For those of you that don’t know, Lisbeth Salander is the main character of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally successful Millennium Trilogy. Set in contemporary Sweden, the trilogy follows the exploits of Lisbeth, a brilliant young hacker investigating a series of incredibly brutal crimes. The series became phenomenally successful, selling millions of copies across the world and with two major film adaptations – and just last week, the next title in the series was announced (written by a ghostwriter, what with Larsson being dead and all). Many critics praised the novels as works that redefined the crime genre, and Lisbeth herself was hailed as one of the most original characters to be seen in decades.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Seeing as I’m going to be discussing the events of the Millennium Trilogy in some detail, this review will contain discussion of sexual abuse, rape, and other violent sex crimes. I’ll try and keep the post from going into too much detail, but if you think you might be affected by some of the content of this post, proceed with caution and remember to take care of yourselves.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Lisbeth’s control over her life is a really interesting part of the series. Over the course of the novels it’s revealed that at the age of twelve, Lisbeth committed a violent crime to protect a member of her family, but was declared legally insane due to the victim’s political connections. She spent several years in a mental institution, and one of the first things we hear about her when she’s introduced is that from a legal standpoint, she is not responsible for her own actions. At the age of twenty-four, she is under the care of a guardian who has control over her finances, her personal life and can send her back to a mental institution if they see fit. When she’s under the care of a sympathetic guardian, her legal status doesn’t really impact her life much – Holger Palmgren, her first guardian, doesn’t interfere with her personal life, helps her get a job and gives her free reign over her finances. But when she’s under the care of her second guardian, Nils Bjurman, her financial and personal freedoms are curtailed as he begins abusing her.
However, Lisbeth doesn’t really let this stop her. After a traumatic sexual assault caught on a hidden camera, Lisbeth subdues, tortures and blackmails Bjurman into relinquishing his control, forcing him to recommend that the legal restrictions placed upon her are lifted. She spends a substantial part of the trilogy fighting to be responsible for her own life, and isn’t afraid to use any means necessary. Similarly, when she’s arrested and waiting to stand trial, she uses her time to prepare statements and help her legal team come up with a plan – she doesn’t intend to stop pursuing her goals because of a little thing like prison.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
As far as her hobbies go, Lisbeth doesn’t have many – she’s a pretty anti-social person, but she enjoys solving maths equations, hacking, and it’s also implied that she’s dabbled in the underground music scene. Her goals and beliefs are much more interesting. Lisbeth has her own moral code which drives her through the series. The core of this is that any form of sexual abuse is morally repugnant, and can be punished however she sees fit. Often, this takes the form of avoiding the involvement of law enforcement and extracting a very personal, violent revenge. Most of Lisbeth’s goals in the series revolve around this moral code – most of the time, she’s trying to punish men who have committed violent sex crimes against women by bringing their crimes to light or smashing them into tiny little pieces.
This code – and the incredibly powerful drive to fulfil it – is a direct result of Lisbeth’s abusive upbringing. It has very little to do with the societal norms surrounding morality, and is something that Lisbeth put together herself after witnessing over a decade of abuse, often covered up by the people who were supposed to protect her family. It’s a visceral belief system that fuels Lisbeth throughout the novels, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Lisbeth is a pretty consistent character. She’s cold but brilliant, frequently anti-social, and only opens up to the people she knows she can trust, and this is a constant feature throughout the novels. Her skills are pretty consistent too – she’s an extremely talented hacker with a photographic memory, and once again, this remains the case throughout the series.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A fiercely brilliant hacker determined to bring abusers to justice, by any means necessary.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Lisbeth’s love life isn’t really a feature of the series – most of the plot centres around the various crimes she is trying to uncover. We see her having several relationships with both men and women, but these don’t affect her decisions all that much. Most of her decisions are influenced by her burning desire to deliver (preferably painful) justice, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Through most of the books, Lisbeth remains a pretty static character. She’s a very spiky, antisocial kind of woman, which makes her a very consistent character, but these are also serious flaws which create a lot of problems for her. Lisbeth’s shortcomings are seen as a part of her brilliance, and celebrated accordingly. Her moral code, which can be vicious and cruel (particularly when she condemns a rape victim for not having the courage to publicly denounce her rapist), is questioned by other characters, but ultimately “proven” by the course the story takes. The Millennium Trilogy shows that its villains are only capable of understanding – and being bested by – extreme violence, and because Lisbeth’s moral code aligns with this, the narrative as a wider force is tacitly endorsing her morality.
In some parts of the novels, this is not necessarily a bad thing – Lisbeth’s bloody sense of justice forces the reader to question their own beliefs about mercy, forgiveness and punishment, and whether the end truly justifies the means. However, in other parts of the books this doesn’t work so well. Put simply, Lisbeth is always right, and this doesn’t give her an opportunity to grow as a character. She can’t learn from her mistakes because she just doesn’t make any. Over the course of the series, she does end up trusting more people and forgiving Blomkvist for ending their relationship, but she doesn’t do this in a way that challenges her beliefs. The people she ends up trusting are those who she’s known for years, closely connected to people she already trusts and have had to prove themselves so many times that they must all be exhausted. This isn’t really development, because she hasn’t really learned anything new.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she have a weakness?
Lisbeth is very anti-social, often harsh and unforgiving, finds it difficult to bond with people, is capable of extremely cruel and violent acts and has a deeply-rooted distrust of authority figures. These are all things that should prevent her from flourishing, but they’re often treated as a part of her brilliance, rather than a flaw which she should work to overcome. This is mainly due to the age-old stereotype of the ‘Troubled Genius’. We’ve all seen this before – someone who finds it difficult to fit in with normal society is capable of doing incredible things, such as solving impossible maths problems, composing wonderful music or being a very talented actor. Obviously, this is a bit of a thorny issue, so I’d just like to pre-emptively apologise for stepping on anyone’s toes here.
The problem with this trope is that the character’s flaws – which in this particular trope, can encompass anything from difficulty with social interaction to severe mental illnesses – are treated as part of the character’s brilliance: according to this cliché, they are the price of genius. This is actually a really damaging idea, because it can make very damaging mental illnesses seem like a part of someone’s personality – and therefore, something which they (and everyone around them) just have to put up with. In real life, this can make it much less likely for people with mental illnesses to seek out treatment, as mental illness is not always treated with the seriousness that life-threatening conditions should be. Lisbeth falls right into this bracket. The narrative treats Lisbeth’s condition – parts of which can be classified as the product of intense psychological trauma – as a part of her personality, rather than as something that affects her personality: they’re a side-effect of her own brilliance. In this respect, the Millennium Trilogy often treats Lisbeth’s aggression, difficulty socialising and capacity for extreme violence as flaws in her personality, rather than as the product of mental illness. This is a really interesting (and complicated) topic that deals with the lines that divide personality traits and personality disorders, but the narrative doesn’t really address this implication. Whether you consider these parts of her personality to be flaws or illnesses, they don’t really prevent her from moving through the story, and for that reason, I’m giving her half the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Lisbeth drives the plot forward at every turn – whether she’s investigating companies or doling out justice, she’s a real influence on the plot. She doesn’t influence the plot simply by being in it, either – she actively goes out and makes things happen.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Lisbeth pretty much destroys every gender stereotype she comes across.
She’s aggressive, reticent, very good with computers, anti-social and not afraid of going to extremes – hardly traits associated with young women. She has a similar effect on stereotypes surrounding sexuality. Lisbeth is bisexual, and while most of her relationships are casual, she will only start a relationship with someone if she trusts them. This goes against one of the most prominent stereotypes about bisexuals – the belief that bisexuality is just a cover for promiscuous behaviour, and that they don’t take their relationships seriously. Lisbeth’s relationships may be casual, but she definitely takes them seriously; with all her sexual partners, we see her getting to know them before the sexual part of their relationship begins, and she rarely forms a sexual relationship with someone she doesn’t trust.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Lisbeth has a lot of difficulty building up relationships with any kind of character, no matter what gender they are. However, she does have a varied range of relationships with women. She has a sexual relationship with her on-again, off-again girlfriend, Mimi, who she eventually ends up driving away when Lisbeth goes to trial. She mistrusts Blomkvist’s partner Erika, and even envies her, but eventually comes to respect her. She gets on well with Annika, her lawyer, trusting her enough to tell her about her childhood and plan the case together. She has a very difficult relationship with her sister, who we never meet in the novels, and feels a strange kind of angry contempt towards Harriet Vanger, the woman she is asked to find in the first novel. That’s a range of relationships consistent with her character, so she passes this round.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Lisbeth is an incredibly complex character. With a traumatic childhood that has seriously affected the way she relates to other people, she’s a compelling presence in the books, taking full control of both her own life and the wider plot. She doesn’t conform to anything, displays a consistent level of strengths and abilities, and while she might not develop all that much as the story progresses, she is nevertheless an enigmatic and powerful presence throughout all three novels.
Next week, I’ll be looking at The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, I’m coming for you…and your little dog, too!
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.