As we were preparing this week's letters to the editor, Elana Freeland's letter about
The Girl Who Played with Fire
caught my eye. In it, Ms. Freeland says that "it is very moving and satisfying to (at last!) see a female hero who is fierce, outrageous and never gives up…"
Several weeks ago, on recommendation from a family member, I went out and picked up Stieg Larsson's
—which consists of
—and, as I finished the first book and began working through the second, I was intrigued by Ms. Freeland's analysis of Lisbeth Salander's character as an "abuse survivor heroine."
Fair warning—I have yet to see the film productions of these books. But I agree—it is refreshing to see (or at least read) a strong female lead yet, lately, I find myself hearing quite often from friends and critics that Salander is an inspirational character for abuse victims. That's where things start to get a little murky for me. It's interesting to see how the perception of a story or character changes from medium to medium.
To be clear, a character can be strong without being inspirational. Holden Caulfield is a strong character but, presumably, we didn't all run away to New York City as adolescents for three days of drunken binging and loneliness (although maybe some of us did).
where, following a violent rape scene, which Salander videotapes, her response is to confront her assailant directly, incapacitate him and leave a visible warning of his sexual deviance—in the form of a tattoo across his torso—to other women. There's something cathartic about seeing Salander confront her assailant with such reverse roles, with her in the position of power, but an unfortunate consequence of this is that the rapist then resurfaces in
in search of revenge. In fact, at every turn, Salander's independence seems to be at war with her self-consciousness. We're told throughout
how inexplicably irresistible she is to men, yet her self-image is such that, at the beginning of
, we learn that she received breast implants.
Another element is Mikael Blomkvist, Salander's male co-lead, a man who—we're told in
—can't keep his hands off of women yet, just as often, it seems women can't keep their hands off of him. How are we to read the moment in
when Salander decides to sleep with Blomkvist—a man twice her age whom she hardly knows? Do we applaud her for her sexual initiative, or do we cringe at the thought that this woman—independent and self-empowered, whose sexual orientation falls, in the second book, under a three-paragraph scrutiny by her former lover—is still unable to resist this man who everyone in Stockholm knows is sleeping with his married business partner? How then do we read the section in
where we learn that Blomkvist is sleeping with Harriet Vanger—who, in
, we learned was raped repeatedly by her father and brother?
There's an odd dissonance, which factors prominently into the atmosphere and subject matter of the books. There's nothing "traditional" about the relationships in which the main characters partake. And that, to some extent, is exactly the point.
It's a story about a survivor. By the time we learn what "all the evil" was in Salander's life and how she ended up where she is, we know better than to pity her. There are some problems though. The English translations of the books are sub-par, and Larsson crime-genre ending to
, where all the characters' problems seem to work themselves out, comes dangerously close to having a trite bow on top.
Anecdotally, the Swedish name for
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
M%uFFFDn Som Hatar Kvinnor
or, according to
Men Who Hate Women
. We can read this title as Larsson crusading to end violence against women, or we can read it as a sad reality of the world the author lays out. Are these the inspirational figures that Larsson is projecting to his readership—those of a sex addict and a strong, independent woman who turns to plastic surgery to improve her self-image? Or is it simply the author painting a portrait of people, men and women, out in society—each lost in his or her own way, but lost nonetheless.