The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may be an efficient detective story, but, before everything, it is a cry about the situation of women in modern society. Stieg Larsson creates, in the first volume of the Millenium trilogy, fascinating characters and an engaging feeling of suspense, but excels when putting at the basis of his story the problem of how women are explored and discarded in our brutal masculine world.
The protagonist is Mikael Blomkvist, the Swedish editor-in-chief of Millenium’s monthly magazine, who was a hated, but respected journalist until he accused a powerful businessman of corruption without the necessary evidence and was convicted in the process. Taking advantage of Mikael’s resulting professional instability, the old tycoon Henrik Vanger hires him to assist in an old investigation that has haunted his family for more than two decades: the murder of the girl Harriet Vanger. Alone and without any prospect of success, Mikael seeks the help of a very peculiar private investigator, Lisbeth Salander.
Blomkvist is described as an incorruptible man who is political engaged and critical of his society. A utopian journalist who goes after the truth and considers his personal mission the objective of unraveling the rottenness of the rich. He constantly attacks the Swedish media, claiming that economic journalists are no more than parrots who repeat notes issued by others without question, when they are not rascals who distort information to manipulate the people. “In this way the future of Sweden is also being created, and all remaining trust in journalists as a corps of professionals is being compromised,” the character reflects bitterly at the beginning.
Blomkvist’s new client, Henrik Vanger, is a powerful man, who doesn’t mince his words. The first description he makes of his family is emblematic: “They are for the most part thieves, misers, bullies, and incompetents. I ran the company for thirty-five years – almost all the time in the midst of relentless bickering. They were my worst enemies, far worse than competing companies or the government”. And it is precisely the members of the Vanger family who are the prime suspects in the murder that Mikael must investigate on Heddestad, an isolated island on the Swedish mainland connected to it by only one bridge.
Harriet’s case is a typical “closed room mystery,” as the characters themselves refer to it. She disappeared the day a car accident blocked Heddestad’s only exit across the bridge. As no one could get to or escape the island, the killer could only be one of the people present at the time of the accident. Henrik makes it clear that his relatives are horrible people – several came to sympathize with Nazism – and that they are, above all, intelligent.
The protagonist is exiled on an island in the midst of the Swedish winter, completely surrounded by terrible people who he must interrogate, knowing that one of them is capable of murder. He was hired by a man famous for his cleverness and who, despite treating Blomkvist kindly, does not hesitate to manipulate the journalist when it suits him. The feeling of isolation and fear of the protagonist is thus perfectly conveyed and the reader is immediately hooked.
Even at the beginning, when the characters are being presented, Larson manages to keep the reader interested by inciting questions about them. If the protagonist is such an efficient and impeccable journalist, how did he allow himself to publish an important piece with little evidence? If Henrik Vanger is so clever and wise, how does he not know what happened to Harriet? Doubts will capture the reader, stimulating them to pay attention to the details offered.
However, the plot of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo is a mere pretext for the author to criticize the way women are treated in Swedish and in modern society in general. The theme is represented by the character of Lisbeth Salander, the competent private investigator who agrees to help Blomkvist in the Harriet case.
Her first scene is from the perspective of another character, her boss Dragan Armanskij. She is characterized as a displaced figure, who, despite being very competent in her work, is totally isolated: “he thought for the thousandth time that nobody seemed more out of place in a prestigious security firm than she did.” In her initial description she is observed from the point of view of a hierarchically superior man, with a strong focus on her beauty and physical appearance, reinforcing the theme of male dominance: “Her extreme slenderness would have made a career in modelling impossible, but with the right make-up her face could have put her on any billboard in the world.”
Lisbeth Salander, however, is a symbol of revolt. Despite being languid and small, she is undeniably the strongest character in the book. Her narrative arc is the most intense, and because it deals with sexual abuse and mistreatment, it fits the book’s main theme more than the journey of the supposed protagonist, Blomkvist. She is the one who gives payback: she is a harbinger of long due punishment, delivering it to rapists, murderers or any cruel individual who has the misfortune of catching her attention. She captivates the reader precisely by the contrast between her fragile appearance and her relentless fury – with her great intellect further enhancing the connection.
Larsson works with the mistreatment of women in a crude and realistic way . At the beginning of each chapter, he presents alarming statistics such as: “Thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship.” The author, from the point of view of the characters, fervently criticizes the abject aspects of the situation – when, for example, Lisbeth reflects that “As a girl she was legal prey,” the hatred she feels for her society is palpable. People who say “Oh, but look at what she was wearing” in cases of rape, as if the victim had contributed in some way to the crime, are fiercely contested by the narrative and their absurd rhetoric is constantly criticized. In another instant, after a woman is raped, she concludes that it is not worthy going to the police, because they would point at her, rejoice at the situation and still say that “she should be proud that someone had even bothered”. In fact, the police here is depicted as a tool to attack and control the population, oppressing it rather than protecting it.
Stieg Larsson was a journalist at the time he wrote the book and his craft is noticeable not only in his passion for the social issues of his country, but also in the precision with which he describes elements inherent to the protagonist’s profession: the level of technical details present in the scene in which Blomkvist analyzes negatives in an old file, for example, is astounding. The author also succeeds in the book’s small moments of humor, which, being sparse, work because of their unpredictability – a great example being the unusual comparisons between one of the members of the Vanger family and the creature Gollum of The Lord of the Rings.
Larsson only falters when it comes to the level of exposition in the dialogues and to the believability of some of the protagonist’s actions during the investigation, since Blomkvist prefers to directly confront the main suspects of the crime than to inform Henrik of his discoveries first. On the other hand, the author deserves applause for being able to naturally connect the murder plot with the main theme of the book, generating a climax that sounds appropriate and, therefore, satisfying.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may contain a well-developed plot, an exciting climax and memorable characters, but it is its theme that will most affect the reader. Therefore, it is even more important to notice that, although the focus of the novel’s criticism is Sweden, the problems described in the book are universal, occurring in virtually every country in the world – and that the situation is even worse in some.
April 13, 2019.
Review originally published in Portuguese on October 17, 2014.
Published November 22nd 2011 by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard