Study Guide

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Themes

By Stieg Larsson

  • Friendship

    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.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Would you be able to make friends with Salander? How would you do it?
    2. Who does Salander care most about? How does she become close to these people? How does she treat them? How do they feel about her?
    3. How do you feel about Blomkvist and Erika Berger's relationship? Is the most important ingredient in their relationship friendship or sex?
    4. Are Blomkvist and Henrik friends?
    5. How does Salander's friendship with Holger Palmgren change her life? Why does she leave him and not go back when she hears that he probably won't recover from his stroke?
    6. What do you think will happen to Salander's enemy, Nils Bjurman, in the next book?
    7. How would you describe Harriet's friendship with Anita?
    8. Do you think Martin and his girlfriend Eva Hassel had a genuine friendship? Is it possible that he didn't abuse her? Could she have known about what he did to other women?

  • Morality and Ethics

    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.


    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. We describe Salander as a "hacktivist" – a person who uses hacking for social justice. Do you agree with our assessment?
    2. If you were Blomkvist, would you have agreed to cover up Martin's crimes? Why does Blomkvist feel it's wrong to cover it up?
    3. Do you think Salander's right, that Harriet could have stopped Martin from becoming a serial killer?
    4. How does Blomkvist react when he realizes Henrik tricked him into taking the case by pretending he had information on Wennerström?
    5. Do you think Salander crosses the line on some moral and ethical issues? If so, which ones and why?

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. The novel doesn't precisely explain why no Vanger ever gets a divorce, even when spouses drop out of the picture or are abusive. What do you think the deal is?
    2. Three of Henrik's four brothers, including Martin's father, are Nazis. Is the novel connecting Nazism with rape and murder and incest? Do Martin and his Nazi great-uncles seem to share the same belief system?
    3. How will Cecilia, Harriet, Anita, and Henrik deal with the knowledge of Martin's crimes?
    4. Are there some positive depictions of family life in the novel?
    5. How would you describe Blomkvist's relationship with his daughter?
    6. The next two books in the trilogy deal with Salander's family history. What are you're your predictions about what we'll learn about Salander's past?
    7. Why is Henrik so sure that a family member hurt Harriet?
    8. Which family member did you suspect of hurting Harriet, if any?

  • Sex

    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.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Do you approve of Blomkvist's sex life, or do you feel it's just his own business?
    2. How would you describe Salander's attitude toward sex?
    3. Are the novel's depictions of rape too graphic? Not graphic enough?
    4. Why does Salander reveal some, but not all, of the details of Blomkvist's sex life in her report to Frode? Do you agree with him that she should have left all the details of his sex life out?
    5. Do you think Blomkvist is really worried about the age difference between himself and Salander? Do you think it's a problem?
    6. Why does Cecilia end her affair with Blomkvist?
    7. Does being raped by Bjurman change Salander's attitude toward sex? Why doesn't Salander report him?
    8. Do you agree with Salander that Harriet should have reported Martin to the authorities? Was it her responsibility to make sure that he didn't hurt other women?

  • Violence

    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.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Could Salander have saved Blomkvist from Martin without using violence?
    2. How do you feel about the violence Salander doles out to Bjurman? Did he get what deserved, or should she have reported him to the police instead?
    3. Does verbal violence usually lead to physical or sexual violence too, as we see in Bjurman's treatment of Salander?
    4. Does Isabella's failure to take action when Gottfried rapes her children, and when Martin rapes Harriet, constitute violence?
    5. How does Harriet's act of violence against her father impact her life? Do you think she feels guilty about it, or just afraid that she'll be found out and punished?
    6. Does Gottfried's violence against Martin explain why Martin turns out the way he does? What makes Martin choose the same path?
    7. Does Martin have a choice, or is he insane and doesn't know what he's doing?
    8. How might Blomkvist's experience with Martin in the basement impact his future life?

  • Isolation

    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.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Is Salander more or less isolated by the end of the novel? In what ways?
    2. Why does Henrik insist that a family member murdered Harriet on the secluded Hedeby island?
    3. In what ways might Bjurman's tattoo (courtesy of Salander) isolate him? Do you think it will keep him from hurting other women?
    4. Does the secret of Martin Vanger isolate those who know it?
    5. Is Blomkvist more or less isolated by the end of the novel?
    6. Why does Cecilia continue to live on Hedeby Island, instead of in a less isolated area?

  • Memory and the Past

    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.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. When the people who know about Martin are all dead, will the memory of his crimes be completely erased? Or do you think they'll leave the story for future generations?
    2. Is Martin's story important to Swedish history? Should it be published? Shared with law enforcement?
    3. Is it important to study history? Do you know your family's history? Could you write a book about your family's secrets? And should you?
    4. Is the comfort of the innocent Vangers who are still living, and of the innocent Vanger employees, more important than making public the stories of Martin and Gottfried?

  • Justice and Judgment

    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.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Is Salander a just avenger?
    2. How does Blomkvist's first impression of Salander differ from Armansky's?
    3. Salander refuses to submit to psychological tests. How valid are assessments of her mental health without completed tests? What other factor are used to analyze her condition?
    4. Does Salander judge herself too harshly? Not harshly enough?
    5. How does Blomkvist feel about covering up Martin's crimes? Does it serve justice?
    6. Is Blomkvist a good judge of character?
    7. What are some factors contributing to Martin's ability to fool everybody about his character?

  • Technology and Modernization

    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.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Is technology in Tattoo represented as generally positive for society? For the individual?
    2. Do you think hackers can play a positive role in society, or not?
    3. If Blomkvist hadn't figured out that Harriet was afraid of Martin from photographs, could he have solved the case?
    4. Which technologies are most important to your life? Which ones do you wish had never been invented? Does this novel change your outlook on technology at all?