The major protagonist of the novel, Mikael Blomkvist is the publisher of the political magazine Millennium and an investigative journalist in his fifties. When a libel conviction throws his credibility into question, he accepts an unusual freelance job from Henrik Vanger in an effort to think about his uncertain future and, hopefully, to clear his name. A man of integrity and scrupulous ethics, Blomkvist initially has a reputation as a watchdog reporter willing to expose corruption. As the emblem of investigative journalism, he thusly becomes the material of much disparagement and mockery after his conviction. Since his value as a reporter lies in his credibility and Millennium rises or falls with Blomkvist’s reputation, the novel is in many ways the story of Blomkvist’s quest to restore his good name. Even his association with the Vangers underscores his honor since he remains true to his word and solves the case at great risk to his life. Unfortunately, throughout the novel Blomkvist also learns that the effort to restore his credibility will depend, at times, on less than ethical means.
Despite his integrity, Blomkvist’s personal relationships suffer from his inability, or unwillingness, to commit to serious relationships. While Erika Berger remains his longest and most serious relationship, he seems to find relief that she, long-married, does not seek a permanent home and family with him and spends time with other lovers during his time in Hedeby. He has a cordial if distant relationship with his ex-wife, but his most vibrant and passionate relationship is with Lisbeth Salander, his ally in solving the disappearance of Harriet Vanger. Blomkvist willingly accepts Salander’s various quirks and her emotional restraint, and he respects her intelligence and abilities. Even so, he doesn’t become emotionally attached to Salander as she does to him, and though Salander is the one who seems initially cold, by the end of the novel it is Blomkvist who appears to have the greatest problem with intimacy. Salander does change him in one significant way, however. At the start of the story, Blomkvist possesses a strong earnestness and a naïve, frequently idealistic sense of the world that sometimes neuters his ability to solve problems or deal with them efficiently. But after his time with Salander, Blomkvist becomes comfortable using less-than-ethical means at times to accomplish his goals and strike back at those who would damage his reputation.
The titular character of the novel, Salander functions as a secondary protagonist and, with her exceptional hacking skills, works with Blomkvist to solve the mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance. Characterized by her nonconformity, Salander tends toward the unorthodox in both style and attitude. Whether because of her appearance, which is marked by tattoos, piercings, and gothic clothes, or because of her reticent, withdrawn personality, Salander finds herself often misinterpreted, dismissed, or judged by others. Her boss at Milton Security initially pities her and believes her to be capable of only temp work. Her second guardian, as well as the court and several other authorities, judge her, at best, mentally unfit, and at worst, worthy of institutionalization. The novel follows the ways in which Salander constantly subverts the expectations of those around her as she continues to surpass her peers in intelligence, independence, and foresight. These strengths eventually lead to her liberation from her abusive guardian and to a close relationship with Blomkvist. Ultimately, she uses the misjudgments of others to her benefit.
Throughout the text, Salander occupies the role of both victim and survivor. Assaulted repeatedly and brutally by her guardian, Salander seems aware that others perceive her as a victim, but she doesn’t view herself as one because she sees the oppression and brutalization of women as endemic to society. In other words, she is not being singled out for abuse, and so views the abuse as a general problem rather than one directed at her personally. Ultimately, her notable outbursts of violence in the novel, notably the instances when she tortures the guardian who raped her and attacks Martin Vanger with a golf club, exemplify both Salander’s desire to secure her own survival in the face of overwhelming odds and to punish those who victimize the powerless. Additionally, almost all of Salander’s actions serve to secure her independence and give her the means to protect herself. If Blomkvist represents the ability of journalism to address society’s ills with honesty and transparency, implying a functioning social system, Salander represents the need for fierce independence and self-reliance that result from a dysfunctional social system.
The serial killer and one of the primary antagonists of the novel, Martin exemplifies the man who hates women. Vanger devotes a great amount of his time and energy to choosing his victims. That his choices focus on powerless women who will not be missed, or on those who do not possess the will or ability to fight back, suggests both the frightening lack of protection society offers to women and the depth of his hate for them. Martin also exemplifies the conflict between personal accountability and outside influence. Blomkvist argues that Martin’s revolting crimes stem from his childhood abuse, while Salander argues that, regardless of his past, Martin is accountable for his own choices. Martin essentially serves as the most extreme example of the predatory men who appear throughout the text, including Salander’s guardian, Nils Bjurman, and Hans-Erik Wennerström.
Martin additionally represents the dark and disturbing lineage of the Vanger family. The product of a bloodline that includes an alcoholic, sexually abusive father and an anti-Semitic grandfather, as well as an absentee mother, Martin exemplifies the worst end result of a profoundly dysfunctional family. Blomkvist notes throughout the text that, despite significant financial and personal success, the Vanger family seems fundamentally broken. Martin, the acting head of the company and a seemingly decent man on the surface, symbolizes the festering corruption beneath the surface of the seemingly respectable, wealthy clan. Even his dungeon, hidden beneath his father’s old cabin, evidences the darkness and depravity on which the family’s wealth is built.