Study Guide

Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander, known for her "crooked smile," is one of the most intriguing characters to hit bookstores ever. She was born on Walpurgis Night, April 30th. This holiday marks the return of spring. On Walpurgis Night, Swedish people burn bonfires, traditionally to ward off witches and evil spirits, but also to get rid of garbage. (This will prove rather ironic when we get to The Girl Who Played With Fire.)

Salander is Irene Nesser and Monica Sholes when she stealing Wennerström's millions, and Wasp when she's hacking. Often, you won't even see her. She's behind the scenes, watching, listening, making things happen, anonymous. Salander's appearance (tattoos, piercings, provocative T-shirts, spiky hair, short skirts) and her unusual mannerisms give those who encounter her plenty of room to misjudge and stereotype her.

Hmm. Miss Salander seems rather familiar…. The awesome mental processing, the questionable morality, the cold gaze, the difficulty interacting "normally" with people, the seeming lack of emotion, the underground pursuit of justice, the holding back of information from the cops and other authorities, the use of technology and scientific reasoning to solve crimes…. Why, she's a lot like our good old famous British friend from the 1890s, Sherlock Holmes, who has influenced just about every detective that came after him.

We also wouldn't be surprised to find her in an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or a chapter from X-Men. But no chemical agent transforms Salander into the daring, troubled, vigilante genius we see before us. She was born with her powers (like Holmes) and, as future books explore more deeply, she was transformed by corrupt people in the mental health and social welfare system, among other things. As strong as Salander is, she's very vulnerable and full of self-doubt. She's isolated by the mysterious trauma of her past, and by her official status as a mentally ill person. Not wanting her friends to find out stops her from turning to them for help when she really needs it.

With a photographic memory, a proclivity for snooping, and a genius for hacking, she's the perfect private investigator-vigilante. She uses her PI work to make a living and, more importantly, to expose corrupt individuals. Certainly, many would argue that Salander herself is corrupt. She is a never-ending moral quandary. Whatever we think of her moral code, we admire her desire to protect those who can't protect themselves.

Based On…

In a rare interview, Stieg Larsson said:

I picked up Pippi Longstocking. What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would she be called? Sociopath? DAMP-child? She has a different view of society than others. […] I made her into Lisbeth Salander, 25 years old, with a feeling of being a total outsider. (source)

Pippi Longtocking, real name Pippi Långstrump, is the redheaded, pointy-braided child star of Swedish author Astrid Lindgren's beloved series of ten stories. And yes, Salander is indeed a redhead, though she literally hides her Pippi-roots by dying her hair black.

At one point Salander has a metafictional moment, and takes a swipe at her author, saying, "Sombody'd get a fat lip if they ever called me Pippi Longstocking on a newspaper placard" (2.104). We thinks she doth protest too much! In The Girl Who Played With Fire we see that Salander takes her Pippi-ness quite seriously.

Both Salander and Pippi use questionable methods to serve what they consider to be a greater good, and both have a fierce moral code. Both are alone in the world at a young age, and both have some pretty amazing powers. Pippi's so strong she can lift horses, and Salander makes up what she lacks in strength with technology, brainpower, and nerve.

Pippi is always smiling. For fun, count the times Salander smiles her "crooked smile," and for bonus points, find where she smiles her "crooked non-smile." We promise you, the parallels and non-parallels don't stop there. So, if you're looking for what to read next, might we recommend Pippi?

Salander's Principles

"I call them Salander's Principles. One of them is that a bastard is always a bastard, and if I can hurt a bastard by digging up s*** about him, then he deserves it." (18.160)

Critic Nick Cohen says, "As a just avenger, Lisbeth Salander is a worthy successor to Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, because Larsson was certain of the righteousness of her cause" (source). Like Dantès, Salander employs a variety of disguises and personas in order to mete out her revenge and, perhaps, to distract us from the real Salander within.

But, the real Salander within is in part her avenger personality. Getting revenge on men who abuse women is her life's work, the driving force behind many of her actions. What events in her past formed this particular interest? Sorry, but you'll have to read the next book to find out!

Before she saves his life, Mikael Blomkvist thinks Salander is "an information junkie with a delinquent child's take on morals and ethics" (21.9). In turn, she finds him "unbearably naïve with regard to certain elementary moral issues" (29.15). She thinks, "he would never get it that the raptors of the world only understood one language" (29.15). The language she's referring to is the language of violence, brute force, and cunning.

Of people like Martin and Gottfried, she says, "If I had to decide, men like that would be exterminated, every last one" (27.124). In Salander's world, there's no room for compromise. If a man hurts a woman, he deserves to die or to be punished in a such a way that he can't repeat his crimes. In this way, she poses an ethical dilemma for the readers. Each of us must decide how we feel about her actions, her methods, and her take on morality and ethics.

Salander and Blomkvist

Salander's greatest fear, which was so huge and so black that it was of phobic proportions, was that people would laugh at her feelings. (Epilogue.125)

From the book jacket, we know right from the start that Salander and Blomkvist will meet. But it takes half the book for this to happen! It's about as maddening as waiting for Bella and Edward to get together in the second Twilight book. When Salander's looking for somebody to turn to when Bjurman first rapes her, we think, "Blomkvist!" Of course, when she does meet Blomkvist, the last thing she wants to do is tell him her secrets.

We can't forget the intense shame Salander feels about her life. She often worries often about what the people she knows will think of her if they find out. This constant self-doubt contrasts intensely with her supreme self-confidence in so many other situations (think: golf club; think: Zurich). She's confident in her role as an avenger, but not in her role as a plain old human being, and not as someone beloved.

Ironically, Blomkvist would be the best person in the world to tell. He is the one who's least prone to judge her of anybody. If he knew about her life, he would be entirely supportive. On some level, she does know this. He already accepts everything about her, doesn't judge her, try to wrangle her secrets out of her, or hide from her. He doesn't have any problem with the fact that she's a hacker. This is why she falls in love with the guy. This love pushes her to face her greatest fear, as expressed in the quote up top.

Sadly she forgets who he is, a man with a lover who's been neglected by him for the past year, Erika Berger. If she'd thought it through she might have guessed he'd be with Berger at the end of the novel, and called first. Salander betrays herself as a romantic, caught up in the idea of surprising her lover with a declaration of her devotion. It's so sad that the moment she lets her guard down, she gets smacked again. But that's just the way it is sometimes. Will Blomkvist ever know of her love, of her secrets? Is there a romantic prayer for this dynamic due?

Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's syndrome, [Blomkvist] thought. Or something like that. A talent for seeing patterns and understanding abstract concepts where other people perceive only white noise. (27.98)

A quick look at Asperger's syndrome shows us that Larsson intended Salander to meet the description of a person with the syndrome. Here are a few of the "symptoms" cited by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Displaying unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures
  • Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects […]
  • Appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others' feelings
Sounds like our girl, doesn't it? Asperger's is most often represented as an incurable neurological disorder, a subtype of autism. Yet, Blomkvist sees it as a talent, something positive. So, we weren't surprised when our search for "Asperger" and "Benefits" yielded another vision of the syndrome.A website devoted to supporting children with Asperger's notes that a range of geniuses, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Galileo, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, might have had Asperger's. (Though it admits we can't be diagnosing dead people.) Hans Asperger, who named the syndrome, said,for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. The essential ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical and to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways with all abilities canalized into the one specialty. (source)Through the character of Salander, we're asked think more deeply about the way various societies view people who diverge from social rules and norms. And it's asking us to consider ways in which societies can be more accommodating and understanding of these kinds of differences.

Salander and Armansky

Salander's boss Dragan Armansky says she's the best PI ever. But, he also thinks she's "headed for disaster" (21.139) and "the perfect victim for anyone who wished her ill" (21.139). She drives him completely nuts because she acts so darn weird and yet he's inexplicably attracted to her. She admits to sharing the attraction, but she doesn't fool around with married guys and definitely not with her boss.

She also feels pretty friendly toward Armansky and trusts him to a degree. But she sees him as a Boss, with a capital B, and she's afraid that if she asks him for help, or lets him deeper into her life, he'll boss her around and control her. So she pushes him away, and basically takes him for granted. She doesn't even speak to him when he comes to her mother's funeral. He understands she's upset, but Salander wears his patience thin. We see more of this complicated relationship in future books.


Sex seems to be as big a part of Salander's life as it is of Blomkvist's in spite of the shame she feels over her skinny body. In contrast to Blomkvist, she's almost always the initiator in any sexual encounter. We learn that as she was ending her teenage years, she has a few dozen sexual partners in just two years. This seems to be at a time when she felt most powerless in her life.

Her thoughts suggest she was using sex as an outlet for those feelings of powerlessness and possibly in a self-destructive way, often combined with lots of alcohol. We're told that when her life stabilizes with the job at Milton Security, sex becomes less of a focus of her life, and she has a safer and more intimate approach to it.

Salander has male and female lovers alike:

She did not give a damn about labels, did not see that it was anybody else's business who she spent her nights with. If she had to chose, she preferred guys. […] The only problem was finding a guy who was not a jerk, and who was good in bed – Mimmi was a sweet compromise […]. (18.2)

We don't actually meet Mimmi in this book, though she was in Salander's bed right before Blomkvist intrudes on Salander's apartment the morning they meet. Mimmi plays a bigger role in the rest of the trilogy. We also get new takes on Salander's sexuality as she grows in the books that follow Tattoo.

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