Crime fiction is violent and cruel by definition and Larsson hewed faithfully to the tradition: Arch-criminals commit torture and murder and they traffic in women. The heroine is raped. Someone dies in a fiery car crash; another is left to die in a hurricane. An axe is sunk into a face, fifty thousand volts are Tasered into a crotch, and leaking brain matter is touched, drips on the ground, and is stepped upon.
What sets Larsson apart, however, is his ability to explicitly, yet artfully, weave into the story the political and moral issues that concerned him in real life: the rise of the extreme right, corruption in government agencies and corporate boardrooms, social and political intolerance, and violence against women in all its forms.
Nowhere is his anger at injustice on greater display than in the scenes depicting Bjurman’s sexual humiliation and rape of Lisbeth Salander and, in even greater detail, Salander’s revenge on Bjurman, which lingers on for six pages. These scenes are so graphically rendered that it has raised the question of motivation: Did Larsson intend them as an edifying punch to our sensibilities? An explicit lesson for our betterment? Or was he being the voyeur, a moralist “having his feminism and eating it, too,” as the critic Joan Acocella put it?
(Eva Gabrielsson, his life-partner and stalwart defender of his feminism, strongly rebuts the voyeur thesis, telling a New York audience that “he had absolutely no joy” in writing these passages. They arose out of anger, she said, an anger that began to build from the day he witnessed a rape as a teenager and had done nothing about it.)
The question has a parallel in the world of modern and post-modern art, as we were reminded while reading a review of The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, the American poet, essayist, and art critic. What, ponders Nelson, is the dividing line between real-world violence brought to our attention in the form of art, and art for the sake of bludgeoning us with violence for its own sake?
Nelson’s answer, reports Laura Kipnis in her review of the book in The New York Times, is that she “understands that what makes violence so absorbing, as subject and spectacle, is the impossibility of separating what’s ‘out there’ from what’s ‘in here.’” Most of us, she points out, have “wily reserves of malice, power-mongering, self-centeredness, fear, sadism or simple meanness of spirit.”
This is the point Larsson was making in those scenes of sexual assault and retribution—that we may all occasionally feel the urge to injure and destroy. Certainly that is evident in the way readers and film-goers have cheered on Salander as she reveals herself as a kick-ass feminist, hell-bent on justice and using whatever violence it takes. Lisbeth Salander, like her creator, knows what is right “in here,” but what’s “out there” are enemies needing to be vanquished.
Katarina Wensstam, the well-known Swedish feminist, crime reporter, and consultant to police agencies and companies on dealing with cases of abuse against women, put her finger on this moral duality when she told us in an interview:
When I went to see the film the audience almost cheered when Salander rapes and mutilates her guardian, Bjurman, because they hated Bjurman so much for raping her. I can understand why they would. Still, it left me with quite a peculiar feeling because I don’t really believe in that sort of revenge. Would you say hooray if someone went out and really did what Lisbeth Salander is doing, even in revenge? No. Everyone would just put her in jail. [See Chapter 6 of The Tattooed Girl.]
Larsson’s graphic representation of sexual violence is not so much exploitation (or voyeurism) as exploration. He is figuratively asking all of us to consider, in Laura Kipnis’ words, “what happens when ethical impulses collide with the monsters within.” And, at the same time, how “these enactments [of violence] leave behind a nasty residue.”