Literature Study GuidesMillennium SeriesThe Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Summary

Millennium (Series) | Study Guide

Stieg Larsson

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Millennium (Series) | The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo | Summary


About the Title

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo references the large tattoo on Lisbeth Salander's back. The tattoo symbolizes Lisbeth's strength: on the outside she looks tiny and weak, but a fierce monster lurks inside.


Part 1: Incentive

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has a problem. Working off a tip from a trusted informant, Blomkvist runs an article in his magazine, Millennium, accusing financier Hans-Erik Wennerström of shady brokerage deals. Wennerström sues the magazine, and Blomkvist is charged with libel. The judge sides with Wennerström. After meeting with his coeditor and lover, Erika Berger, Blomkvist steps down from Millennium in the hopes of stopping the deluge of advertisers pulling spots from the magazine.

At the same time, lawyer Dirch Frode hires Milton Security on behalf of the wealthy Vanger family to look into Blomkvist's background. Milton Security manager Dragan Armansky puts Lisbeth Salander, his best researcher and computer hacker, on the case. She quickly compiles an extensive report on Blomkvist and presents it to Frode. Pleased with the report, Frode approaches Blomkvist and convinces him to travel to the remote Hedeby Island to meet with Henrik Vanger about a possible job. When Blomkvist reaches the island, Vanger shares a lengthy story about his family and then finally describes the job: he wants Blomkvist to write a book of his family history as a ruse for investigating the cold-case disappearance of his niece, Harriet Vanger, who vanished from the island in 1966. Vanger suspects Harriet was murdered; he has spent the past 40-odd years obsessing over the case, compiling thousands of pages of source material and documents. To sweeten the deal Vanger promises to provide Blomkvist with proof of Wennerström's corruption. Blomkvist accepts.

Part 2: Consequence Analysis

Blomkvist adjusts to life on Hedeby Island, spending his days poring over boxes of Henrik Vanger's collected information. He interviews everyone he can find: Vanger family members; police who worked on the case when Harriet disappeared; island locals. While reading Harriet's diary, Blomkvist comes across a series of names and numbers. Initially, he thinks they're phone numbers, but later he learns they are Bible verses. Blomkvist also digs out the archives of unpublished newspaper photos from the day Harriet disappeared, and he discovers pictures of Harriet looking frightened as she gazes across the street from a parade. Blomkvist assumes she is looking at her killer.

Meanwhile, the Swedish government assigns Lisbeth Salander, who is technically a ward of the state, a new financial guardian after her previous guardian suffers a stroke. The new guardian, Nils (Erik) Bjurman, proves to be abusive and predatory, using his position of power to exploit his charges. During their first meeting, Bjurman forces Salander to perform oral sex on him, insinuating she can expect the same treatment whenever she wants access to her money. Salander decides to secretly record their next meeting with the hopes of blackmailing Bjurman. When they meet, Salander expects Bjurman to demand oral sex again; instead, he handcuffs her to a bed and violently rapes her. Salander hobbles home and makes a new plan. She returns to Bjurman's home, shocks him, handcuffs him to the bed, sodomizes him, and tattoos the phrase "I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST" across his chest.

Part 3: Mergers

After his two breakthroughs in the Vanger case, Blomkvist requests a research assistant, and Frode suggests Salander. When Salander arrives on the island, she and Blomkvist make quick work of linking the names and numbers to various gruesome, unsolved murders. They realize Harriet knew the identity of the serial killer. Blomkvist and Salander also begin sleeping together, although it doesn't affect their research. When someone leaves a dismembered cat outside the door and takes shots at Blomkvist while he's out running, they realize the serial killer likely lives on the island. After a long search, Blomkvist finds a couple who vacationed on Hedeby Island on the day of Harriet's murder and has additional photos from the parade. From these, Blomkvist identifies Martin Vanger across the street from Harriet. Against his better judgment, Blomkvist visits Vanger's house to confront him. Vanger forces Blomkvist, at gunpoint, to a secret torture chamber in his basement.

Part 4: Hostile Takeover

Vanger strips Blomkvist and chains him to the wall. Vanger admits his father was the serial killer and says he took over the role when his father died. He also describes horrific sexual abuse he and Harriet suffered. To Blomkvist's shock, Vanger maintains he has no idea what happened to Harriet. He attempts to strangle Blomkvist but Salander arrives and attacks him. Vanger flees and crashes his car, dying instantly.

Although Blomkvist wants to make the information about Vanger public, Salander convinces him otherwise and destroys most of the evidence. They believe Harriet is likely alive. Blomkvist realizes one of the photos of Harriet is really a photo of her cousin, Anita Vanger. By tracking Anita's name, Blomkvist discovers Harriet living in Australia. With Martin Vanger dead, Harriet agrees to return to Hedeby Island and her uncle.

Unfortunately for Blomkvist, the information Vanger promised about Wennerström proves anticlimactic, so Salander hacks into Wennerström's computers and finds a mountain of proof of his corruption. Blomkvist uses this information to publish a new exposé, which devastates Wennerström—eventually leading to his death—and restores Blomkvist's journalistic credibility. Salander considers telling Blomkvist she's in love with him, but she loses her nerve when she sees him with Erika Berger. Using her hacking skills, she siphons millions of kroner (Denmark currency) from Wennerström's accounts and uses them to travel the world under an assumed name.



In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, none of the characters are as they seem. Lisbeth Salander, for example, presents herself as an antisocial punk whom most people assume to be mentally handicapped. Because she is slight in stature, she might appear vulnerable and an easy target. But due to the horrific abuse she has suffered, she has crafted her appearance to hold people at arm's length; her punk makeup and leather clothes act like armor—although many are also attracted to her androgynous appearance. Salander may be small, but she is anything but weak or incompetent; she has a brilliant photographic memory, and she can easily overpower men twice her size during fights.

Martin Vanger is nothing like he appears to be, either. When Mikael Blomkvist dines with Vanger soon after arriving on the island, Vanger appears kind, generous, and supportive of Blomkvist's search. He has successfully taken over and built his family's business, sits on the Millennium editorial board, and maintains a seemingly healthy long-term relationship. Beneath this "normal" facade, however, lies a sadistic, evil serial killer. Vanger's beautiful home, a symbol of his success, hides a dungeon where he tortures his victims—a symbol of the darkness often lurking beneath a pristine exterior.

On a smaller scale, characters like Harriet Vanger and Blomkvist fit into the theme of deceptive appearances as well. Harriet uses her uncanny resemblance to her cousin, Anita, to make her escape. For his part, Blomkvist spends the entire novel worrying about whether the Hans-Erik Wennerström affair has damaged his reputation—he cares deeply about being seen as an honest journalist.

Sexual Abuse

The original Swedish title of this novel translates to Men Who Hate Women, which feels apt given the amount of horrific abuse women suffer at the hands of men in this novel. Nils Bjurman rapes Salander; Gottfried Vanger and Martin Vanger rape Harriet and gruesomely murder innocent women across the country. The book places the blame firmly on government organizations that fail to protect women. Bjurman, for example, is a government employee who exploits his position to abuse women. In later novels, government employees partake in human trafficking, prostitution, and the ongoing assault against Lisbeth Salander's character. When Salander was a child, she tried to speak up about the abuse she and her mother suffered; as a result she was institutionalized, only to be released into the custody of an abusive guardian. She knows the initial assault, in which Bjurman forces her to perform oral sex on him, will be his word against hers, and "in her experience the words of other people weighed more heavily than hers." Unable to rely on the government for protection, Salander has no choice but to protect herself.

Gottfried and Martin Vanger's attacks on women also fit the theme of sexual abuse. The victims are Jewish, but their murders always have a sexual component. The men believe their actions cleanse society of an inferior—Jewish—race and of filthy "whores."


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo espouses strong political views, not just of how Sweden treats women, but of what democracy should look like. Salander and Blomkvist provide insight into two facets of Stieg Larsson's ideal democracy. Salander, who represents marginalized people, provides Larsson with the means to critique government organizations serving at-risk individuals. Clear critiques of guardianship programs (court-ordered programs that give legal guardianship over another person) are seen not only in Bjurman's abuse of power, but also through authorial insertions such as "taking away a person's control of her own life ... is one of the greatest infringements a democracy can impose," and "it would be deplorable if special interests had the power to silence ... voices in the media." If Salander represents the importance of responsible government involvement, Blomkvist represents the opposite: freedom from government control, particularly in the form of a free press. Blomkvist believes journalists are responsible for digging out the truth of crime and corruption to make society a better, safer place for everyone, not just "special interests." Therefore, Blomkvist finds himself in an ethical quandary after discovering the horrors of Martin Vanger's torture chamber: should he expose the truth and further victimize Harriet Vanger, or bury the story, thus protecting the family's legacy? In the end Blomkvist decides to bury the story, although he never finds peace in his decision. In later novels, Blomkvist decides to publish his truthful stories whatever the consequence.


Life on Hedeby Island is isolated, with the nearest town a boat ride away. Residents rarely mingle except at the local coffee house, and the Vanger family members live separately in massive homes so they need not socialize with each other. Harald Vanger rarely leaves his home or opens his curtains. Despite spending over six months on the island, Blomkvist sees Isabella Vanger only once. For Harriet, the isolation of life on Hedeby Island provided her abusers space to continue their crimes unseen, but it also allowed her to sneak away without notice when all the members of her family were distracted by the truck crash. Gottfried and Martin exploit the isolation of Hedeby Island by bringing their victims first to Gottfried's remote cabin and later to Martin's underground torture chamber. They carefully chose victims who were also isolated from their communities, such as recent immigrants or girls estranged from their families.

For the first six months of his investigation, Blomkvist lives an incredibly isolated life in a trailer on the Vanger property. He goes days without seeing or speaking to anyone, including his longtime lover, Erika Berger. Before joining Blomkvist, Salander leads an equally isolated life. She has few friends, rarely speaks to anyone unless absolutely necessary, and crafts her appearance so no one approaches her. It takes some time for Blomkvist and Salander to find balance while living on Hedeby, but they embrace their isolation to work relatively uninterrupted on their case.


Bjurman and Henrik Vanger both use money to manipulate people into doing what they want. Bjurman violently abuses Salander, while Henrik Vanger uses money for emotional manipulation. Bjurman lords his financial power of Salander to sexually abuse and rape her: the money he promises Salander for sexual services is her own, yet as her guardian, Bjurman controls her money and has no legal requirement to give her access to it. Because Salander needs her money and cannot access it without Bjurman's say-so, she has little choice but to submit to his abusive whims—she even willingly visits him with the expectation of forced oral sex, which she plans to videotape and blackmail him with, unsuspecting of his true violence.

Henrik Vanger, on the other hand, uses money to get what he wants. When Blomkvist hesitates on accepting the offer to research Harriet's disappearance, Vanger offers him more money than Blomkvist has ever earned—significant because Blomkvist visited Hedeby at a time when no one else would hire him. Later, Vanger uses his financial sway to buy into Millennium, exerting further control over Blomkvist's journalistic integrity. At the end of the novel, Henrik Vanger ensures that Blomkvist doesn't print the true story of Martin Vanger by agreeing to make yearly donations to a women's charity. These story lines again suggest corruption; the rich aren't held accountable for their crimes.

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