Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring

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Girl With a Pearl Earring Symbols and Motifs

The Knife 

Knives are present in many crucial moments in the novel, from the opening scene when Griet first meets the Vermeers, to the climactic scene of confrontation with Catharina, to the first image we have of Griet as a butcher’s wife. Because they are always potentially threatening, knives take on meaning in the story depending on who wields them and with what intent, level of control, and degree of skill. Though they are never shown to cause physical harm, except when Griet cuts her palm after learning that Vermeer is dead, they are threatening when Catharina is present, as she is the only person who seems to have no skills, even wielding a knife.

The Pearl Earrings 

The pearl earrings are symbols of class, jealously guarded by Catharina, coveted by Griet, and used by Vermeer for their ability to catch light in his paintings. In Part Three of the novel, they also come to symbolize the relationship between Griet and Vermeer, and Griet’s initial refusal to wear them is about her fear of being “ruined” by the scandal that will ensue. Her attempt to refuse them in Part Four, however, is a rejection of the bourgeois, artistic world they represent, for which she no longer has any use—“a butcher’s wife did not wear such things, no more than a maid did” (233). 

The Eight-Pointed Star in the Center of Market Square

This star, to which Griet returns multiple times, including at the end of the novel when she is deciding what to do with the pearl earrings, is symbolic of the different paths one’s life can take and, as such, is highly appropriate to the bildungsroman. It is also a bittersweet image: although each time Griet returns to it, she makes the “right” decision, she also sees all the other possibilities she can’t pursue. Whether good or bad, the closing off of other possibilities is also the limiting of her vision. Each time she chooses a path, the “wide eyes” of her youth are blinded a little more.

Griet’s Hair 

There is only one scene in the novel where Griet’s hair is seen, and it…

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