Thursday, October 4, 2012

Banned Books Week: Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Why are books challenged?
Often challenges are motivated by a desire to protect children from “inappropriate” sexual content or “offensive” language. The following were the top three reasons cited for challenging materials as reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom:
  1. the material was considered to be "sexually explicit"
  2. the material contained "offensive language"
  3. the materials was "unsuited to any age group"
Although this is a commendable motivation, Free Access to Libraries for Minors, an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (ALA's basic policy concerning access to information) states that, “Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

As Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., in Texas v. Johnson , said most eloquently:
If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.


Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
I read this book several years ago, before I started blogging.  It was a wonderful historical novel focusing on the relationship between the painter, Johannes Vermeer, and a servant girl who turns out to be the model for the famous painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring."  The novel explores the household of Vermeer, with his scores of children and a wife who is perpetually pregnant.  They live from painting to painting, so to speak.  Relying on patrons for their livelihood and falling back on the mother-in-law's purse strings in between.  Needless to say, the mother-in-law is very much in control in the household.  Griet comes to work as a servant and slowly ingratiates herself with the master (Vermeer).  He makes her his assistant and eventually, she models for him.  As his assistant, she grinds the materials for the paints and this passage from the book shows how beautiful the writing is:

I came to love grinding the things he brought from the apothecary--bones, white lead, madder, massicot--to see how bright and pure I could get the colors. I learned that the finer the materials were ground, the deeper the color. From rough, dull grains madder became a fine bright red powder and, mixed with linseed oil, a sparkling paint. Making it and the other colors was magical.

However, Vermeer's wife is not happy about the arrangement because she senses his feelings for the girl, although they were never intimate, and things take a turn for the worse.  Let's just say that Griet does not continue in the household.  Griet does have a love interest her age and this is the only place in the book where a sexual encounter occurs so the book is not overtly sexual.  I will say that it is sensual.

It is a wonderful work of historical fiction, albeit speculative.  What if there really was a servant girl who posed for the painting and knew the intimate workings of the Vermeer household and was companion to the artist himself?  Very little is known about Vermeer historically and there in lies the beauty of historical fiction.  It allows us to imagine what his life might have been like.  And Chevalier's descriptions of life in 17th century Delft come across very accurately.  I will say that this book led me to Vermeer's art and he has become one of my favorite painters.  I adore his paintings.

The Milkmaid, c. 1659/60

Girl with the Pearl Earring has not been challenged (or banned) in the United States, as far as I could tell in my research.  However, it was banned in Iran.  According to the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom:

Banned in Iran (2006).  "The new government intends to take positive steps for reviving neglected values and considering religious teachings in the cultural field." Source: Jan. 2007, p. 35. 

Not really sure what that means, but I'm assuming that the sensual quality of the book and the one act of sexual intercourse are too much for their religious values.

I'm reminded of "Sex in the City 2" when Carrie and the girls travel to Abu Dhabi, a city with similar Muslim customs as Iran.  They get into mischief because of Samantha's blatant promiscuity and demonstrative behavior.  They are rescued by a group of Muslim women who share their sense of style under their black robes and these women also have a secret book club where they read books banned in their country.  I can imagine these women reading Girl with a Pearl Earring in secret. *smile*

Read a full description of the book at Goodreads

A big thanks to Sheila at Book Journey for hosting this important event!



Thank you for visiting and taking the time to comment. It means so much.

I apologize for word verification, but as soon as I changed the settings from only users with Google accounts, I started receiving a ton of spam comments...within one hour of changing the settings. The bots are on high alert apparently.

  1. I am glad that you explained where this was banned becasue when I saw this I was like...why? lol

    Seems a pretty tame book, with just that one scene being the exception,

  2. I am glad that you explained where this book was banned buse otherwise I was all huh?

  3. Hi Michelle! Thanks for participating today! I love that you compared the ban to Sex In The City... I get what you are saying.

    This is a book that I have not read yet.

  4. It's hard to believe Girl With A Pearl Earring is on the Banned Book List. Unbelievable.

  5. A book that has been on my TBR mountain for goodness knows how long I know feel inspired to pick it up and read it.

  6. I had no idea that this was banned anywhere! I read this back before my blogging days as well and I really liked it! His paintings are lovely aren't they?

  7. I LOVED this book...thanks for the information.

    Silver's Reviews

  8. I loved this book and others Tracy Chevalier has written. Thanks for the great review.

  9. I loved the Girl with the Pearl Earring. I admit that the definition of what is offensive is subjective, but that doesn't mean anyone has the right to impose their judgement on others and what they can or can't read. Great review!

  10. I haven't read this book. Thanks for sharing your Banned Book review

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  11. I really liked this book when I read it several years ago. Like you, it made me interested in Vermeer's work.

  12. I haven't read this yet but I definitely want to now. Thanks, Michelle!

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