Wednesday, 17 February 2010
The Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Who is this girl?
Is she smiling?
Where did she get that fancy earring?
Why is she surrounded by black?
Why is her body turned away?
Is she keeping a secret from us?
What is she waiting for?
What is she thinking?
Last week the literature students and I took some time off our usual lit study (Anita Desai's short stories to be exact) and we had a look at this Vermeer painting.
I was amazed with what the girls were able to come up with. They thought of a number of explanations for the questions above and they had a lot of interesting ideas regarding the expression on the girl's face.
From what I can gather, it seems this painting is a bit of a mystery. Nobody really knows who the girl is or what her story is. In fact, I found that when I looked at Vermeer's other paintings that this one is quite unique. It was highly unusual for him to paint only the head and shoulders in a portrait and this is his only painting with a black background (I think).
I asked my students to imagine if they were to write a novel about this girl's life. What would they write? Who would she be? What would be their explanation for the woman's unusual expression, her clothes, and her possession of a very valuable pearl.
Actually, it has already been done. Tracy Chevalier explored the painting with her book The Girl With A Pearl Earring.
Like the painting on its front cover, Chevalier's novel is a beautiful work of art. She captures the personality and language of a poor tradesman's daughter who has no choice but to take work as a maid for the wealthy family of a master painter. Chevalier's girl, Griet, is wonderfully sweet and innocent, but she also sees things with a cleverness and insight that often startles those around her. As a reader, it is great fun to experience the story through her eyes.
My favourite parts of the book involve the descriptions of the paintings and Griet's reactions to them. I liked that Chevalier gave her narrator an artistic sensibility so she could really "see" the paintings. Griet has an innate understanding of composition and is able, in her simple language, to explain the paintings to us. She even guesses at missing pieces before the painter himself can discover them. I also enjoyed the fact that Chevalier incorporated a number of other Vermeer paintings into the story and so a quick search on the Internet will provide you with a visual representation of elements in the story.
Of course the story culminates in the painting of the narrator. It builds and creates for us an explanation of the painting. You and I may have imagined a different story for the painting, but Chevalier's is a good one too.
For students who are interested in reading something a bit mature and are ready to make the leap from teen novels to something with a bit of substance, this would be a good book. The language is that of a "simple" maid so it isn't too difficult to read. At the same time, it is the type of book that would be classified as "literature" and therefore worthy of study and likely to bring you to a greater understanding of the world if you take your time with it and give it a bit of consideration.
I'd like to discuss this book at length, but I think it is probably best to leave it to the reader to enjoy. I should warn you, though. This book has some mature content. Chevalier handles it well, as good writers do, but you should be aware that this is a book that is perhaps more suitable for older readers.
To hear an interview with Chevalier about the book you can find it HERE.