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Pieter can't understand why Griet refuses to leave the Vermeer family, even though she is only getting into more and more trouble at the house.
  • Younger Than They Look: Tanneke is twenty-eight when Griet comes to the house, but she appears older due to all the hard work.