Study Guide

Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played With Fire

By Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander

Salander is the star of this show. Readers can't get enough of this pint-sized dynamo with a photographic memory, legendary detection and hacking skills, and lots of reasons to seek revenge. As discussed in our guide to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is inspired by the famous redhead Pippi Longstocking (source). You might have noticed that the nameplate on the door of Salander's fancy new apartment says "V. Kulla." Villa Villekulla is the name of the huge house where Pippi lives, all alone with her pet monkey. Did you know that Salander even has red hair, which she dyes black?

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander further alters her appearance by having her wasp tattoo and most of her piercings removed, her breasts augmented, and her wardrobe improved. Likewise, her mind is changing too. She's getting deep into the study of math, trying to make friends, and trying to lead a 'normal' life without a lot of drama. (Good luck with that!)

In Tattoo, Salander focuses on helping Blomkvist learn the secrets of Harriet Vanger's tragic childhood. In Fire, Salander's own past is the object of mystery. She'll learn the real reason she was declared incompetent and is still under guardianship of the state as an adult. She's 26 for most of The Girl Who Played with Fire, though the prologue flashes back to her 13th birthday, when she's strapped to a bed in St. Stephan's Psychiatric Hospital. The novel ends a few weeks before her 27th birthday.

We know from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that her birthday is April 30, Walpurgis Night. In Sweden, Walpurgis night is celebrated by burning bonfires, traditionally to ward off evil witches and spirits. Since we know that fire is Salander's weapon of choice to use against the novel's arch-villain, Alexander Zalachenko, her birthday is rather fitting, don't you think?

Crime and Salander

When we were read Tattoo we were somehow reminded of Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic Russian novel Crime and Punishment (30.172), but there is no real solid connection we can point to. So, when we see Salander reading Crime and Punishment in Fire, just before she goes to Zala's farm, we get pretty excited; it all starts to make sense – especially when we know that Zala, Salander's father, is Russian. Aha, Salander! Your well hidden Russian literary roots are exposed!

The two books share an obsession with abuses of women and girls in society. They both love putting forth multiple points of view on a variety of social issues and interrogating notions of justice, judgment, and crime.

There are some parallels between Raskolnikov (hero of Dostoevsky's novel) and Salander as well. They are both attracted to and repulsed by people, and spend lots of time alone, obsessing. They both have lots of people who care about them and want to help them, and they are both utterly unaware of this fact.

Like Salander, Raskolnikov seems split between committing crimes and acting as an agent of justice. He "rescue[s] two little children from a house on fire and was burnt in doing so is burned himself" (Epilogue.1.4); he loans all his money to a fellow student; he goes out of his way for the Marmeladov family; and he helps thwart the plans of some of the novel's predators. But, he also murders two elderly women with an axe.

Yes, we said axe. Salander tries to kill her elderly father with an axe, too. But is this enough to form a parallel? Her father has terrorized her life and has just buried her alive. He's also behind countless murders and other horrible crimes. So, the spirit of vengeance is upon her. But Raskolnikov kills two defenseless elderly women.

We could think of it like this – Raskolnikov intends to kill the elderly pawnbroker (among other reasons) because she's an abusive woman who cheats her clients and beats her mentally challenged sister. But, something goes wrong, and he ends up killing the sister, too. Although Raskolnikov is way more confused and a thousand times weirder than Salander, they are both reaching for justice in their own ways – with an axe. They are both meant to challenge our notions of justice and judgment, and provoke debate over issues of crime and punishment.

Her Flaws

OK, it probably sounds like we worship Salander a little. But can we help it? She's just too fabulous. However, we have to admit that Salander is far from perfect. For one, she doesn't allow herself to trust those who really care about her (like Blomkvist and Mimmi). This keeps her really isolated. If she'd only asked Blomkvist, Armansky, and Paolo Roberto to help her, she could have whipped Zala. But, no. For Salander, asking for help is one of the most difficult things in the world.

Another flaw is this: When she gets overly emotional about something, she loses her head and makes mistakes. This happens several times in Fire. One mistake is when Salander gives Mimmi her apartment, which is Salander's address of record, knowing that Salander has all sorts of enemies out there. Her act is out of friendship toward Mimmi, but in her excitement, she forgets to consider Mimmi's safety, and Mimmi gets kidnapped. Salander could have found a way to protect Mimmi, and give Mimmi the apartment, but she just doesn't think it through. Mimmi being kidnapped is what leads Salander to seek out a final vengeance against Zala.

Salander makes another mistake out of sheer vengeance. She wants payback against Zala for his crimes against her, her mother, and Mimmi. The strength of her emotion (perhaps clouded by the blood ties) leads her to neglect to consider that Zala would definitely have a security system at his farmhouse. So, instead of trapping her quarry, she winds up in his trap. He asks her, "Did you really think Zalachenko would sit in his little house in the country completely unprotected?" (31.30). She must feel so stupid at this moment! Lucky for her, Blomkvist eventually comes to her rescue, but at the end of the novel, she's hanging on to life by the merest thread. We sure hope the final installment of the trilogy has a happier ending.

Judging Salander

Salander is one of the most intensely judged characters we've seen. Everybody has an opinion about her, and these opinions vary widely. Fire provides many reactions to Salander:

  1. Nils Bjurman, her guardian and her rapist, thinks she's "a sick, murderous, insane f***ing person. A loose cannon. A whore" (2.102).
  2. Her ex-guardian and dear friend Holger Palmgren describes her as a "damn difficult child" (8.129), "the daughter he never had," and "a threat to national security" (30.157).
  3. Her ex-boss and almost friend Dragan Armansky says, "She is by far the best researcher [he's] ever had" (13.182), but that she has "an attitude problem" (8.25).
  4. Salander's social welfare file says she's mentally retarded.
  5. Mimmi says she's "smarter than anyone [Mimmi] know[s]" (20.17).
  6. The newspapers say Salander is a psychotic triple murderer, a lesbian, a Satanist, and a prostitute.
  7. The police think she might be involved in the sex trade.
  8. Blomkvist says, "She is a very lonely and odd person […]. Socially introverted. Doesn't like talking about herself. At the same time she is a person with a strong will. She has morals" (14.156).
There are glimmers of truth in some of these observations, and genuine understanding of Salander in others. On the other hand, some are complete Rita Skeeter-like rubbish, and others, like many of her psychiatric diagnoses and other social welfare reports, are totally fabricated. As readers, we're constantly weighing the observations of others against our own. In addition to revealing what others think about Salander, these observations offer insights into the observers. According to Fire's logic, how characters think about and talk about Salander tells us whether they are good, bad, or somewhere in between.
For more on Salander, check out our thoughts on her in Tattoo.