On the surface, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a simple mystery thriller, but on a deeper level, the book is an examination of the violent abuse of women in Sweden, focusing particularly on the warped philosophies and governmental failures that permit such acts. This theme manifests most graphically in Chapters 11 and 13, when the court guardian Nils Bjurman forces Salander to perform a sexual act in exchange for access to her finances and then brutally rapes her. As Salander reflects on the first sexual assault in Chapter 12, she comes to a distinct conclusion: that authorities rarely punish assaults against women and that women rarely report them because violence against women occurs as an accepted part of Swedish society. Salander’s experiences bolster this view and convince her that the only effective solution to society’s complacency is for women to empower themselves.
The theme of violence against women also recurs in the serial murders of Martin and Gottfried Vanger, who justify their killings of women with Biblical allusions and anti-Semitic views. In this case, the men explain their acts via the notion that women are inherently filthy and unworthy and that their natures make them vile. The Bible verses referred to in the novel portray women as sexual deviants in need of punishment and correction. Even Wennerström turns out to be guilty of violence against a woman after Salander finds out he forced a girl he got pregnant to have an abortion, and did so by having a hired thug hold her under water until she conceded. Moreover, the casual verbal and physical abuse that both Cecilia and Harriet must endure from their fathers and brothers implies a worldview in which women are inferior beings.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo depicts a Sweden in which corruption of various forms is widespread. The character of Hans-Erik Wennerström best personifies the corruption in business and the economic sector in the novel. Wennerström functions not only as a major player in the financial sector but also as an international financier who balances enormous debts with private offshore accounts. Wennerström’s grip on the economic world permits him an immense amount of power, which he apparently maintains through corruption. Despite Blomkvist’s efforts to expose Wennerström’s malfeasance, Wennerström initially comes out the winner, primarily the novel suggests because of the money and influence he wields as a result of his corrupt practices. Corruption also appears in the form of Nils Bjurman, who acts as Lisbeth Salander’s guardian. As Lisbeth’s guardian, he is entrusted with taking care of her, almost like a surrogate father, but he violates the trust of the court and Lisbeth by using his position to gain sexual favors.
But perhaps the most notable symbol of corruption is the Vanger family. Theirs, however, is a moral corruption that extends beyond unethical business practices to anti-Semitism, rape, and serial murder. Martin Vanger, the acting head of the Vanger companies, has a dungeon hidden in his beautiful home, symbolizing the depravity that lies beneath his respectable façade. At the novel’s end, Blomkvist provides a solution to the problem of such corruption. He claims that journalists bear a duty to ferret out and expose all forms of wrongdoing, and through Blomkvist the novel offers at least one possible solution to this national dilemma.
In many of the novel’s characters, we see a discrepancy between the way they appear to the world, which includes how they present themselves, and the way they actually are, suggesting that appearances are not an accurate representation of a person. Salander, for example, has a very distinct appearance, including not just her tattoos and clothing choices, but also her personality. She is laconic and withdrawn to the point that she is judged by others to be incompetent. In reality, however, she is extraordinarily intelligent and very capable, as she proves to Armansky, Blomkvist, and everyone else she works with. Moreover, her small frame makes her seem weak and vulnerable, but as multiple characters learn, she is extremely tough and able to defend herself. Martin Vanger is in many ways Salander’s opposite. He appears quite normal and banal, and in all his interactions with other characters he is very polite and good-natured. Yet he turns out to be a sadistic rapist and serial killer. Martin’s house on Hedeby reflects this dichotomy. It comes across as elegant and peaceful in the rooms Martin allows others to see, but Blomkvist discovers that it hides a torture chamber in the basement.
This discrepancy between appearance and reality also extends to Blomkvist and Wennerström. Because of the court verdict against him, Blomkvist loses his credibility. He is publicly regarded as a liar, or at least irresponsible. Wennerström, on the other hand, appears to be a law-abiding businessman unfairly attacked by Blomkvist. As we learn, however, the reality is essentially the opposite of what it appears. After his friend initially told him about Wennerström’s malfeasance, Blomkvist went to great lengths to verify every allegation and act responsibly as a journalist. He even went to Poland to photograph the sheet metal factory that Wennerström was using as a front and interviewed several of the employees, all of whom confirmed his suspicions. Wennerström was far from innocent, and as Salander later uncovers, his misdeeds extend far beyond what Blomkvist had found, even including coercing a girl he impregnated to have an abortion.