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because of her appearance, which is marked by tattoos, piercings, and gothic clothes, or because of her reticent, withdrawn personality, Salander finds herself often misinterpreted, dismissed, or judged by others.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.