How are the girls in Griet

The girl with the pearl earring

Short story of a painting by Johannes Vermeer

Book review by Almut Oetjen Jan 2007

Delft 1664: 16-year-old Griet becomes a maid in the house of the respected painter Johannes Vermeer after her family got into financial difficulties due to her father's accident at work; Vermeer is chairman of the guild, of which Griet's father, a tile painter, is a member. Griet shares the work in the chaotic ten-person household with the maid Tanneke. But she alone is allowed to clean the painter's studio. Nothing may be adjusted. She is predestined for this task due to the blindness of her father. Despite different origins and social status, Griet wins the attention of Vermeer, who recognizes her sense of color harmony and her sensitivity for his pictures: she leaves the windows uncleaned because the light would change; she notices that a map in the background is disturbing the composition; or she rearranges a blue cloth to contrast the order with a touch of clutter.

While Griet grows into Vermeer's family, her own falls apart. Her mother becomes estranged from her, her little sister dies of the plague, her brother is drawn to Rotterdam. Vermeer's wealthy patron, van Ruijven, sexually harasses her, and Pieter, the butcher's son, woos her. When she helped the painter with the production of the colors and modeled him for a commissioned painting by Van Ruijvens, she put on his wife's pearl earrings for it, her life experienced an important turning point.

Good maid - bad wife

Griet is portrayed as an intelligent, silent observer. She quickly sees through the character of the people around her and the distribution of power. This and her housekeeping and tactical skills enable her to survive in the chaotic household and hold her position for two years. Vermeer's wife, Catharina, is insecure, incompetent, jealous, and mostly pregnant; When Griet comes into the house, the sixth child is on the way. Catharina shouldn't know what a close relationship Griet is developing with her husband. She doesn't want to be bothered with anything, neither with the household nor with the children, which is why they are both in bad shape. She is also not interested in her husband's work.

Griet and Catharina are drawn as opposed to each other - no wonder, because Griet tells the story and thus determines the what, how and why. The reader has to take everything at face value, there is no relativization through another perspective, no doubt about Griet's credibility. Sometimes one waits for another narrator to finally take the floor, question Griet's words, and perhaps hint at the case of an adolescent's neurotic fixation on a celebrity. The other figures are also drawn with little differentiation. The reader learns almost nothing about Vermeer, he remains an unknown quantity. There is little material on him, argues Chevalier.

Weird pictures

The story is told by a relatively uneducated woman who can barely read and write. This narrows the view of things and the possibilities of linguistic expression. There is also a noticeable tendency towards stylistic devices that are supposed to make the narration pictorial, especially the too crooked metaphors. Example: "the voice of a woman, bright as brass, and that of a man, deep and dark as the wood of the table"; "so that little curls had loosened and hung on her forehead like bees, which she tried several times impatiently to drive away"; "I always arranged vegetables in a circle, each as a separate piece, like a round cake". You may or may not like this.

The novel is emotional and romantic, the story is easy to follow while reading. The book was very well received by audiences and critics and was a great success. The Dutch Margriet de Moor wrote a thematically similar novel, but you The painter and the girl and Chevaliers The girl with the pearl earring separate worlds.