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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.