Friday, April 9, 2010

Settling...In a Specific Case

I just finished Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring last night, and I couldn't help thinking of the recent "self-help" book for women, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb.  Now, I haven't read Gottlieb's book, and from the reviews I've read, I believe I wouldn't necessarily agree with what she argues in the book.  But in the specific case of Griet, I think "settling" was probably a mighty good choice.

(Sorry - there just have to be spoilers in this discussion.)

 In this imaginative account of the backstory for Vermeer's painting, Griet, the girl in the painting, develops a strong attraction to Vermeer.  I think a huge part of the attraction is that he represents a world Griet treasures, yet can't be part of in her actual life. I don't mean that he's of the upper class and (on the surface) wealthy; it's the artist's eye that appeals to her, looking at clouds and seeing ALL the colors that are there instead of just mushing them all together and calling them white.  She appreciates the way he orders the elements that go into the paintings to lead people to look at them in just the right way.  She understands that when he looks at something, he doesn't just see the surface of it, but what the "truth" of it is (maybe I'm exaggerating a little there).

On the other hand, she always seems to notice the blood residue around Pieter's fingernails and the smell of meat that clings to him, even when he's not at the meat stall.  It bothers her that he doesn't pay attention to those details.   Although in the end, she chooses to marry Pieter, I think if circumstances had been different and had allowed for it, she would have chosen Vermeer in a heartbeat. 

That would have been a mistake.

I say that because of respect. As I was reading the final portions of the book, when Vermeer was painting her portrait, I was completely annoyed with him because he had so little respect for Griet.  He didn't care that keeping the fact that he was doing the painting a secret made Griet's life with the other women in the household miserable.  (Actually, that started much earlier, when he ordered her to help him with grinding the paints.)  Because he didn't want to have to put up with the flack he would catch from his wife, he left the entire burden on Griet to bear - not just the burden of the truth, but the burden of what the wife and the other maid feared because they didn't know the truth.  I really disliked him when he gave Griet no choice about the earrings. So what if she had to go through the pain of piercing her ears herself? So what if wearing his wife's earrings would  threaten Griet's economic security and that of her family? Vermeer had no concern other than that he wanted to look at the earrings actually in her ear so he could paint the "truth."  He even made her pierce the other ear - the one that wouldn't even be seen in the painting - and wear both earrings so it would be "true."  And once the painting was finished, Griet felt his fascination with her was finished, as well.  She was really no different from the jewelry box or the blue table rug that were part of the set pieces in other paintings.

Pieter, though, respected Griet enough to let her keep her secrets. Sure, marrying him meant moving into that patriarchal system that marriage has always been, where he would be the dominant party.  Yet, in the specifics of this marriage, I get the sense that Pieter thinks of Griet as his partner in the enterprise. She may be cutting up bloody sides of beef rather than sitting for a painting, but with Pieter, what she wants and what she thinks matter.

So, how does this relate to "settling"?  Some people I know argue that a person should never give up passion.  They think it is most important in a relationship to be "soulmates" who understand each other and who value the same things.  "Settling" for less than that, they say, is to do yourself a grave disservice. Yet I think if Griet had kept trying to maintain the relationship with Vermeer (if she had the option - Catharina probably wasn't going to give her the choice), she would have been miserable throughout her life.  There might have been moments of pleasure - those fleeting times when Vermeer actually seemed to notice and appreciate her -- but they probably would have been few and far between.  By "settling" for Pieter, Griet actually opened up the world for herself.  She became a respected businesswoman with the right to refuse to serve people who were rude to her.  She had her own family and she helped provide for them.  Pieter allowed her the privacy of her past and her thoughts without prying into everything and without having to know the entire "truth" of her - he was satisfied with the part that was useful for life.  Pieter wouldn't have made Griet wear the second earring.

I'm not in favor of settling just for the sake of having someone.  But when the most important factors like basic respect and an attitude of love and equality fall into place, why sweat the small details?  Does the bloodstain around his fingernails really matter THAT much?


Annie said...

Yes, you're right. I've always loved the strong ending of this book - the way Griet leaves and makes a life of her own and is contented with it - but until I read your post I hadn't thought much about why it was so satisfying. It's such a subtle and absorbing book - one of my all-time favourites.

Augustina Peach said...

I was SOOOO glad she didn't pick up the knife.