Study Guide

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest Analysis

By Stieg Larsson

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The English language title refers to the major plot of the story – Lisbeth Salander, with lots of help from her friends, takes on the hornet's nest of lies and deceit which has made her life miserable for years. The main hornets who live in the nest: Peter Teleborian, the psychiatrist who is obsessed with Salander; her father, Alexander Zalachenko, former Russian spy and head of an international sex/drug trafficking ring; the Section, a secret group inside the Swedish Security Police who will protect the secrets of Zalachenko by any means.

    The original Swedish title is Luftslottet som sprängdes or The Air Castle That Was Blown Up. It doesn't focus on Salander like the English language title. Maybe this is because taking down the Section and Teleborian is a group effort. To blow up the air castle, to shatter the illusions that are allowing the victimization of Salander and hundreds, maybe thousands of children, lots of people need to be invested in bringing the truth to light.

    We see cooperation between The Constitutional Protection Unit of the Security Police, Millennium magazine, Milton Security, members of the police force, and the Hacker Republic. Blomkvist acts as ace diplomat negotiating between and protecting the different parties. In spite of the seeming hopelessness of the problems presented in this trilogy, the final installment shows a deep faith in humanity, and in our ability to work together toward a common good.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The Broader Ending

    We are pleased to report that the ending is happy. We're talking happy like a Shakespearean comedy happy. Shakespeare's gender-bending Twelfth Night comes to mind. That play begins in chaos and confusion, with the social order seriously out of whack. It has lots of secrets, intrigue, and splashes of vengeance. It ends with the social order restored, and there are lots of unions and reunions. Sounds a lot like the structure of Hornet's Nest, doesn't it? At the end of the book, most of the bad guys are exposed and captured; the truth is out; and Salander is free, rich, and has friends and lovers. But in neither the play nor the book are things this simple.

    While Salander is getting back together with her friends, Blomkvist and Figuerola are falling in love and Berger is reuniting with Millennium, Teleborian and Niedermann are probably plotting revenge. If Larsson had lived long enough to write the other seven or so Blomkvist-Salander novels he envisioned, these creeps might come back to do more evil. As it stands, they are locked in jail for all eternity, unless somebody takes over where Larsson left off and writes them out!

    The Very End: Blomkvist and Bagels

    Blomkvist: I assumed you would not have had breakfast yet, so I brought some filled bagels with me. (Dragon Tattoo, 18.5)

    Blomkvist: I've brought some bagels […]. And some espresso. (Hornet's Nest, Epilogue.251)

    Such symmetry! The long awaited reunion of Blomkvist and Salander echoes their first meeting, back in the first book. The end of Hornet's Nest is also the reverse of the ending of the first book. In that book, Salander and Blomkvist are lovers, until Salander thinks she's in love with Blomkvist. But, at the end of the book when she plans to proclaim her love to him, she sees him with Berger and decides to ban him from her life. Hornet's Nest ends with the revival of their relationship. We love the adorably simple final line: "She opened the door wide and let him into her life again" (Epilogue.261).

  • Setting

    Stockholm and Göteborg, Sweden; April 8 2005 - December 18, 2005

    The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest begins right where The Girl Who Played With Fire ends, just after Salander returns from the dead to bury an axe in her murderous father's face. Blomkvist finds her at Zalachenko's farm on the verge of death, with a bullet in her head, and calls for help.

    While Salander does vacation in Gibraltar, Spain, and she does fly to Paris for a reunion with Mimmi, most of the action is split between two majors settings – Sahlgrenska Hospital in Göteborg, Sweden and Stockholm, Sweden. Sahlgrenska is where Salander is recovering from the bullet to her brain and other injuries. Stockholm is where Blomkvist and his team, Milton Security, the Unit, the Section, and the police all play Spy vs Spy with each other. Stockholm is also where Salander awaits wait in jail for her trial and where she wins her freedom in court.


    As in the other two Salander-Blomkvist novels, cyberspace is an important part of the setting. In fact, the dangerous games being played are mostly won and lost in cyberspace. Blomkvist knows that Salander must have access to a computer and the Internet in order to prepare her defense and help take down the bad guys. When Blomkvist convinces Dr. Jonasson to smuggle Salander's Palm Tungsten T3 into the hospital he says, "This is the most important weapon Lisbeth has in her arsenal – she has to have it" (11.293). We think he's right.

    For example, Teleborian might not have faced charges or lost his job even though he was discredited as an expert on Salander. But, Plague, Salander, and the Hacker Republic are able to hack his computer and uncover the child pornography he trades with others (in cyberspace).

    Similarly, Salander and Plague must go into cyberspace to discover who is stalking Erika Berger. In the process, Salander and Berger are able to bond, and this probably softens Salander toward Blomkvist. Yep, and all that pinging back and forth between Blomkvist and Salander helps lay the ground work for their in-the-flesh reunion at the end of the novel.

    Sahlgrenska Hospital

    Hospitals and hospital-type places are important to all three books of the trilogy. In Dragon Tattoo Salander's visits to her mother in Äppelviken nursing home help us see, among other things, Salander's caring side. Her visits to her ex-guardian and good friend Holger Palmgren at his rehabilitation center in Fire have a similar effect. Fire also introduces us to the horrors Salander faced at St. Stefan's psychiatric clinic, where she was falsely imprisoned and tormented by Dr. Teleborian.

    Sahlgrenska hospital, where Salander recovers from Zalachenko and Niedermann's attempt to kill her, is a stark contrast to St. Stefan's. Why? Well, when Salander was in St. Stefan's there were very few people who cared about her and nobody brave enough to stop Teleborian from abusing her. At Sahlgrenska, though, there's a whole army of people devoted to her safety. In St. Stefan's she had the sadistic Teleborian looking out for her; in Sahlgrenska, she has the kind and intelligent Dr. Jonasson.

    Being protected from those who wish her harm, while remaining connected with the outside world, makes Salander's hospital stay, as she tells Plague, positively "Restful" (15.92) in spite of the lack of pizza. After Gullberg kills Zalachenko, Salander has a chance to relax and write her autobiography, a document which will help her win back the freedom.

    The Brickworks

    Finally it was over.

    The story that had begun on the day she was born had ended at the brickworks.

    She was free. (Epilogue.230-232)

    Hornet's Nest just wouldn't be complete without some kind of torture chamber. Take Nils Bjurman's bedroom and Martin Vanger's underground room in Tattoo, or Salander's bedroom at St. Stefan's and her premature grave in Fire. Here we have the abandoned brickworks, Salander's inheritance from Zalachenko. When she learns of its existence, she tries not to be curious, but can't help herself. She has to check it out. As she explores the old warehouse, readers realize along with Salander that the place was used to imprison women in Zalachenko's sex trade, and at least two dead bodies are on the premises.

    Of course, this is also where Salander makes sure the police get hold of all the remaining hornets (members of Svavelsjö Motorcycle Club), and we see Salander and Niedermann face off in one of the most gruesome cases of sibling rivalry we know of. As we talk about in "Characters: Lisbeth Salander," Salander's decision to leave Niedermann to the police instead of killing him might be part of what makes her feel so free. If she'd killed Niedermann she might once again be a wanted women, having to defend her actions in a court of law.

    Millennium and SMP

    SMP, where Erika Berger takes on the job as editor in chief, is a huge newspaper controlled by men who don't respect Berger or even consider her ideas. When Salander reads the SMP board's correspondence, while tracking Berger's stalker, she wonders, "Why the hell had this group of boys hired Berger at all, if all they did was tear her limb to limb?" (21.13).

    Good question. They certainly didn't hire her to cut their personal profits in order to beef up the news team and update equipment, which is what Berger wants to do. Likely, they thought they could use her famous face to attract new readers, while bending her to their will. SMP provides an intense contrast to Millennium, where Berger is respected and valued, as are all the staff members.

    Above all, quality and devotion to the truth define Millennium. Certainly there is quality news being put out at SMP, but as a daily paper, this is harder to achieve than with a monthly. This challenge is part of what attracts Berger to the position. Likely, she would have greatly improved the quality of the news coming out if she'd been given real control, instead of in name only.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, each of the novel's four parts begins with an epigraph. The epigraphs are full-page essays. These essays suggest that Stieg Larsson was doing some serious research on women warriors. Would you believe us if we told you he was doing more than just research; he was actually helping to train women to be warriors? It's been recently confirmed that Larsson spent part of 1997 training female guerrillas warriors in Eritrea to use grenade launchers! (source).

    All in all, the essays seem to be making several major arguments, as follows:

    1. Males and females are equally fit for combat, and women have been major players in every battle in history.
    2. Women's roles as warriors have been covered up throughout history, creating a stereotype that women aren't fit for war. Legends, like those about breast amputation, perpetuate that stereotype.
    3. Female's roles in battle need to be better recognized in history, and stereotypes that claim women aren't equally capable at the arts of defense need to be recognized as untrue.

    These arguments play out in Hornet's Nest. It's not hard to see that the novel is interested in female warrior types. Among these are Salander, Berger, Figuerola, Linder, and Giannini. All are engaged in outright battles to protect the public from injustices. They range in size, shape, and age, bull all are equal in skill to their male colleagues. This helps make an argument that there is no ideal size, shape, or age for warriors in criminal justice, law, journalism, personal protection, or hactivism. What's important is dedication, training, skill, technology (including weapons), and a thirst for the truth.

    The problem given most attention in the Blomkivst-Salander novels is violence against girls and women. All three novels seem to make an underlying argument that if females are trained in the arts of weaponry and self defense, the problem of violence against women would be minimized. Add this to the epigraphs and we get an argument that goes something like this:

    Recognizing that females are equally qualified as males to act as warriors, and encouraging females to do so, will also minimize violence against women. In other words, if we get rid of the stereotype that females are biologically less suited as warriors than men, tons of other stereotypes would fall apart, and society would become more balanced and, perhaps, less violent.

    Now, what do you think of all this? Some might consider Larsson's arguments pretty radical. What would a pacifist have to say about it? Do you think males and females are equally suited to the arts of defense? Do you think that if more women were armed there would be less violence? Do you think young people of one/both sexes should be trained to defend themselves, and to own and use weapons? Why, or why not?

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


    Apparently, people have been getting tattoos for over 5000 years, but they've only recently gained popularity in Western culture (source). To say they've gained popularity is a bit of an understatement. There's a tattoo explosion going on around us. Yet, having tattoos are still controversial in Western and other societies.

    In our discussion of symbols in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo we suggest that Salander's tattoos are a map of her past, and we hope to learn more about them in the future. In The Girl Who Played With Fire Salander has the wasp tattoo on her neck removed. Wasp is her hacker name and she fears the tattoo is too conspicuous. In this, the final novel of the trilogy, tattoos seem to symbolize several things, even though we never learn the meaning of Salander's rose tattoo or her tattoo of a Chinese symbol.

    Privacy, Pain and Beauty

    Salander won't discuss her tattoos with Dr. Jonasson, but she does she show him her dragon tattoo. He says, "It's beautiful, but it must have hurt like hell" (9.125). She replies, "Yes, […] it hurt" (9.126). Salander's tattoos are not like books that the public is free to analyze. Yet, she does allow select people to appreciate the beauty of them, beauty that can be seen as something born of great pain and suffering. Salander's ability to transform her suffering into something beautiful is revealed in pondering her tattoos.


    After Nils Bjurman rapes Salander in Tattoo, she tattoos "I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST" (14.93) on his belly. This is not just vengeance but her version of justice. She tattoos him to deter him from showing himself to women he might abuse. When he dies, the tattoo is a clue that he probably raped somebody. Eventually everybody learns that that somebody is Salander.


    At her trial, Teleborian testifies that Salander's tattoos "are no normal measure of fetishism or body decoration" (26.80) but rather "a manifestation of self hate" (26.71). Salander's lawyer announces that she herself has a tattoo and asks Teleborian "At what percentage of tattooed body surface does it stop being fetishism and become mental illness?" (26.83). He's at a total loss for words. Plus, he's trying to say that Salander's tattoos are evidence that she is dangerous to herself, and justify his keeping her in restraints for hundreds of days when she was a teen. As Salander's lawyer points out, she got the tattoos long after she was at St. Stefan's. All in all, Salander's tattoos help her win in court and help her get the declaration of incompetence revoked. Salander is free to have tattoos and to live as a citizen in her native land.


    When Millennium reporter Henry Cortez asks the question, "why are apartments so f***ing expensive?" (11.109), he learns that one answer is "toilets." A Swedish company is using child labor in Vietnam to manufacture toilets cheaply. They then sell the toilets at exorbitant prices to construction companies, driving up the cost of apartments. Toilets, here, are symbol of how investigating something as seemingly small and insignificant as the price of a toilet can reveal pockets of corruption in society that directly impact the ordinary person trying to find a reasonably-priced place to live.

    Duct Tape

    He had found a roll of duct tape and had used it to close the wounds. The medics remarked that this, in their experience, was a brand new form of bandage. (1.74)

    Nothing says friendship like duct tape to the wounds. Blomkvist has to go Jason Bourne to save Salander from the wounds inflicted by her dad and bro. The duct tape becomes a symbol of Blomkvist's grace under pressure, his ability to improvise, his ability to use the tools available to him in the world to make a positive difference. Duct tape is also a symbol of Blomkvist's extreme toughness, as well as his extreme softness. He duct tapes Salander to save her life, just like she saved his in the first installment of the trilogy.

    • Allusions

      Literary, Mythological, and Historical References

      • The American Civil War (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • The Amazons (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • Winston Churchill (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • Joseph Stalin (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • Semiracas (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • Nineveh (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • Boudicca (Epigraph to Part 1)
      • Homer, The Iliad (Epigraph to Part 2)
      • Hippocrates (Epigraph to Part 2)
      • Galen (Epigraph to Part 2)
      • Saddam Hussein (10.25)
      • Dioduras (Epigraph to Part 3)
      • Queen Myrina (Epigraph to Part 3)
      • Bill Clinton (16.166)
      • Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta (Epigraph to Part 4)

      Pop Culture References

      • CSI (17.253)