Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Dragon-Tattoo-jpgI was skeptical about reading The Girl with Dragon Tattoo. I don’t usually allow book reviews to guide my choices in reading materials, but this particular book received a lot of attention from the press, both good and bad, and the sheer volume of copies sold must be some indication that I should at least put it on my to-be-read list. But, I kept putting it off. Then, last year I read a scathing review of the book that not only made me think deeply about how I will publicly discuss the work of other writers, but also that this book needed to be bumped up the list, because I needed to see for myself why it was generating such outcries of love and hate. Prior to reading the first novel, I saw the American film version of the text starring Daniel Craig. I enjoyed this film adaptation, but it in no way did justice to the depth and breadth of Larsson’s literary mystery chock-full of Scandinavian history (real and imagined), commentary on contemporary Swedish society and its inherent evils, and meta-fictional references to the mystery genre and works by other mystery writers. I fully intend to watch the Scandinavian films, but not before I read the rest of the novels. I’m hooked. Lisbeth Salander quickly became one of my favorite fictional characters, and I can’t wait to see what adventures and self-discovery awaits her in the next two books.

Stieg Larsson created some very interesting villains in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but are they really some of the most evil in literature? And, more importantly, do they receive the punishment they deserve in the end? Before I begin discussing how satisfying I found Larsson’s villains, and also how happy I was with their punishments, I think it is important to identify who these villains are and what makes them uniquely evil. I’m going to talk about the villains in order of what I consider the most heinous and despicable/terrifying acts committed in the novel. I count a total of six villains (possibly more if I dig a little deeper in to human behavior and psychology) in the novel, both literal and metaphorical.

Since they are such low-hanging fruit, I’ll begin with the Vanger family – a lineage of inappropriate and malicious people who spend their lives in denial about the horrors they participate in and witness. If they weren’t so rich and deeply entrenched in the lies they tell themselves and the public at large, I might almost be inclined to feel sorry for some of them, but I don’t.

  1. Martin Vanger has the most kills under his belt. He has a long history, roughly 40 years, of not only killing, but also fantasizing about, stalking, planning, abducting, and torturing his female victims. By all outward appearances, he seems to be the biggest evil in the novel. He fits the role of serial killer, but as he explains to Mikael Blomkvist after luring him to his dungeon of horrors, he sees himself as a serial rapist. Murder is simply a by-product of his evil compulsion to cover up the abduction, torture, and rape. To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to. Serial killer or serial rapist, if you kill each of your victims after brutally torturing, raping, and reducing them to psychological jellyfish, what difference does it make what you call yourself? Ah, semantics.
  2. Gottfried Vanger was not only a Nazi (it’s hard to get much more evil than that), but also a serial rapist/murderer and child molester. I waffled between putting him at the top of the list given the fact that his unique perspective on parenting created Martin Vanger. While I read, I kept thinking about how disgusting it would be to keep company with a man like Gottfried, but I also asked myself if Larsson went a bit overboard in depicting this villain. Is Gottfried Vanger too monstrous to be believable even as a fictional character? A drunken Nazi who molests both of his children, forces them to have sex with each other, and considers serial murder a family outing. Too far? Some readers might think so, but the list of atrocities committed by actual serial murderers and rapists would give Gottfried a run for his money.
  3. Nils Bjurman uses his position of power to take advantage of Lisbeth Salander, and possibly other young women who have been at his mercy as wards of the state. While Bjurman’s taste in bondage and domination and other sexual practices will be enough to put many readers off, it is the non-consensual aspect of his practices that turn my stomach. Creating a character who is into fetishes such as these is a clichéd and lazy way of depicting a villain. Not all bondage is evil, but if all of the participants aren’t on board with what is happening, there’s a problem. Bjurman is a sadist. He uses his authority to humiliate and sexually abuse Lisbeth, and although she is unable to find any other victims in his spotless career record, that doesn’t mean other women like her haven’t slipped through the cracks due to fear and intimidation.
  4. Hans-Erik Wennerström doesn’t seem all that monstrous at first glance when you compare him to the other villains in the novel. In fact, aside from being a cut-throat entrepreneur and rumors of his corporate misconduct (I mean, isn’t that how most people become successful in the business world – at least the old world system that made his success possible), we get very little indication that he is otherwise evil until the end of the novel when Salander reveals her detailed findings about his criminal activities obtained through high-tech spyware to Blomkvist. The one act that connects him to the other villains – his brutal treatment of a woman – still pales in comparison to the lifetime achievements of Martin and Gottfriend Vanger. Wennerström sends his minions out to threaten an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion by holding her head under water in a bathtub. Classic torture. He doesn’t even bother to get his own hands dirty. He sends his employees to handle inconveniences like pregnant girlfriends. He is essentially a gangster as Salander describes him, a business mogul with a history of corrupt dealings, ties to the Russian mob, and intimidation of anyone who threatens his way of life and authority, including Blomkvist and his ex-girlfriend. He’s a bully, and a coward in my book.
  5. Isabella Vanger is a lesser villain, but her lack of action, and therefore compliance in the molestation of both her children at the hands of her husband makes her a monster. One of the worst kinds of monsters in my opinion. Someone who denies the mistreatment of others to maintain their own well being and position of power. Many people will tell you that the horrors experienced by the Vanger children happened in a different age, a magical golden era where people could freely use and abuse each other for personal gain, and epic historical evils took root for decades, sometimes centuries – imperialism, slavery, the Holocaust, and the institutionalized oppression and domination of women and children – yep, the good old days. And, by placing these atrocities most of us would like to forget in a past, we somehow make these horrors and the people who committed them less threatening and…real. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a work of fiction. However, it examines a very real past where people joined the Nazi party and turned in their neighbors because they happened to be Jewish or somehow not Aryan enough. You know, real evil.
  6. Contemporary (or Modern) Swedish Society is the setting of the novel even though we spend a lot of time examining the past. Larsson uses the society as an over-arching theme that pulls all of the characters and plot lines together as he shines a light on the reality that violence against women is not only commonplace, but for many women in Swedish culture, an expected inevitability.
  7. So, those are the six most prominent villains I took note of in the novel. I’m curious to see what others have to say on the subject. Back to the questions posed at the beginning. Did I find the villains in this novel especially evil? Hm. Not particularly. Why? Mainly because they are mirror images of real people hiding in plain sight every day – our relatives, neighbors, co-workers, etc. Scary? Yes. Unsettling? Yes. But evil? I’m not sure where I fall on the spectrum of Good vs. Evil exactly, but if enough people commit similar acts of violence again and again throughout history, maybe we should just call that what it is: human behavior. Labeling those behaviors evil won’t make them go away. Meting out punishment for those behaviors may cull a few evildoers from the herd, but it won’t completely erase the compulsion to hurt others from the human psyche.

    The second question deals with whether or not I found Larsson’s punishments befitting of the crimes. In terms of genre fiction, no, the punishments of the worst villains seemed more like escapes to me. Death isn’t an ideal escape, but it beats having your crimes brought to the attention of public scrutiny. In both cases, the worst villains in the novel die suddenly and never come to justice. But, the reality is that in most cases, people who commit these kinds of atrocities often go unpunished for years, and some of their crimes aren’t discovered until after their deaths. In fact, most of the villains in the novel are essentially set free by dying. Harriet Vanger drowns her father, which I suppose is a punishment of sorts, but the punishment doesn’t fit his crimes and the act of killing her father ends up causing further torment for the abused girl. Martin dies in a car crash. Talk about never having to take responsibility for your actions. In fact, aside from paying reparations to the families of his victims and donating a substantial amount of money to charity, the Vanger family swept the whole we-have-two-serial-killers-in-the-family thing under the rug. So, in that case, the incorporation of reality in this work of fiction is satisfying to me.

    The only punishment that did satisfy me was the revenge Salander took after she was humiliated and brutally raped by Bjurman. After the first sexual assault in his office, we get a glimpse of Larsson’s take on Swedish society through the eyes of Salander. “In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status.” (249) We learn that Salander sees herself as a marginalized member of society that no one will take seriously if she reports the rape. “There was no point whimpering about it.” (249) But we also quickly learn she is not someone to take lightly. “On the other hand, there was no question of Advokat Bjurman going unpunished. Salander never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving.” (249) Although her initial attempt at punishing Bjurman goes horribly wrong, eventually she takes the upper hand and exerts her power over him. She humiliates him, tortures him, and limits his options for seeking more victims. Go, Salander!

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