The appeal of Lisbeth Salander

What a wonderfully energizing discussion of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series last night at Great Books! 

 In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction coincidences, guess who was across town at Boswell Books at the same time?  Eva Gabrielsson, speaking about her book “There Are Things I Want You to Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me.  When I mentioned this fact to the group, one woman called out, “Field trip!”  Another woman said that she had friends attending the Gabrielsson event and they were all going to meet at a restaurant later to compare notes on their respective “Millennium” evenings.

 One more coincidence: I just found out that yesterday, June 6th, was National Day of Sweden, a public holiday observing the election of King Gustav Vasa in 1523, which is considered the start of modern Sweden. 

 During our discussion last night, participants agreed with me that the series’ main draw is Lisbeth Salander.  Here are a few of the reasons we decided why.

 Lisbeth is a survivor.  Because her very existence is supposedly a threat to national security, she was locked up in a mental institution at age 12 and later kept under the thumb of a social welfare agency that “protected” her as a mental incompetent.  Lisbeth has been bullied and abused her entire life, and she has learned from bitter experience that if she turns to the authorities who are supposed to protect her, things will only get worse.  As a result, Lisbeth develops extreme self-reliance and circumvents the system to maintain her independence. 

Lisbeth is clever and resourceful.  After being shot in the head and buried alive, she manages to dig her way out of her grave.  And when cornered in the empty brickworks factory by Niedermann, the blond giant with superhuman strength and no sense of pain, Lisbeth escapes certain death by shooting dozens of seven-inch nails through his feet with a nail gun, thereby attaching him solidly to the floor and rendering him immobile.

Lisbeth has a strict moral code and is protective of those who are weaker.  She also has a strong sense of justice and sees to it that those who deserve punishment receive it.  Martin Vanger.  The man who tries to kill his wife on the beach during the hurricane in Grenada.  Hans-Erik Wennerström, the corrupt financier who tried to ruin Blomkvist.  Zalachenko.

Lisbeth does not suffer fools.  She sizes people up quickly and decides whether they are worth her attention.  If not, she ignores their existence.  Most authority figures are idiots.

Lisbeth is not what others assume from her appearance.  The police investigating the triple murders are continually flummoxed when all the people they interview provide accounts of Lisbeth’s intelligence and competence that are completely at odds with her officially documented mental disabilities. 

Lisbeth is intelligent and curious.  Although she dropped out of school (no tolerance for incompetent teachers and administrators), Lisbeth spends much of The Girl Who Played with Fire reading a book on math theory and scribbling equations in a notebook.  In one of my favorite moments, Lisbeth circles stealthily toward Zalachenko’s farmhouse in the woods . . . then stops in mid-stride when, out of the blue, she realizes the solution to Fermat’s riddle.  She sits down on a tree stump to relish her discovery, then resumes her approach through the trees.

Lisbeth is worthy of love, even if she is awkward and socially inept.  Although labeled an anti-social loner, Lisbeth actually has created a strong network of people with whom she has long-term connections.  She forms attachments almost in spite of herself (“I keep squandering my friends,” she realizes unhappily at one point).  And when she is in danger, those who care about her come to her rescue without hesitation.  In addition to Blomkvist, there is Armansky, her boss at Milton Security; Paolo Roberto, the celebrity boxer who long ago gave Lisbeth lessons at his gym; Holger Palmgren, her former guardian; Mimmi, her girlfriend and sort-of roommate; Dr. Anders Jonasson, who is in charge of her care at the hospital following her brain surgery; and of course, Plague, Trinity, and the worldwide hacking community, who help expose the corrupt government agents who want her institutionalized to cover up their illegal activities.

 Rereading the entire three-book series over the past week has been an intense experience I never want to repeat.  However, taking in the story all at once has enabled me to hold it in mental suspension, as a complete whole, and examine its details in ways I previously could not. 

 Most valuable to me are these insights into Lisbeth’s character.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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