Lisbeth Salander ’s Unique Psychiatric Profile
There is a similar Lisbeth Salander in my life, so I know first-hand how complex this character is. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on their thought processes, they behave or think in opposition to your expectations. Sometimes these people look like pretty flowers, but when you try to pick them, you discover stinging nettles in your grasp.
While it is true that Lisbeth does not fall completely within the diagnosis of high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, we should not discount the possibility she suffers from either a complex multitude of mental and emotional disorders or a disorder that is hereto unknown in the psychiatric community. Autism is still not completely understood. Aspergers is known only insofar as the number of people studied to date and is by no means exhaustive. There exist many people in society with mild and moderate forms of Aspergers who manage to function within their confines, yet remain undiagnosed and misunderstood. They may seem simply ‘odd’ to us…not completely sociopathic, but detached or mentally out-of-sync. Our knowledge of these unique individuals relies exclusively on published case studies and the more sensationalised cases (like Rain Man). Also, it is possible that part of Lisbeth Salander’s psychiatric oddities are simply her way of being able to cope with trauma (PTSD), social dysfunction and attachment disorder.
Lisbeth Salander has obviously exhibited poor coping skills for life problems, and for which she has developed her own unique and brilliant methods of emotional survival, yet the reader must admit that her life is anything but ordinary. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. She is able to clearly process information and formulate solutions to problems because she does not have to wade through social constraints or emotional conflict. She sees ‘patterns’ that defy ordinary comprehension. Lacking emotional insight, she relies on logic to determin a course of action. Her ‘gift’ of a photographic memory presents another problem because her brain must constantly process and analyse information, like a computer, and can’t relax or shut down to provide a mental resting place.
Lisbeth lacks social skills and self-awareness but her character occasionally strays outside the boundaries of known psychiatric diagnoses and, while capable of love (or a verisimilitude), she cannot cope with this depth of feeling, shuts down emotionally and exhibits avoidance behaviour, as when she ‘falls in love’ with Blomqvist but runs away from their relationship when she sees him with Berger and cuts off all communication. Her lonliness is like a black hole…limitless and darkly daunting…either due to her unique personality, or because of it. Lisbeth is not lonely for simple social acceptance and companionship; she is lonely for a comparable intellect and validation. Lisbeth is like the last of a species, seeking, in vain, for a counterpart. Lonliness, and the saving grace of hope, drives her attempts to form relationships yet she lives almost exclusively in her own world of detachment. It isn’t that she does not have the ability to love, after a fashion, but that she does not understand this emotion outside of her own experience. For her, love is relative and, ultimately, not necessary to survival. She has no insight (or caring) about how others relate to her. Salander also experiences joy, as when she stole the Harley motorcycle (The Girl Who Played with Fire) from one of the men who attacked her and drove it with such abandon that she altered her journey in order to draw out the experience. The ability to experience love, hope and joy are her saving graces.
Lisbeth Salander exhibits conflicting mental states in that she both turns her self-loathing inward (harms herself) and outward (harms others). I cannot decide if Stieg Larsson did not truly understand this unique and very real set of psychiatric and emotional disorders, or if he did to a point, but took licence when he created the character of Lisbeth, as is any authors’ right. Lisbeth is the most complex literary protagonist I’ve ever encountered. Stieg Larsson gives true value to his readers in the depth and breadth of Lisbeth’s personality and in the complexity of his story lines. The literary world is poorer for his absence.
Morality of Lisbeth Salander
I would describe her moral code as consistently applied, yet perfunctory. Particular moral notions she rejected were done so by a rational and justifiable process (e.g. obeying certain social conventions, cooperating with police), but some were not.
Lisbeth’s moral code is laced with venomous cynicism, and an almost acid-like revulsion of trust and dependence on other people. If she had no bootstraps, she would yank herself up by the hair on the back of her neck. In this sense, she is very individualistic and conservative.
The vast majority of her moral outrage is directed towards men who exploit and dominate women. However, I see little to none of that valorous energy expended on other forms of domination and tyranny. She allowed her lawyer to invest the money she embezzled into basically anything that he wanted. Lisbeth Salander did not have any scruples towards corporations that use child labor, exploit Third World workers, or hire death squads to liquidate union leaders and political activists. She did not give a damn. All that concerned her was that she had enough money to never work again. She may have justified living off the labor of others by thinking about the person she took the money from, demonstrating that she did not understand two wrongs don’t make a right.
In fact she does not possess a moral code or moral principles: rather, she has a set of very sharpened moral reflexes that cause her to behave with ruthless consistency towards perceived injustice (i.e. violence against women) in her immediate world.
The oil that always kept her engine going was a volatile mix of militant feminism, indiscriminate cynicism, rationalism, and unapologetic self-interest (even self-absorption). Consistent, but not rational. Stuck to with resolute determination, but never reflected on or expanded. Honorable even, but based on visceral and involuntary experiences she had in her childhood.
Romance between Mikael and Lisbeth
I think this novel would have rung totally and utterly untrue if it had a Hollywood style “happy end” with Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist officially “getting together”. These books examine the width and the depth of violence and injustice done to women in a patriarchal society. A book that does that *has* to examine the romantic notion of a love relationship between a man and a woman which is based on ownership and exclusive mating rights.
Lisbeth’s character is far too damaged to even be able to cope with “loving someone” – which is precisely why she runs away from Mikael as far and as fast as she can. It hurts too much. Besides, she has just been through the ordeal of having her inmost secrets dragged out into the public eye, and I guess on some level she blames Mikael for making her do it. At the same time I also think he is definitely the person who can help her heal and teach her to function in an intimate relationship. But a very important part of this is that he *accepts* that she wants to keep her distance.
Mikael Blomqvist has his own emotional issues – as several people have pointed out, his relationship with Erica Berger is not very healthy. He gets the short end of the deal in it, and it has already led to his marriage breaking up. But he is a mellow sort of guy who goes along with what life throws at him, and who seems to be at the beck and call of several assertive women who want his sexual favors. That is, by the by, traditionally a female role – he’s for all matters and purposes, a married woman’s mistress. I think part of Lisbeth’s anger at Erica is that on some level she sees this, and wonders why Blomqvist lets himself be exploited that way. At the same time, she is frightened by the feelings her jealousy of Erica brings up in her: it is said in the book that she felt like she wanted to *hurt* Erica when she saw her and Blomqvist heading off to bed at the end of book 1, and I think she is very worried that – being the daughter of Zalachenko and the sister of Niederman – she too has a patholigically violent streak in her. After all, she has been *told* that she has psychiatric problems since she was 12. I think this is probably why she starts reading up on genetics while in hospital – because she wants to find out where she stands in this respect.
Someone has pointed out that on a deeper level, Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander have similar emotional issues, and I think this is quite right. Neither of them is sexually faithful, and both have problems committing to another person.
Monica Figuerola, to my mind, is deliberately a caricature of the happy, healthy, physically fit blonde superwoman, who drags her man off to bed in handcuffs. She is way over the top bossy, and she has all the typical hangups about commitment and whether or not her relationship with Blomqvist is “serious” – precisely the sort of thing that seems to make most men pack up and run. I definitely think we are supposed to read that between the lines here. Her relationship to Blomqvist is good sex, that’s where that ends. I even think that for him, perhaps it is a release for the unadmitted (and, as far as he can tell, unrequited) feelings he has for Lisbeth.
One of the major themes of the book is that love is far more complex than who you sleep with. And that what Blomqvist calls “friendship” is much more long-lasting than any sexual fling. He calls Erica Berger his “friend”, not his lover.
As to Lisbeth, he *says* he’s not in love with her, but I think his actions show that he is epically head over heels very much so. But he probably hasn’t realized it himself. Monica offers him good sex, Erica offers him good sex and a long term working relationship, but Lisbeth is a soul mate. Not only does he doggedly try to keep in touch no matter how often she rejects him, by book three he has practically moved into her apartment. While she is not there, but still. And is quite clear that several other characters have picked up on it – Erica, much as she tries to deny it, is jealous, and perhaps this is why she seems so ready to give way to Figuerola – because at the end of the day, she is far less of a threat to her own importance in Blomqvist’s life.
I totally think Lisbeth and Kalle will have an ongoing relationship which will very likely include sleeping with each other on a more or less regular basis, but I also doubt they will ever end up in a marriage type arrangement. And why should they? Isn’t exploring the alternatives, what the books are all about?
Jean Ferguson in Toronto, Canada
Submitted: 4 May 2012