The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features extremes of friends and enemies. Mikael Blomkvist and Erika Berger's twenty-year friendship is the cornerstone of their lives, yet it isolates others they might also try to befriend. In contrast, Lisbeth Salander and her guardian, Nils Bjurman, begin a hideous showdown that brands them enemies for life. When Salander and Blomkvist finally meet in Chapter 18, both of their lives are dramatically changed. For all the wars waged in the novel, at its heart there are decent people struggling to figure out love, friendship, trust, and all that good messy stuff.
Some of the moral and ethical issues in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are straightforward: Nazism = bad; murder, rape, torture, physical abuse = bad; global financial fraud and organized crime = bad. But it's what happens while Salander and Blomkvist try to fight such evils that presents us with a variety of moral and ethical dilemmas. Salander and Blomkvist both have serious moral codes but they sometimes disagree about ethics and methodology. Salander has absolutely no problem prying into the lives of others. Like many fictional vigilantes, from Batman to Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies, she fights the bad guys with their own tools. And that means violence. Blomkvist is faced with the moral and ethical dilemma of his life when he's asked to agree to the cover up of Martin's crimes, to save Harriet and the Vanger Corporation from public disgrace. Since Stieg Larsson dedicated his life to social activism, it's no surprise that morality and ethics are a central theme in his novels.
The family drama in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes on soap-opera proportions. The Vanger family is super wealthy and influential but, as Blomkvist soon learns, also "clearly dysfunctional" (9.138). To find out why and how Harriet Vanger disappeared in 1966, 36 years prior, Blomkvist and Salander have to comb through one hundred years of Vanger family history, Nazis and all. And what they uncover is not pretty.
But, the Vanger family isn't where the discussion on family stops. Blomkvist has unconventional views on family, and finds more success in friendships with benefits than married with children. For example, his relationship with his teen daughter is a problem area for him. Salander's family is largely mysterious, though we learn a tiny bit about her mother and sister. Salander's family history is a focal point of the next installments of the trilogy.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo moves back and forth between consensual, pleasant sex and hideous rapes. The positive, happy sex (of which there's a fair amount) is sexy but understated, without graphics. It's as much about exploring relationships and trying to find intimacy and trust as it is about physical pleasure. Blomkvist and Salander, both sexual adventurers, end up taking down sexual predators. The rapes are recounted and remembered in details too lurid for some readers, who feel that the depictions contribute to problems of sexual assault. Other feel the graphic details are necessary to wake readers up to the issue. As with Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, a novel that probably shared the bestseller list with Tattoo at some point, this story constantly contrasts consensual sexual relationships with abusive, non-consensual ones.
We've got a very violent novel on our hands here. Much of the violence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is sexual, but other forms of physical violence plus verbal and psychological violence are explored too. This is tricky because Lisbeth Salander, the novel's star, is pretty violent herself. She has violent thoughts even toward good guys, like Blomkvist. She uses violence to get revenge, and to exact what she sees as justice on her enemies and other predators. And she has no qualms about her aggressive methods. By contrast, Blomkvist is never physically violent that we've seen. But he uses his pen like Salander uses her taser, to get revenge and to fight for causes he thinks are just.
A big chunk of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is set on a remote Swedish island mostly owned and inhabited by the Vanger family. It also features several isolated cabins, a bedroom torture chamber, and a serial killers basement. These isolated settings work with the isolated mindsets of the main characters. Henrik Vanger is shut off from everything by his obsession with Harriet's disappearance. If Blomkvist wasn't isolated by his recent professional disgrace, he would never have jumped on board to help Henrik. Salander is perhaps the most isolated character of all –she's the novel's true outsider. Even Martin has a life full of friends and family who love him. But Salander is isolated from even her friends by her legal status and her lack of trust. We are also asked to feel the isolation of minor characters – Martin's victims, the women who spent their last days and hours in his windowless, soundproof chamber of horrors.
The 36-year-old mystery of Harriet Vanger makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seem like one gigantic cold case. Blomkvist and Salander journey deep in Vanger family history, struggling, like the readers, to pick out the important suspects. In the process, they discover very present and very horrific crimes. Tattoo seems to make an argument about history: studying it is important, and can help us make the present a safer and more just place. Tattoo also sets us up for a journey into Salander's past in the next two books. Apparently, she has some dark memories the narrator doesn't share with us.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo celebrates unofficial agents of justice and finds official justice wanting. Blomkvist is almost official. He works with official bodies, not against them, though he's the first guy to take down a corrupt official or person in power. But official systems have failed Salander miserably, and she sees such systems as contributing to the overall evil in the world – they can't be trusted with matters of justice, in her book. Now, whether or not we agree with her methods or her assessment is another story. She is clearly fighting people who victimize others, particularly women. And she is, for the most part, a good judge of character. But it's up to you, the reader, to be the ultimate judge of right and wrong in this story. Tattoo is also very concerned with how Salander in particular is judged and misjudged by the social welfare system, and by most of the people who meet her. In general, this novel tries to shake up our thinking on issues of justice and judgment.
Sexy sleuths Salander and Blomkvist love their technology and they sure need it for their work. Computers and other reproductive technology (printing, photography) are integral to the plot. While good technology can do nothing for the sloppy detective, these unsloppy detectives use technology to fell dangerous financial villains, solve cold cases, and uncover serial killers. Without photographic technology and hackers willing to trace phone calls, Blomkvist would have had to work much harder to crack the case of Harriet Vanger. Salander, on the other hand, uses technology to steal millions of dollars, and to exact revenge on her sadistic guardian.