Although Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s posthumous debut, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has much to recommend it to English-reading audiences — including a dizzying array of plotlines involving a global corporate conspiracy, an Agatha Christie-esque ‘locked-room’ disappearance scenario, Swedish Nazism, and a series of Biblically influenced murders — the novel’s most compelling element will surely be Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous hacker genius who embodies a distinctly un-Scandinavian respect for karmic revenge and vigilantism.
The novel’s sexy English title certainly pulls focus to Salander, but its original Swedish rendering — Men Who Hate Women — is a far better indicator of where its real concerns lie. Throughout the narrative, the reader’s attentions are repeatedly drawn back to moments of graphic, sadistic and systematic violence against women. Even when the plot seems most divergent from these moments of victimization, Larsson refocuses attention: each of the novel’s four sections are preceded with increasingly dire statistics about violence against women in Sweden; the narrative’s most horrific scene of sexual violence is punctuated by a tender moment between the story’s male lead and his lover.
Larsson’s ability to visit almost excessively appalling traumas on his female characters can only be excused by his evident horror that all of these atrocities go almost completely unnoticed, not only by the book’s male characters, but also that most allegorical of male stand-ins: a well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate Swedish society. One woman is abused by family members for decades right under the watchful gaze of her guardian. Another — a former psychiatric patient and ward of the state — is repeatedly abused by her governmentally appointed trustee.
Enter Lisbeth Salander, a resourceful anti-heroine who might comfortably kick ass in a Vin Diesel flick. Arguably the novel’s most victimized character, Salander responds to abuse with retaliation, rejecting help from the police (“visor-clad brutes”) and women’s crisis centers, because they “existed for victims, and she had never regarded herself as a victim.” Instead, Salander blackmails, mutilates, drains bank accounts and stalks those who have abused her and other women. She’s clearly a figure of promise and redemption for Larsson, a woman who, even after suffering the worst ordeals, will not allow herself to be subjugated.
Given the novel’s despairing revelation that society is unable to effectively locate and punish rapists and chronic abusers of women, the presence of a proud, capable and vengeful female character is, in some ways, quite refreshing. But while Salander’s ability to come back swinging may appeal to a reader’s own sense of fair retribution, she is ultimately a deeply flawed creation. Her stoicism reads as a lack of emotional depth, and Larsson does his heroine an injustice by not allowing her to experience genuine suffering at any point.
If, instead of highlighting the fact that “apart from the tears of pure physical pain she shed not a single tear,” Larsson let Salander experience shock and trauma after being assaulted — if Salander overcame, rather than stifled, the myriad emotional consequences that result from sexual abuse — her triumphs would be far greater. As it stands, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo resigns itself to a world in which covert, unpunished sexual crimes are the norm, and vigilantism is a woman’s only possible source of justice.