All For One, Not One For All: Thoughts on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy

Art & Literature, Book Reviews, Culture, Ethics, Human Rights, Media, Moral Philosophy, Social Justice — By on October 11, 2011 at 7:40 am

“It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.”

This age-old attitude is at the heart of the drama in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which begins with the international best-seller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

A confession: these are not the sort of books I usually read. I’m not fond of mysteries, and the phrase “international best-seller” usually puts my guard up. But after reading Lars Walker’s reviews of two of the books at Brandywine Books, I became intrigued.

The books deal with the story of Lisbeth Salander, a socially awkward (to put it mildly) young woman with a history of trauma. Over the course of the three books, the reader discovers that not only has Lisbeth been harmed by the very people who were put in place to protect her, but that the Swedish government decided that she was expendable to protect a certain State secret.

Fortunately, Lisbeth is not as alone as she seems. Idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist, having met Lisbeth in the first book, determines to expose the evil that Lisbeth has suffered, no matter the cost. Blomkvist is joined in his crusade by the staff of his magazine, Millennium, as well as several others. Over the course of the books, the lines are drawn between those willing to expose the truth and those who want to cover it up.

This is why, I suspect, so much of the story is spent with characters in the police force and the world of journalism. While these occupations often find themselves at odds, they are both fundamentally dedicated to discovering the truth and revealing evil.

This aspect of the story is slow to build, taking a backseat to a dramatic missing-person story and a double murder in the first two books. But Larsson never lets the theme be lost or obscured: by the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the reader can see plainly the horror of allowing a single innocent woman’s rights be trampled in the name of expedience, or national security, or any other lofty-sounding goal.

The main sense of horror in the trilogy comes not from  violence (though there is plenty of that), but from the slow realization that the organs of truth-telling, namely the police and the press, have utterly failed. In Salander’s case, they have even colluded to keep her story under wraps, to discredit her as a witness to crimes, and to keep her under federal supervision. Lisbeth refuses to speak to psychiatrists and police officers, because when she did so as a child, she was locked away in an institution to keep her from revealing a scandal. For 15 years, no-one digs deeper into her story, assuming her to be mentally retarded and incapable of interaction. Lisbeth allows the world to continue thinking of her that way because it is the only way that she will simply be left alone.

The climactic moment of the story comes, not when the murders are finally solved, but when Lisbeth Salander’s story is proven true in a public forum and all those who used her as a sacrifice on the altar of expediency are revealed.

There are problems with these books: the sexual morality, for instance, leaves much to be desired. But in the end, Larsson seems to want nothing more than to praise the costly telling of truth in the face of easy silence. And on that, we can agree.

(Note: there are sexual and violent situations in these books that may make them unsuitable for young readers. I don’t recall thinking that any of the sex or violence was purely titillating, though that is a very subjective judgement. Even with that caveat, I highly recommend these books.)


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  • Lars Walker

    Very good, and thanks for the link. I haven’t actually read the third book yet; waiting for the paperback, which is taking forever to show up.

  • http://twitter.com/Joi_the_Artist Joi Weaver

    Thanks, glad you liked it! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the final book: it seemed different from the others, but I loved it, especially seeing the truth FINALLY win out over expedience. Good stuff.