The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

When I think about my own writing, I sometimes step back and take a wider view of the characters. Every main character in a novel is someone else’s minor character, think of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where two minor characters in Hamlet become the focus of their own play. In The Miniaturist, there is tension between the main character, Petronella Brandt and the woman simply known as the Miniaturist for most of the novel. Who is the novel about? Is it about Petronella and the Brandt family, or is it about a woman who observes the citizens of Amsterdam and lives as an outsider? How is the relationship between Nella (Petronella) and the Miniaturist similar to that of Jessie Burton and her characters?

As the newly married Nella begins to receive requested and unrequested items for the richly detailed dollhouse her husband commissioned as a wedding present, a sense of uncertainty shrouds her. First, she is eighteen-years-old and from the countryside. Nella finds herself in a splendid house, married to a wealthy merchant who is physically and emotionally distant, while on the outside of a secret contained by her sister-in-law, maid, and manservant. Nella’s sister-in-law, Marin, runs the house as if it were her own, lives a seemingly austere life, and is publicly pious. During this period in Amsterdam, religion and capitalism have built up the city while hypocrisy leaks through all the gaps. Evidence of this hypocrisy is seen in Marin’s black dresses, which look plain on the outside, but are lined with furs. As long as one keeps impious actions behind closed doors, all is fine in the city of Amsterdam.

However, at least for Nella, it appears the Miniaturist is able to peer through closed doors as she fills Nella’s miniature house with telling pieces—a cradle, the Master’s favorite dog, a doll of each of them. Nella vacillates between horror and awe. What does the Miniaturist know? What is she trying to tell Nella? Is the Miniaturist capable of seeing the future?

Nella struggles for control. She yearns to find her place, not in the world as such, but just in the house. What is she to Johannes, her husband? How does she relate to her sister-in-law and the servants? Secrets unlock and both Nella and the reader discover what’s happening.

Another aspect about this novel, which interests me is the role of women. The Miniaturist asks how do women survive in Amsterdam circa 1676, and can women achieve freedom? However, in asking those questions, the novel also touches on how women achieve freedom today and what their roles are? While, in most Western nations the roles of women have greatly expanded, when juxtaposed with the clamor from religious extremists one can see how limits on women’s freedom still exist. For a polarizing example, look at how abortion in the United States is often legislated by white, Christian men of wealth. Religion entwines with laws and limits women’s freedom.

The Miniaturist is a transporting novel that explores large questions while showing us a world that is seemingly small.

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