Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999)

Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) is a feminist historical novel that presents a fictional hypothetical interpretation of an episode in art history, the story behind the painter Johannes Vermeer’s famous masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). Drawing on both feminist perspectives and Marxist concepts, Chevalier depicts a microcosm of Dutch society during the seventeenth century that is riven by gender and class divisions as well as by sectarian prejudice. 

The principal victims of these structural inequalities are poor working-class women who are oppressed by a seemingly inescapable patriarchy that subjects them to sexual harassment and exploitation, the denial of educational and career opportunities that could give full expression to their talents, as well as imposing on females an economic dependence on males that serves as a form of social control. 

In addition, in this society, each person is assigned and follows particular roles accorded to them by their gender and class.  There is a pronounced division of labour along gender and class lines within the family home and in the wider society, which seem to be generally accepted as natural even though the less privileged who occupy the lower rungs in the hierarchy are frequently exploited, degraded and disappointed.    

In this socio-economic context, the novel features a love story.  It is a love between a middle-class man, Vermeer, and a working-class woman, Griet, who was his maid and the model for the famous painting.  It is a love that was never consummated.  Even though Vermeer was married, the novel implies that the primary reason preventing their union was imposing social barriers related to class.  This situation meant the novel focused on the desire that is played out within these individuals’ minds rather than in regards to what can be expressed with their bodies. 

Drawing on art history, Chevalier sought to inform her readers about the nature of the artistic process that produced canvasses that subsequent generations admire as works by great masters.  Vermeer was one of these great masters.  Chevalier goes into some detail in explaining the minerals and oils that were used to produce each colour on the artist’s palette.  The readers are also told about how Vermeer used the latest technology, such as the camera obscura, which is an optical device that assisted artists in making accurate images of what was before them.  The readers also learn about the process of composition, the control of light, the choice of a model, and the choice of costume, drapery and background, all of which were in the service of creating a pleasing image.  

Drawing on Marxist theory, Chevalier talked about the politics of portraiture, how patrons of the arts use their financial power to influence what is painted.  Consequently, for example, portraits commissioned by rich patrons of their wives are rendered by the artist in a more flattering fashion than would honestly be the case.  This is because the artist, who is economically dependent on his patron’s commission, deems it tactfully necessary to do so. 

Drawing on feminist art criticism, Chevalier depicts art, in particular the painting of women by men, as a form of social control where men use art to possess, own and control the image of a woman for their personal gratification.  This impulse is not confined to portraiture.  The novel also argues that this form of patriarchy manifests itself in sexual harassment and in the exploitation of poor females by wealthier males who are in positions of authority over them. 

Chevalier depicts the sectarian divisions between Protestants and Catholics as ultimately superficial and unnecessary even though they characterised this historical area and produced several protracted religious wars.  The novel depicts religious hostility as a prejudice passed from generation to generation.  Only a minority of characters are immune from these shortcomings, notably Griet’s father and Vermeer.  They are depicted as individuals who appreciate the fundamental similarities between people that make religious differences seem inconsequential. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Girl with a Pearl Earring meaning, Girl with a Pearl Earring themes, Girl with a Pearl Earring analysis, Girl with a Pearl Earring notes