Lisbeth’s moral compass does not include murder

Readers who race through the Millennium books frequently draw the conclusion that Lisbeth will stop at nothing to achieve her version of vengeance, retribution, and justice vis-a-vis one of the bad guys. She is skilled at martial arts, has a super-heroine’s familiarity with the tools of the violence trade, and has a particularly well-tuned ability to inflict extreme pain on men who outweigh her by a factor of two or three without giving it a second thought. However, whenever possible, she intentionally and consciously stops short of murder. Stieg Larsson goes to a lot of trouble to show us that whenever Lisbeth believes a death sentence is warranted, she sets it in motion but tries to steer clear of the technical act of murder itself. What follows is drawn from an essay by Dan Burstein in Chapter 11 of The Tattooed Girl.


Take the death of Wennerström in Tattoo, for example. The authorities are looking for him after Blomkvist’s exposé is published. Lisbeth knows exactly where he is day by day, having hacked into all his computers and email. She plunders his bank account and transfers his money to her control. Then she watches him on the run for months.

After six months, she tires of tracking Wennerström. She thinks about calling the police but re-confirms her principle of not talking to them. She reminds herself that Wennerström did bad things to women, in addition to being a financial criminal of the highest order. Once she triggers the memory of Wennerström’s violence toward women, she makes her decision to eliminate him. But she is not going to do it herself. In a pattern we will see several more times, she picks up the phone and calls an unnamed attorney in Miami. (We can infer this attorney works for some Colombian drug dealers whose debts have not been paid by Wennerström because Lisbeth has stolen the funds he needs to make good.) She tells the attorney’s secretary where to find Wennerström in the Spanish resort city of Marbella. Four days later, Wennerström’s dead body is found in an apartment there. Lisbeth watches a TV news report on Wennerström’s demise for a few minutes, before switching off the TV and making herself coffee and a liver paté and cucumber sandwich.

Martin Vanger’s death at the end of Tattoo gets similar Salander treatment. When Lisbeth rescues Blomkvist from Vanger’s basement torture chamber, she viciously attacks Vanger with a golf club, cracking his bones and causing him to howl in pain. But she doesn’t actually kill him. Bloodied, crazed, and maniacal, Martin Vanger escapes in his vehicle. Salander gives chase on her motorcycle. She watches Vanger essentially commit suicide by increasing his speed and slamming into an oncoming truck. She didn’t kill this horrible man who is evil incarnate, and has tortured and murdered so many women. He killed himself.

When it comes to Dr. Richard Forbes, the corrupt evangelist who Lisbeth deduces is trying to kill his wife Geraldine for her money in the early pages of Fire, something similar happens. With Hurricane Matilda blowing in and everyone in Grenada seeking shelter, Lisbeth prevents Forbes from seizing the moment to murder Geraldine. In a beachfront confrontation illuminated by occasional flashes of lightning, Lisbeth saves Geraldine before Forbes can deliver another blow to her skull with the pipe he is wielding. Lisbeth then cracks a chair leg over the back of Forbes’s head, gathers up Geraldine, and, together with George, her 16-year-old Grenadian boyfriend, drags Geraldine to safety. Meanwhile, in one more flash of lightning, Lisbeth sees a tornado funnel forming and witnesses Dr. Forbes swept up by “the finger of God” and out to sea—never to be seen or heard from again. Lisbeth delivered a blow to the back of Forbes’s head, but she didn’t kill him. That was a job for God’s vengeance.

Even when it comes to three of the people in Lisbeth’s life who have most horribly abused her, she doesn’t kill. In Tattoo, she extracts vengeance from her evil guardian Bjurman by giving him a serious taste of his own sexual violation medicine and by tattooing him across the belly with the message: “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST.” But while she punishes Bjurman with a hellish trauma that he re-lives every day for the rest of his life, she does not kill him. For the time being, she makes use of him. Later, in Fire, after Bjurman tries to arrange for Lisbeth’s demise, the sadistic pig is killed by Niedermann, who is afraid Bjurman now knows too much.

Lisbeth tries to kill her father, Zalachenko, in the farmhouse in Gosseberga at the end of Fire but ends up wielding the axe only to wound him severely, while she is almost killed herself by Zala’s bullet to her brain. In the hospital at the opening of Hornet’s Nest, where Lisbeth and Zala are in nearby rooms, it isn’t clear who will first succeed in finishing the job against the other. But before either can kill the other, Gullberg breaks into Zala’s room and kills him before he can give away the secrets of the “Section.” Much as Lisbeth would have liked to kill Zala—she had tried as early as age 12—in the end, it is Gullberg who accomplishes the task.

The pattern continues in the Epilogue to Hornet’s Nest. Lisbeth finds Niedermann holed up in the dilapidated warehouse owned by Zala (and recently on Lisbeth’s inventory of inherited property after Zala’s death). It was here that the women in Zala’s trafficking network were housed in a state of sexual slavery and then murdered. Lisbeth takes on her half-brother Niedermann, the giant who feels no pain, ultimately nailing his feet to the floor with an industrial nail gun. She thinks about killing him, but decides not to. Instead, as with Wennerström in Tattoo, she makes some phone calls. First she calls the criminal motorcycle gang that is also looking for Niedermann. Then she calls the police who have been on an unsuccessful manhunt for Niedermann. Having set up the killing of Niedermann by the motorcycle gang, followed by the arrest of the gang members by the police, Lisbeth goes to a nearby shop, has a coffee and a sandwich, and goes home to take a hot bath. She concludes that she is now “free” and that the painful story that began on the day of her birth is now over.

Lisbeth’s culpability in these deaths is an interesting matter for philosophers, legal experts, and ordinary readers to consider and debate. But Stieg Larsson is very careful to set up the plot in each case so that Lisbeth’s actions are always justified; she is always ready and willing to do what it takes to eliminate these scourges from the human race, but, in the end, she somehow manages to avoid actually doing the killing.

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