It is widely believed that Tracy Chevalier’s, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a timeless, and beautifully written novel for all with an appreciation for fine storytelling and artistic literature. Hence the novel is commonly used as a part of high school curriculums around the world. However, is a story that was set under circumstances three hundred and forty years ago really relevant for the youth of today? In particular, young women who are coming of age in a society very different from the one Girl with a Pearl Earring was set in.
The main character of the novel, Griet, goes through some significant changes throughout the story, as she is sent to work as a maid for the artist, Johannes Vermeer, after her father is blinded and can no longer support the
family. She encounters many new situations and feelings as she comes of age whilst working in the Vermeer household over a two year period. Griet experiences things that most young women could relate to during this time in her life, including first time attraction, being disempowered due to differences in social class and pressure from her parents and society to make certain life choices. However, students today will never be able to fully relate to Griet’s life in the novel. Today’s young are encouraged to choose their own pathway and work towards their goals, whereas Griet had little real choice in the way her life was to transpire. Therefore, will Girl with a Pearl Earring ever be a relevant text for today’s student?
In terms of sexual awaking, Griet first experiences attraction when she begins work at the Vermeer household. She is instantly drawn to the artist, but is uncertain why, and he in turn is drawn to her. This is the point in the novel where she first becomes aware of her
sexuality. As the story progresses the attraction between Vermeer and Griet grows to the point of dangerous sexual tension and Griet is forced to come to terms with the fact that if acted upon, this lust could be extremely damaging to both their reputations.
In today’s life, things remain much the same regarding sexual attraction. As it is in the novel, attraction can be awkward and difficult, especially when experiencing it for the first time, and this is very much apparent in Griet’s relationship with Vermeer.
The issues associated with social class in Girl with a Pearl Earring relate to today’s society still. In the novel, pearls were a symbol of affluence and represented a high status in society; they were the epitome of what Griet was not. In the modern world, it is prestigious assets such as expensive cars, lavish homes, jewelry and label name clothing which often define a person’s place in society. Griet felt inferior when communicating with her mistress because she did not belong to the same social class, and was considered to be beneath them. Today, this segregation of classes is still very much apparent. People of the lower classes may still feel the same way when encountering the home of a wealthy person and this especially includes young women as they can be already insecure about themselves. Nowadays people of lower socioeconomic classes can have much of the same opportunities as wealthy people can with the availability of a universal public schooling system. This gives opportunity for people from lower classes to achieve positions of greater status in contemporary society.
Throughout the story, Griet feels pressure from many people to make certain choices with her life. Her parents pressure her to marry Pieter, the butcher’s son, so that their family can have meat and be financially cared for. Yet, Griet far prefers the company of her Master than that of the dirty handed butcher’s son. However Griet and Vermeer’s relationship would never be considered acceptable within their society, whereas a marriage with Pieter would be extremely beneficial to her underprivileged family. In turn, Griet comes to terms with what she must do for the sake of her family, and eventually marries Pieter.
In modern Western culture, this kind of situation is relatively unheard of, as today’s women are offered choice about who they marry, regardless of their (or their partner’s) social class or wealth. In addition to this women are free to decline a man’s proposal of marriage and are less monetarily dependant on men. This is not the case for Griet, as it is impossible for her to build her own way up in life without the help of a man.
The issues raised in the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring are relevant for the youth of today, to an extent. Human nature has always been essentially the same in regards to attraction and pressure. Attraction will always occur between people, as will lust and love. It is a part of human development and coming of age. People will continue to pressure others in various ways, but doubtably in the same way as Griet experiences, as nowadays people are rarely pressured to marry someone for financial stability. The divisions between classes still exists, however in our society everyone has equal rights and opportunities regardless of status.
Whilst Girl with a Pearl Earring presents life the way it was three hundred and forty years ago, the issues and themes it draws upon are still very much relevant in this day and age. However, there is a subtle symbolism in Chevalier’s writing that carries through most of the text that is quite mature and may not be able to be seen by more immature students. This is apparent in the scene where Vermeer pierces Griet’s ear, and sees her with her head uncovered. This is a very sexual image and therefore represents the attraction and tension between Griet and her master. As this scene represents something much greater then the obvious, it is a concern whether a young audience will be able to understand and appreciate the techniques used and the hidden content behind the text.
However, Chevalier’s novel is able to be compared and contrasted with modern society and culture, which makes it a worthwhile and educational read for young students today. It is important for today’s youth to appreciate the past in order to appreciate the present; therefore Girl with a Pearl Earring should still exist within the senior school curriculum as a valued and respected novel.