Study Guide

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

By Stieg Larsson

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Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

Desert Snow

In the Prologue, Henrik Vanger, and Detective Inspector Gustaf Morell are given a clue that Harriet now lives in Australia. Just like every year since Harriet's been gone, Henrik gets a flower in the mail. This one is a Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette, your basic white flower. Here's our clue.

The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. (Prologue.13)

Morell and Vanger have too much of the wrong information, and too little of the right. They can't force meaning from what is obviously a clue to her disappearance. Partly, this is because they're utterly convinced she's dead.

The flower doesn't clue Blomkvist and Salander in to Harriet's whereabouts either. They don't even bother with the flowers. Eventually, they find Harriet the old-fashioned way: by scaring Anita Vanger into calling Harriet, and tracing the call. The flower functions more as a symbolic clue than a practical one.

The flower is a symbol of miscommunication. Harriet intends to communicate that she's alive and well through her annual gifts, in the tradition she'd followed since she was eight. But, because Henrik is certain she's dead, he thinks the flowers are sent by her killer to remind him that something awful happened to her. They become a horrible symbol of an unsolved murder. When he finally learns the truth, the flowers take on a whole new meaning.

The Desert Snow flower, which Henrik gets on November 1, 2002, can also be seen as a symbol of Harriet herself. She is a Swedish woman (snow) living in Central Australia (desert). Pretty cute, right?

Body as A Map of Salander's Past

The next books fill in the pieces of Salander's past for the readers and, perhaps, some of the meaning behind her tattoo. We do have some clues. After Salander is raped by Nils Bjurman she goes to a tattoo shop and has "a simple little […] narrow band […] put on her ankle" (14.12).

When the tattoo guy asks her if she's certain she wants another tattoo, she says, "It's a reminder" (14.16). We can easily decode the symbolism here. Bjurman put a band around her ankle (and her other ankle, and her wrists) when he imprisoned her. This tattoo band is a reminder to never let anybody get hold of her that way again.

Likely, there's similar symbolic meaning to the other tattoos as well. They might just be a map of her past, on her body. OK, so she has the dragon, a rose, "a Chinese symbol" (11.2), a wasp, a band along the other ankle, and a band around her bicep. The wasp refers to her hacker name. Maybe the other ankle band refers to her stay in the psychiatric ward, another time she was restrained.

We don't know if Salander's dragon breathes fire, but the second book suggests that it might. As maddening as it is, this book also doesn't tell us what the rose, the Chinese symbol, or the band around her bicep symbolize. All the more incentive to read the other books! And, when you do, watch out for the way the tattoo map on Salander's body changes as she does.


The passport is a pretty nifty symbol. It's the key to Harriet's successful disappearance. Here's the basic scenario. Anita loans Harriet her passport so she can travel. Harriet marries Spencer Cochran under Anita's name. So, legally, Anita is married to Spencer, though she uses the name Vanger. Harriet gets a new passport, in the name of Anita Cochran.

We don't know how this whole thing works for taxes and such, but essentially Harriet and Anita share the same identity. Since Harriet/Anita's marriage to Spencer is registered in Sweden, if anybody had ever looked up Anita Vanger in the Swedish national registry, they would have found Harriet's address. As such, the passport becomes a symbol of a few things:

  1. Doubling and Tripling: Horror and mystery stories love doubles, and twins and doppelgängers, because such stories explore mistaken identity and the multifaceted nature/identity of human beings. The passport signals us to those aspects of the story.

    When Blomkvist learns that pictures he thinks are of Cecilia, but are really of Anita (Cecilia's younger sister) Harriet's doubling with Anita is foreshadowed. Cecilia and Anita are almost identical in looks.

    And Harriet is almost identical to them, except she has brown hair and they have blond. Harriet easily hides her roots, just like Salander hides her Pippi Longstocking locks (as discussed in her "Character Analysis") with dye. Watch out for more Cecilia-Harriet-Anita doubling and tripling in the next books in the series.

  2. Friendship: Anita literally saves Harriet's life by giving her the passport, and letting her share her identity. If letting somebody share your identity, and keeping their secrets isn't friendship, we don't know what is. As a symbol of their shared identity, the passport is a symbol of their friendship.

  3. Freedom/Imprisonment: Most obviously, the passport is a symbol of freedom and imprisonment. It gives Harriet the freedom to travel, to hide, to live a Martin-free life. But, because it's an identity shared with another person, and one she had to take on to hide her past and the killing of her father, it's a symbol that she's imprisoned by secrets. At the end of the novel, she seems to be picking back up her old identity – though we aren't sure how she'll explain all this to her kids.

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