The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson
Where It All Goes Down
Sweden, Switzerland, England, and Australia; November 1, 2002 – December 30, 2003
Break out the "herring and the aquavit" (1.52), the bacon pancakes, and, of course, Salander's staple, Billy's Pan Pizza (14.7). We're going to Stockholm, Sweden, kids! We're also taking a side trip to Zurich, Switzerland, where we'll help Lisbeth Salander steal billions of dollars. Oh yes, and we go with Blomkvist and Salander to London to trace phone calls. Of course, we also go Down Under with Blomkvist to find Harriet Vanger and bring her back to Hedeby Island.
Stieg Larsson's Sweden is gorgeous and seductive (or, some readers say, gloomy and depressing). It's a combination of chic yet rugged glamour in Stockholm and rustically functional glamour on fictional Hedeby Island. Hideous acts take place in both major settings. Plus, Salander and Blomkvist discover a series of rapes and murders committed around Sweden. These acts of brutality contrast with the beauty of the setting.
The present action of the novel begins on November 1, 2002 and ends on December 30, 2003, but it looks back over a hundred years to trace the history of the Vanger family. Harriet Vanger goes missing on September 24, 1966. Using this date as a focal point, Blomkvist and Salander uncover over fifty years of serial rape and murder of women by two serial killers, Gottfried Vanger and his son Martin.
While these broad sweeps of time are important, the small moments are equally so. For example, what would the novel be without the moment when Mikael Blomkvist discovers Salander has a photographic memory? Or the moment Salander discovers she's in love with Blomkvist?
What Happens on Hedeby Island, Stays on Hedeby Island
First, you can click here to view and even print Stieg Larsson's (translated) maps of fictional Hedeby Island. These make the action on Hedeby much easier to visualize. Most of the isolated island is owned by good ol' Henrik Vanger. As you can see in the maps, the various Vanger homes are clustered together in a complex. Blomkvist is staying in the smaller guesthouse right next to the bridge, practically on the water. For most of the novel, Henrik Vanger believes that Harriet was murdered somewhere on Hedeby.
Now, notice that Martin Vanger's house is farthest abode on one end of the island, and Gottfried's cabin is in the most isolated spot at the other end of the island. Gottfried's cabin, where Harriet was raped by Martin and Gottfried, and where she kills Gottfried is really, really isolated, echoing the isolation of Gottfried himself and of Martin and Harriet, whom he abused there.
Gottfried didn't (it seems) murder women in his cabin. But, it was the perfect place for him to abuse his children, without the rest of the clan catching on. By comparison, Martin's place isn't nearly as isolated. In fact, although the island itself is a bit cut off from others, the Vangers seem fairly smooshed together in a small area.
Being too close can also breed isolation. The point is, in spite of this closeness, Martin managed to pull off his crimes for at least 25 years, right under everybody's noses. If Salander and Blomkvist hadn't come along, he'd probably still be at it.
Hedeby is also a place shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Although Harriet's case is solved, and Martin and Gottfried's crimes are discovered, there are still tons of stories left on Hedeby Island. Many of them are entirely gruesome, and involve the many women murdered in Martin's basement.
But, these stories will never leave Hedeby, in a public sense. Yes, the people in the novel make the choice not to go public. But we can't help but think that Hedeby itself is gripping tightly to its secrets, and subtly inflicting its will on the characters.
Millennium Offices and Milton Security
Stockholm is home to Milton Security, where Salander works, and to the Millennium offices. No major action happens in these offices. These are very practical places. They are gateways through which private/secret information becomes public, or at least more public.
Millennium offices are also loosely based on the offices of Expo magazine, where Stieg Larsson served as editor-in-chief. We can't visit these offices (if they indeed exist) because they are, as a James Elroy character might say, strictly on the hush hush. That's because Expo is under threat from the neo-Nazi groups it seeks to hinder. Millennium also does dangerous work but its focus, at least in this novel, is on financial corruption and related matters.
For Salander, Milton Security is a way to earn a living wage while doing what she loves, without compromising her comfort zones (which she simply won't do). She also helps herself to Milton's surveillance equipment and vehicles, and basically does whatever she wants in the office, since she can manipulate the weak spots in Milton's own security system. Milton Security and the Millennium offices both take on larger roles in the next books.
Dungeons and Torture Chambers
Salander's guardian, the lawyer Nils Bjurman, transforms his bedroom into a torture chamber in about five seconds. He has all the elements he needs at his fingertips: surprise, strength, handcuffs, and, of course, an isolated place. Plus, he correctly surmises that Salander didn't tell anybody where she was going, and won't be missed for some time.
Bjurman's torture chamber is like foreshadowing for Martin's. Martin's is the total extreme case. Apparently, Martin's house was built in 1978. The room was supposed to a "safe" (25.107). Isn't that hideously ironic? For the women he imprisoned there over a twenty-five year period, and almost for Blomkvist, it's the most unsafe room in the world. It's also one of the most isolated. Not only is it in an isolated home in the already isolated Hedeby, but it's underground and it's soundproof.
Salander turns both dungeons against the men who have fashioned them. Bjurman's bedroom becomes a place of personal fear and horror for him. It becomes a place where Salander might show up any minute, with her taser and her tattoo gun. Similarly, Martin's plans are finally foiled by our golf club wielding hero, and when his gig is up, he takes his own life.
Bedrooms That Are Just Bedrooms
Luckily, most of the bedrooms in the novel are plain old bedrooms used for sleeping and reading. More often than not, they're also for sex, especially if Blomkvist is in the nearby vicinity. Salander's bedroom, Cecilia's bedroom, and Blomkvist's bedrooms (he has at least three in the novel) are all places of intimacy where a level of mutual trust is achieved. They are physically safe spaces, though not necessarily emotionally safe ones.
We don't see Blomkvist experience any heartbreak in this novel, but Berger, Cecilia, and Salander do get a bit out of whack when they don't get their fill of Mr. Blomkvist. Still, when Blomkvist is in the bedroom, there might be tension for the reader, but probably little anxiety. The partners are willing and we know Blomkvist isn't about to do anything creepy or weird. This is markedly different from the way we see Nils Bjurman's bedroom, or the dungeon in Martin Vanger's house, which became the final bedroom for so many women.
Children's Day Parade, September 24, 1966
Henrik Vanger is sure that whatever happened to Harriet happened on Hedeby Island. So, it takes Blomkvist some time to get around to the Children's Day Parade in Hedestad, the (fictional) industrial town near Hedeby. Blomkvist discovers that in one photo from the parade, Harriet is looking at someone in fear. Blomkvist manages to locate another photo showing who she's looking at – her brother Martin. Soon it's discovered that these two young people at the Children's Day parade had their childhoods blotted out by the things their father did to them, and that their mother failed to stop any of it.
For Henrik, Children's Day serves as an ironic reminder that some grave ill (or so he thinks) has come to Harriet. As we know, he gets it backwards. For Harriet, Children's Day is actually a day of liberation, of freedom from abuse and blackmail. In a sense, it's also the day she passes from a world where she's at the mercy of adults (a child) to one where she is an adult. Anita is not much older than she is, and she has Anita's passport. So, Harriet's a free and independent adult when she leaves Hedeby.
We could also say that starting on Children's Day, Harriet takes a journey toward innocence, toward the first truly safe existence she's experienced. Sure, her past haunts her. She's forever looking over her shoulder for Martin. She's forever worried that someone will come and arrest her for the killing of her father, or relate her embarrassing tale to her husband (now dead) and her kids. But, otherwise, she has a good and safe life.
There doesn't seem to be an official Children's Day in September or thereabouts, in Sweden or elsewhere. (Let us know if you know something we don't!) This Children's Day is probably a fictional creation, a fictional local holiday that helps us focus on the children's issues the novel raises.
Äppelviken Nursing Home
Äppelviken is where Salander visits her mother, who remains unnamed in this book. It's important to the overall effect of the story for a couple of reasons. First, seeing Salander being kind and loving to her mother shows the readers her soft side. This adds to the complexity of her character, and makes her more sympathetic.
Second, in just a few paragraphs, starting with (4.32), the nursing home scene sets things up for the next two books. It presents a couple of mysteries: a) why is Salander's mother in an old folks' home at only 46 years old? and b) who is Salander's sister Camilla, and why doesn't she visit Salander and her mother?
These mysteries are reinforced after her mother dies, when Salander is trying to run from her feelings for Blomkvist. We are told, "Her mother's death meant the wound would never heal, since she would never now get an answer to the questions she had wanted to ask" (27.65). Well, in this book, we don't even learn the questions, much less the answers. But, much will be revealed in the next two books. So, the only thing to do is read on.