On the surface, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a simple mystery thriller, but on a deeper level, the book is an examination of the violent abuse of women in Sweden, focusing particularly on the warped philosophies and governmental failures that permit such acts. This theme manifests most graphically in Chapters 11 and 13, when the court guardian Nils Bjurman forces Salander to perform a sexual act in exchange for access to her finances and then brutally rapes her. As Salander reflects on the first sexual assault in Chapter 12, she comes to a distinct conclusion: that authorities rarely punish assaults against women and that women rarely report them because violence against women occurs as an accepted part of Swedish society. Salander’s experiences bolster this view and convince her that the only effective solution to society’s complacency is for women to empower themselves.
The theme of violence against women also recurs in the serial murders of Martin and Gottfried Vanger, who justify their killings of women with Biblical allusions and anti-Semitic views. In this case, the men explain their acts via the notion that women are inherently filthy and unworthy and that their natures make them vile. The Bible verses referred to in the novel portray women as sexual deviants in need of punishment and correction. Even Wennerström turns out to be guilty of violence against a woman after Salander finds out he forced a girl he got pregnant to have an abortion, and did so by having a hired thug hold her under water until she conceded. Moreover, the casual verbal and physical abuse that both Cecilia and Harriet must endure from their fathers and brothers implies a worldview in which women are inferior beings.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo depicts a Sweden in which corruption of various forms is widespread. The character of Hans-Erik Wennerström best personifies the corruption in business and the economic sector in the novel. Wennerström functions not only as a major player in the financial sector but also as an international financier who balances enormous debts with private offshore accounts. Wennerström’s grip on the economic world permits him an immense amount of power, which he apparently maintains through corruption. Despite Blomkvist’s efforts to expose Wennerström’s malfeasance, Wennerström initially comes out the winner, primarily the novel suggests because of the money and influence he wields as a result of his corrupt practices. Corruption also appears in the form of Nils Bjurman, who acts as Lisbeth Salander’s guardian. As Lisbeth’s guardian, he is entrusted with taking care of her, almost like a surrogate father, but he violates the trust of the court and Lisbeth by using his position to gain sexual favors.
But perhaps the most notable symbol of corruption is the Vanger family. Theirs, however, is a moral corruption that extends beyond unethical business practices to anti-Semitism, rape, and serial murder. Martin Vanger, the acting head of the Vanger companies, has a dungeon hidden in his beautiful home, symbolizing the depravity that lies beneath his respectable façade. At the novel’s end, Blomkvist provides a solution to the problem of such corruption. He claims that journalists bear a duty to ferret out and expose all forms of wrongdoing, and through Blomkvist the novel offers at least one possible solution to this national dilemma.
In many of the novel’s characters, we see a discrepancy between the way they appear to the world, which includes how they present themselves, and the way they actually are, suggesting that appearances are not an accurate representation of a person. Salander, for example, has a very distinct appearance, including not just her tattoos and clothing choices, but also her personality. She is laconic and withdrawn to the point that she is judged by others to be incompetent. In reality, however, she is extraordinarily intelligent and very capable, as she proves to Armansky, Blomkvist, and everyone else she works with. Moreover, her small frame makes her seem weak and vulnerable, but as multiple characters learn, she is extremely tough and able to defend herself. Martin Vanger is in many ways Salander’s opposite. He appears quite normal and banal, and in all his interactions with other characters he is very polite and good-natured. Yet he turns out to be a sadistic rapist and serial killer. Martin’s house on Hedeby reflects this dichotomy. It comes across as elegant and peaceful in the rooms Martin allows others to see, but Blomkvist discovers that it hides a torture chamber in the basement.
This discrepancy between appearance and reality also extends to Blomkvist and Wennerström. Because of the court verdict against him, Blomkvist loses his credibility. He is publicly regarded as a liar, or at least irresponsible. Wennerström, on the other hand, appears to be a law-abiding businessman unfairly attacked by Blomkvist. As we learn, however, the reality is essentially the opposite of what it appears. After his friend initially told him about Wennerström’s malfeasance, Blomkvist went to great lengths to verify every allegation and act responsibly as a journalist. He even went to Poland to photograph the sheet metal factory that Wennerström was using as a front and interviewed several of the employees, all of whom confirmed his suspicions. Wennerström was far from innocent, and as Salander later uncovers, his misdeeds extend far beyond what Blomkvist had found, even including coercing a girl he impregnated to have an abortion.
In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the geography of Hedeby serves repeatedly to define Blomkvist’s relationship to the rest of the Vanger family and also to heighten the sense of isolation and alienation within the text. In particular, the closed-off location of the island serves to ensconce the Vanger family away from society, to preserve history, and to isolate Blomkvist from his old life and profession. Conversely, the urban bustle of Stockholm signals a shift in the novel’s tone and almost always indicates Blomkvist’s reconnection to his profession and to his old life.
Throughout the novel, the seasons often reflect Blomkvist’s mood and, more importantly, signify major shifts in tone and plot. The bleak cold winter when Blomkvist arrives in Hedeby symbolizes both his barren career and signifies the bleakness of his life, in which his personal relationships and his future prospects seem stark and inhospitable. Additionally, the return of spring, which heralds Blomkvist’s return from prison, echoes the new promise of Blomkvist’s future as well as his progress on the case.
The brutal violence in the novel, including Bjurman’s sexual assaults of Salander and Martin Vanger’s remorseless serial killings, exists as the physical manifestation of the hatred of women that runs through the novel. Nearly all the abuse in the novel, with the exception of Martin’s attack on Blomkvist, occurs against women. The brutal nature of that violence as well as the mutilation of flesh that accompanies it serves as the real-world evidence of the misogyny that exists both within the Vanger clan and in Swedish society at-large.
Dried flowers first appear in the prologue to the novel as a harbinger of that grief that brings Henrik Vanger to tears on his eightieth birthday. He explains to Blomkvist during their initial interview that the flowers, originally yearly birthday gifts from Harriet, once symbolized affection and love. However, the flowers have come to represent something much darker: On the most superficial level, the flowers symbolize Harriet’s lost youth and the way that Harriet exists, preserved agelessly, in her family’s memory. Though Henrik believes they are a taunt from Harriet’s killer, Blomkvist considers them a chilling reminder of Henrik’s obsession with the case and the long passage of years since Harriet’s presumed death. In the end, Harriet’s reappearance and Blomkvist’s resolution of the mystery restore to the flowers their original hopeful meaning. Originally a provocative signifier of obsession, death, and loss, they finally come to exemplify the profound love and affection a woman still holds for a beloved family member.
Computers symbolize, throughout the novel, both the benefits of knowledge and the accumulation of power through information. Salander, the character who most utilizes technology, uses computers to protect herself, to find out information useful to her career, and to assure her independence financially. More importantly, however, computers serve throughout the novel as a way for the powerless to level the playing field. Salander takes advantage of her knowledge about Bjurman and her later intelligence about Wennerström to plan the downfalls of both men. Additionally, she gives Blomkvist the opportunity to do the same when she permits him to access Wennerström’s hacked hard drive via her Macbook. In the later chapters of the novel, the Millennium staff’s calculated refusal to use unprotected computers or to email effectively leaves Janne Dahlmann in the dark about their plans. In all cases, computers symbolize the myriad opportunities that information can provide, and they empower their users to make decisions, take calculated risks, and glean the knowledge necessary for financial, emotional, and even sometimes physical survival.
Tattoos indicate both nonconformity and the individual’s assertion of power over the body. Salander’s tattoos mark her immediately as an unorthodox figure and always draw the attention of others. However, though Salander’s tattoos mark her as a nonconformist, they also indicate her control over her own body and her fierce self-possession. After her rape, Salander immediately goes and gets a tattoo: a slim band around her ankle. The act functions as a calculated assertion of her control over her own body. Likewise, the tattoo that she gives Bjurman indicates her control over his body and signifies Salander’s newfound power over him. Consequently, Bjurman too becomes marked as a social outsider, since the location of the tattoo and the nature of the words essentially cut him off from certain social interactions and reminds him consistently of Salander’s power over him.