The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…a self-actualization failure

When I finish reading a highly recommended bestseller, I usually feel like the singer of Roy Orbison’s “You’re the Only One”: I don’t often understand the book’s appeal. Hence, I usually avoid bestsellers, claiming that I’m engaged in some project. And I should have done just that with all of the praise I heard about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I withstood the temptation to see what all the fuss was about until someone (a well-respected educator) absolutely raved that the novel portrays one of the most interesting and unique female protagonists that she’d ever read. I was hooked. I ordered it and began to devour it as soon as it arrived.

590 pages later…
Before I begin, I want to assure you that I have no problem with reading a longish novel. I’m a big fan of those long-penned Victorian writers. In high school, I read every single Dickens novel—even the unfinished one. Last summer, I finished reading all of George Eliot’s novels. Last month, I finished reading Mansfield Park—the only Austen that I’d not read. So when I keep carping about the length of this novel, it’s not that I’m a lector novice. I simply resent an unrewarding literary cathexis.

Five hundred and ninety pages later, I know who did what and how—information that I hung in there to discover. I admit that I “couldn’t put it down.” Sadly, immediately thereafter, my disappointment surfaced when I realized that I didn’t know much in the “why” department. My general complaint about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that I didn’t learn one damn thing more than plot details. Specifically, my four complaints center around the theme of this blog—female self-actualization.

Complaint #1: I could have learned about how the disease that Lisbeth Salander has affects her troubled life. Once I read that she had a disease, which is identified very late in the story, I rushed to the internet to learn more. My 20 minutes search provided me with a list of symptoms that exactly matched her behavior. This is not good writing. Good fiction, rather than replicating the facts, should nuance them into portrayals of authentic human behavior. Five hundred and ninety pages later, I am still wondering…How could this disease affect a female coming of age? How could this disease affect a female with this character’s background? How could this disease affect a female undergoing her present circumstances? How could this disease affect her future self-actualization? In conclusion, how does this disease affect a complex, troubled female who is coming of age?

Complaint #2: Salander is, to put it mildly, socially “off.” That’s a big part of the disease. However, being socially “off,” she has much in common with non-diseased self-actualizers. As Maslow’s case studies consistently revealed, self-actualizers are highly selective in their chosen associations, which makes them look, to the masses, as “off.” They are careful to choose with whom they share their lives. Just that one characteristic allows them to opt out of the master narrative and self-actualize according to a more individual and often, socially unapproved set of values. The characterization of Salander could have been a perfect candidate for her illustrating a self-actualizer’s ipseity in two ways—her values and her associations.

Complaint #3: Given that the novel, in general, and Salander’s life, in particular, turns often to revenge, every reader should expect to learn about her code, whether it’s moral, immoral, or amoral. Instead, I witnessed a female simply mimicking someone else’s advice. Instead of formulating a moral code, Salander reacts to horrible, just horrible, situations by simply employing snippets of advice she’s recalled from a former mentor. These aphorisms, which she uses to maneuver out of horrible, horrible situations when her already bad life goes terribly wrong, don’t amount to anything more than “measure twice, cut once.” But beyond these philosophically devoid apothegms, I expect a code. Specifically, I expect to understand her code relating to revenge. I was eager to learn how this person, who is socially “off,” meaning living outside the master narrative of justice, could operate amidst depravity. Disappointingly, after 590 pages, I have no idea why she sometimes advocates for public punishment and other times for private retribution. Just because someone is outside the law doesn’t mean that she has no consistent code. In fact, such renegades usually replace the socially-sanctioned codes and practices with their own individual brand. That is, living outside the law requires more than a set of moral proscriptions. It also requires a set of moral prescriptions. Self-actualizers, who often live outside social norms, are more than dissenters (like Salander). They are faithful to living within their own well-established personal codes. Such self-actualizing female individuation is exactly what I wanted to read about and try to understand more fully.

Complaint #4: Other readers can refute my first complaint by claiming that at the novel’s end, Salander forms an important human connection and, thus, fulfills one of the criteria for being a self-actualizer—forming a commitment to something or someone beyond yourself. If those readers’ claim were true, yes, that would have been a hallmark relationship for Salander and a significant prospect for launching her self-actualizing. What frustrates me about this possibility is that one of the other characters repeatedly instructs her to embrace exactly that self-actualizing break in her alienating behavior. In other words, the novel itself writes its own female self-actualizing script but then, retreats to the worn-out but still popular female master narrative of the romance. (Please, forgive my obscurity; I don’t want to spoil the plot, especially because that’s all there is.) So instead of forming a rewarding relationship (an authentic friendship as the other character instructs), Salander opts for an impractical romance—one that is preposterous because she and this guy could never be soul-mate lovers. Here’s why I am so sure of that. The only reason that she’s attracted to him is that he has an uncharacteristic “whatever” personality that weathers her socially “off” behavior. This attracts her because he demands no revision of her social ineptness. She may be relieved with his lack of curiosity, criticism, and demands. I understand her relief. But she need not be impressed with his misguided sense of apatheia. She needs to read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations to learn when it’s healthy to be apathetic—to externals you can’t control—and when it’s appropriate to act/react. Unfortunately, the novel ends with her failed romance fantasy. As such, the five hundred and ninetieth page finds her disappointed…and me disgusted. Sadly, both of us have learned nothing in the way of authentic human interactions.

I invite any comments and again, acknowledge that likely “I’m the only one” who failed to appreciate this widely popular novel.

Weeks later…I’ve been feeling a bit off about this review, especially after people keep reminding me that this book is a best seller in several book formats. I’d like to strengthen my argument with an analogous review of a book I just finished reading. By contrast, I hope to clarify my complaints about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…

Vowell, Sarah. Assassination Vacation. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2005.

Protagonist and author Sarah Vowell takes readers on her journeys to recreate (and seemingly relive) associations with the Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley assassinations. Having just recently viewed the play The Assassins, Sarah embarks first on her Lincoln journey. Readers discover many facts about Lincoln, the Civil War, the political climate of the 1860s, the Lincolns, the assassin and his family, the conspirators, and a free love commune. No tangent is too distracting for Vowell. These “fact” are not seamlessly chronologically chronicled. Rather, they are narrated amidst Sarah’s life and trips where other people become involved and drop out. Docents are emulated. Historical documents are recalled. All as if you’re reading a novel. By the end of my reading I wanted to get in my car and find some close historical marker to gawk over. I didn’t care what it was about. Just give me a tidbit of history, and I’m inspired to pursue a story around it. This is not to say that Assassination Vacation is one sentimental anecdote after another. There’s plenty of self-deprecating humor and Bush bashing. In the spirit of ancient comedy, Assassination Vacation both entertains and enlightens. I’m still pondering about the style and format of all the detours and non-chronological plot, which somehow eschews confusion and inspires confidence in an authentic telling/retelling of history (although it denies that possibility). More importantly, I learned a great deal about American history, fanatics, grieving and memorializing. Most importantly, I wanted to learn more. That’s a good book.


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