Literature Study GuidesMillennium SeriesThe Girl Who Played With Fire Summary

Millennium (Series) | Study Guide

Stieg Larsson

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Millennium (Series) | The Girl Who Played with Fire | Summary

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About the Title

The Girl Who Played with Fire references the Molotov cocktail Lisbeth Salander used to set her father on fire when she is a child. This act lands her in a psychiatric hospital and eventually brings her under Nils Bjurman's guardianship.

Summary

Part 1: Irregular Equations

Lisbeth Salander travels the world for a year following the Vanger affair, using the money she pilfered from Wennerström's accounts. She spends time in the Caribbean, studying mathematical formulas in an old textbook and recovering from breast-augmentation surgery. While she generally steers clear of other people, she takes a teenage lover, and together they save a wealthy heiress whose husband has threatened to murder her. Lisbeth has occasional flashbacks to her childhood; readers learn she was horrifically abused as a child and survived by fantasizing about setting her abuser on fire. The abuse appears similar to the rape and abuse Salander suffered under her guardian Nils Bjurman, who, with Salander out of the country, obsesses over his hatred of her. He plans to have her killed so she can no longer blackmail him with the rape video.

Part 2: From Russia with Love

When Salander returns to Stockholm, she sheepishly tries to repair the few personal relationships she has, including her friendships with her old boss, Dragan Armansky; her ex-lover Miriam Wu, who also goes by Mimmi; and Holger Palmgren, the old guardian she had believed to be dead. Salander has no interest in seeing Blomkvist. She knows he has spent the last year wondering why she began ignoring him; in truth, it's because she is embarrassed about her romantic feelings toward him.

Blomkvist has been enjoying a new level of notoriety in the wake of Harriet Vanger's return and his explosive exposé on Hans-Erik Wennerström. He plans to publish another book, written by freelance journalist Dag Svensson. Svensson's manuscript exposes the rampant sex trade in Stockholm and the various government officials who partake in and cover up the trade. Blomkvist has no idea what happened to Salander; he visits her apartment weekly to search for clues she has been home. During one visit Blomkvist witnesses an overweight man with a ponytail attack Salander and try to kidnap her. Salander fights her attacker off and flees before Blomkvist reaches her.

Part 3: Absurd Equations

Curious to learn what Blomkvist has been up to while she was away, Salander hacks into his computer and reads Dag Svensson's manuscript; she is jarred by a recurring reference to a shady character named Zala. Immediately she pays a visit to Svensson and his girlfriend, Mia Johansson, but the purpose of her visit remains unclear.

That night, when Blomkvist visits Svensson's apartment to collect more research information, he discovers both Svensson and Johansson shot dead. The police arrive soon after and recover the murder weapon, a gun; Salander's fingerprints are on it. Shortly afterward Bjurman also turns up dead, shot in the head by the same revolver. Given her psychiatric history, Salander immediately becomes the prime suspect; newspapers across the nation publish sensational, outrageous headlines about her personal history and mental state. She becomes the most hunted woman in the country. The police team, headed up by prosecutor Richard Ekström and investigator Jan Bublanski, paints a picture of a dark, disturbed psychopath who's a serious threat to the public. The portrayal doesn't sit well with Blomkvist, who launches his own investigation into the murders. He knows Salander has hacked into his computer, so he begins leaving files for her to read. In this way the pair corresponds, but Salander remains cagey and distrustful, which infuriates Blomkvist.

Blomkvist had been focusing his research on the sex-ring clients who might have wanted Svensson and his girlfriend dead before their names could be exposed, but Salander points him in the direction of "Zala." When Blomkvist learns one client, a high-ranking government official named Gunnar Björck, also mentioned Zala during his interviews with Svensson, Blomkvist agrees to keep Björck's name out of the newspaper in exchange for information about Zala's identity. Blomkvist learns Zala was a spy brought in from Russia who sold government secrets in exchange for asylum in Sweden. Over time he became corrupt and criminal, but the Swedish government still needed him, so they covered up his crimes. Now Zala lives in hiding, runs the sex trade, and has a reputation for violence.

Part 4: Terminator Mode

Before the murders, Salander bought a massive, expensive apartment in the ritzy part of town and gave her old apartment to Miriam Wu. The same thugs who tried to kidnap Salander return and kidnap Wu. They beat her mercilessly in hopes of discovering Salander's location, but Wu has no information to give. Eventually she escapes. The police search the warehouse where Wu was held and discover three dismembered bodies; at this point they realize someone else may be setting up Salander. When Salander learns Wu has been attacked and hospitalized, something in her snaps. She decides to search for Zalachenko herself; she knows he is behind the attacks, and she also knows he won't stop until he finds her.

First, Salander travels to Bjurman's summer home, where she uncovers paperwork about her past; Bjurman collected it as he obsessed over her. Bjurman was the first to discover her connection to Zala. Then she tracks down Alexander Zalachenko's henchman, a brutish German who eventually leads her to Zalachenko's farmhouse. While Salander lies in wait to attack Zalachenko, Blomkvist visits Holger Palmgren and discovers the truth about Salander: Zala—Zalachenko—is her father. He abused Salander's mother for many years, with one attack resulting in brain damage that eventually claimed her life. In retaliation, 12-year-old Salander made a Molotov cocktail and set her father's car on fire, badly injuring him. Because of this, she ended up under psychiatric care and guardianship.

Now Blomkvist realizes Salander has set out to kill her father, so he begins furiously tracking Zalachenko's hideout. Along the way he discovers Salander's secret apartment and the blackmail video of Bjurman raping her. At the farmhouse Salander tries to sneak up on Zalachenko and the "blond giant," but Zalachenko has been waiting for her. The giant—later revealed to be Ronald Niedermann, Salander's half brother—beats her and holds her down, while Zalachenko describes his motive for killing Svensson, Johansson, and Bjurman. When Salander tries to escape, Zalachenko shoots her three times—including once in the head—and orders Niedermann to bury her. When Salander comes to, she realizes she has been buried alive. She manages to dig her way out of the hole, return to the farmhouse, and attack Zalachenko, although she doesn't kill him. Niedermann escapes, and Salander collapses on the floor. Just then, Blomkvist arrives and calls an ambulance.

Analysis

Salander

The Girl Who Played with Fire reveals much about Lisbeth Salander's backstory, which informs her behavior in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Salander has suffered abuse her entire life, first from her father, then Dr. Peter Teleborian, then Nils Bjurman, and—on a larger scale—government organizations intended to protect her. Readers can understand Salander's antisocial behaviors and distaste for authority: when she tries to speak up as a child, she is thrown in a psychiatric ward, where Teleborian systematically abuses her. Salander learns she can rely only on herself. The police and the government are not going to administer justice, so she must deliver it vigilante style; she does so by attacking—and sometimes killing—men who hate and abuse women. The maltreatment of women proves to be Salander's trigger: Dr. Richard Forbes's abuse of his wife, Alexander Zalachenko's abuse of Salander's mother, and Ronald Niedermann's abuse of Miriam Wu. Salander's quest for justice gives her almost superhuman survival skills. Not only does she best members of a motorcycle gang in hand-to-hand combat, she also digs herself out after being buried alive and manages to overpower Alexander Zalachenko and the giant Niedermann, even after she's been shot in the head.

Abuse

The maltreatment of women returns as a prominent theme. The novel opens with Salander living in the Caribbean next door to heiress Geraldine Forbes and her abusive husband, Dr. Richard Forbes. Salander watches the couple's relationship deteriorate and decides Dr. Forbes is another of the many "men who hate women." True to her vigilante style, Salander waits for the opportune moment—a hurricane—to exact justice by attacking Dr. Forbes. Readers discover the source of her obsession with punishing such abusers: her father, Alexander Zalachenko, abused and abandoned her mother. Because he got away with his crimes, Salander feels compelled to ensure other women are protected. Although the Forbes story stands apart from the rest of the plot—George Bland and Geraldine Forbes don't appear again—it provides a powerful example of how abuse shapes Salander's character.

Books 2 and 3 focus on the horrors of human trafficking, but Stieg Larsson never gives the female victims names or faces. The perpetrators are never exposed, and the women never receive justice. Larsson simply uses the human trafficking ring to expose the secrets of Zala's identity. This begs the question of whether Larsson, like his male characters, uses the trafficking story to achieve an end, simply forgetting about the victims. The discovery of buried bodies at Zalachenko's warehouse suggests Larsson may have been planning to return to the scene in further novels.

Equations

As he does in each novel in the Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson includes themed epigraphs before each section of The Girl Who Played with Fire. Here, the epigraphs concern mathematical equations, a topic Salander reads up on while sunning herself in the Caribbean. The focus on equations serves two purposes: first, it parallels the murder mystery Blomkvist tries to solve throughout the novel. Just as Salander spends the novel methodically trying to solve Fermat's Last Theorem—long one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics—Blomkvist methodically moves through Dag Svensson's manuscript, crossing off "johns" as potential suspects.

Second, Salander's obsession with Fermat's Last Theorem and mathematical equations in general help characterize her as a genius. Although the media portray her as a mentally challenged psychopath, she easily works through advanced equations for fun. As soon as Salander becomes a suspect in the double murder, the police and media try to understand what happened in Salander's past to turn her into a killer. The media invent cause-and-effect scenarios to explain Salander's character, dragging her through the mud to create a sensational portrayal of a killer; it's a surefire way to sell papers. The police use these false portrayals to follow their own skewed leads. Salander doesn't fit into any equation concocted to explain who she is: she is unique and as "unsolvable" as Fermat's Last Theorem.

Friendship and Love

While living off the grid, Salander fails to maintain the few relationships she has, so she struggles to adjust to life back in Stockholm. She sheepishly reconnects with Miriam Wu, Dragan Armansky, Blomkvist, and Holger Palmgren, recognizing she should have treated them better. This evolution of character appears necessary for readers to believe that Salander's friends would risk their careers and lives to protect her. Had Salander continued to unapologetically shun people who care about her, it's unlikely they would endanger themselves to help clear her name. Salander's relationship with Palmgren provides another dimension to her character: she truly loves him. Palmgren is the closest thing she has had to family since her mother died. Salander does everything she can to nurture her relationship with Palmgren, visiting him often and paying for him to have the best care. As antisocial as Salander appears, she remains fiercely loyal to those whom she chooses to love, including Palmgren, Wu, and Blomkvist. Even though Salander regrets falling in love with Blomkvist and chooses to stonewall him, she cannot resist checking in on him from time to time. When Blomkvist saves Salander's life at the end of the novel, the return to an even playing field (each has saved the other's life) may allow their friendship to blossom again.

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