The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
by Stieg Larsson
Are You There, Sweden? It's Me, Salander
"She's been described as psychotic, and as a mentally ill lesbian mass murderer. […] Lisbeth Salander is not psychotic. She's probably as sane as you or I. And her sexual preferences are nobody's business." (11.262)
Who is Lisbeth Salander? In this book, she takes the opportunity to define herself, publically. But, before we get to that, let's look at some of the things others say about her. For starters, as Mikael Blomkvist says, "Lisbeth is an extraordinary person" (11.289). But you wouldn't know it from what the Swedish media or the social welfare reports have to say. You certainly wouldn't know it from talking to her psychiatrist, Dr. Teleborian, who sees her as a dangerous criminal. Her brother Ronald Niedermann has, perhaps, the most original interpretation of her. After she nails his feet to the floor of Zalachenko's (now Salander's) abandoned factory, he thinks, "She's supernatural. […] She's a monster" (Eplogue.189).
The critics are much kinder to Salander. The New York Times calls her "The ultimate pixie with attitude" (source). Stephen King says she's "one of the great female characters in fiction, dangerous as hell in spite of her waiflike appearance; she karate-kicks as well as she computer-hacks" (source). She's been compared to a diverse group of characters, including Sherlock Holmes, Lara Croft, and a slew of vigilante and private investigator types. Sonny Mehta, editor in chief of Knopf, calls her "an absolutely original creation […], extraordinary […], a heroine for our time, in some ways" (source).
Hold up. What does he mean "in some ways"? Well, part of Salander's huge appeal is her complexity, and part of her complexity is the fine line she walks. You know, the line between fighting crime and committing it. "Heroine" sometimes implies "female role model" and our gasoline-bomb-throwing, money-stealing, nail-gun-shooting, sexually-adventurous sleuth could give a girl (or boy) dangerous ideas (if you believe fictional characters have that power).
In the first two Millennium trilogy novels, and much of this one, Salander doesn't really care what others think of her. In fact, she values above all else her privacy and strives for anonymity. She has no faith that the official justice system can help her. We are told, "She just wanted to be left in peace. When it came down to it, she was the one who would have to live with herself" (9.95). She comes to realize that to be left in peace, and to live with herself, she'll need to give the world at least a glimpse of the real Salander, without, of course, revealing irrelevant secrets (think: hacking, photographic memory, stolen fortune).
She Wants More Than Revenge, She Wants Justice
At first, Salander's prime motivation for agreeing to work within the official justice system, and for writing down her story, is revenge. She sees a chance to use the system that victimized her to get this revenge. Revenge is always a big motivator for Salander. But, when she learns that Teleborian trades in violent child pornography, she realizes she must speak up to protect Teleborian's other victims and potential victims:
She knew. He had never touched her, but she had always known.
She should have dealt with Teleborian years ago. But she had repressed the memory of him. She had chosen to ignore his existence. (16.70-71)
Salander has devoted much of her life to protecting people, especially women, from dangerous predators. So when she learns for sure that Teleborian is one, she can't let it rest. Rising to the challenge of taking down Teleborian means proving, in court, that she's a credible judge of herself and others. This means not only speaking up, but backing up her claims with evidence. And evidence she has, in spades, thanks to diverse team of investigators.
In this final installment of Salander's saga she remains quintessentially Salander, but also undergoes subtle but major changes. How, you might ask, does she change so much when she's stuck in a hospital bed for the majority of the book? In "Setting" we look at how Sahlgrenska hospital is a positive contrast to St. Stefan's children's psychiatric clinic, where she was committed after she tried to kill Zalachenko at age twelve. We can take this even further, and call her stay in Sahlgrenska a kind of do-over of her stay in St. Stefan's.
As you might remember, The Girl Who Played With Fire begins with a look at Salander on her 13th birthday (April 30, 1991), strapped to a steel-framed bed by Dr. Teleborian. Salander spends her 27th birthday at Sahlgrenska hospital. As far as we can tell, there's no party or fanfare. But, Zalachenko is dead, and Dr. Jonasson has taken a personal interest in her and is protecting her from people like Teleborian. While her 13th birthday was a prelude to years of torment, her 27th seems like a prelude to better days. After her 27th birthday, all kinds of people are springing to her aid. Most importantly, Blomkivst and Jonasson arrange for Salander to have her Palm Tungsten T3, what Blomkvist calls the "most important weapon […] in her arsenal" (11.293). Unlike when she was at St. Stefan's, Salander is no longer a helpless victim.
When Salander gets her Palm, we are told, "Salander was happy. Her heart was pounding hard when she started up the hand-held for the first time in two months and ventured onto the Internet" (13.129). Not only does she have contact with the outer world through the Internet, in sharp contrast to the intense isolation she experienced at St. Stefan's, but she has the tools to see that justice is done.
She has, maybe for the first time in her life, the safety, quiet, and privacy she needs to get to know herself a little better. She also learns how nice it can be to be able to relax and trust a few people. This isn't to say that Salander doesn't have any issues when the novel ends, but her stay at Sahlgrenska takes her much closer to herself and to others.
Being Harriet Vanger
The wince-provoking scene where Salander nails Ronald Niedermann's feet to the floor of an old factory brings the trilogy full circle. Suddenly, Salander finds herself in the very place Harriet Vanger (a major figure from the first book) is in as a teenager. This all brings us back to one of the trilogy's big ethical questions: What responsibilities do victims have in making sure their victimizers don't hurt others?
Harriet is raped and abused by her father and her brother Martin when she's a teen. She kills her father, who she knows is also murdering women. She knows that Martin is following in their dead father's footsteps, but she's more concerned (naturally) with protecting herself from Martin than trying to save the world from him. So, she runs away (while still a teen) never telling anybody about her brother's crimes. Everybody in the wealthy Vanger family assumes she's dead.
Almost forty years later, Blomkvist and Salander are hired to find out what happened to Harriet. In looking for her, they discover that Martin has kidnapped and murdered probably hundreds of women. Salander firmly believes that Harriet should have killed Martin all those years ago, and thus saved all those women from him.
Now, as Salander holds a nail gun to her brother's spine and tries to decide if she should kill him, she is "in exactly the same position in which Harriet Vanger had found herself" (Epilogue.206). She asks herself, "How many more women would Niedermann kill if she let him go?" (Epilogue.206). Ultimately, Salander, like Harriet, decides not to kill.
Why? It's not fully explained, leaving us lots of room to speculate. Does Salander choose not to kill for the same reasons Harriet does? Does Salander value Niedermann's life in some way? Or is she simply unwilling to sacrifice her hard-won freedom in order to rid the world of a predator? As she notes, if she kills Niedermann and is caught, she'll probably be convicted of murder. She can't claim self-defense, since Niedermann is nailed to the floor. We leave these deep questions in your capable hands.
The Girl Who Doesn't Have an Eating Disorder
"I eat when I'm hungry." (27.127)
During Salander's trial, Giannini and Salander spend a lot of time discrediting claims that Salander is a self-destructive person who mutilates her own body out of self-hatred. Teleborian testifies that Salander's refusal to eat when she was confined to St. Stefan's was due to an eating disorder. In fact, she refused to eat because "that bastard [Teleborian] was mixing psychotropic drugs into [her] food" (27.111).
In all three novels, author Larsson makes a point to show us that Salander has basically healthy eating habits. Notice, for example, that she always eats some kind of breakfast ("toast with cheese and marmalade and coffee" (Epilogue.81) in this book). And yes, Salander is seriously addicted to Billy's Pan Pizza. But, we never see her overeat or even think about food all that much except as a practical necessity. She exhibits none of the symptoms of having an eating disorder.
You might be wondering, "Why is Shmoop making such a big deal about this?" Well, it's because some reviewers (we won't name any names here – you know who you are) still refer to her as "anorexic" and otherwise claim she has an eating disorder! So, we are just trying to set the record straight. Salander has some problems and issues, but food isn't one of them.