Women Who Control Men: Comparing Two Heroines in Fiction

In the middle of reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, it occurred to me that Lisbeth Salander reminds me of Jane Eyre. Obviously there are huge differences between living in Victorian England and modern-day Sweden – although Larsson’s view of Sweden is far harsher for women in terms of sexual harassment and abuse – but in both cases Jane and Lisbeth are women who need to control men in order to live their lives the way they wish.

To recap Jane Eyre’s story: she returns to Rochester after Thornfield is burnt to the ground and his wife is dead. More importantly, however, Rochester is physically impaired; as a result of the fire, he is blind (temporarily, anyway). Jane comes back not only because of her love for Rochester but because he is in a weaker state. More to the point, Jane returns after she has amassed a large amount of money, giving her even more power. Jane Eyre is financially independent, so her decision to go back to Rochester is made not because she has to but because she wants to. She is the one in control of their relationship.

Lisbeth Salander, by comparison, is a woman who struggles with more injustices than anyone has a right to suffer. Because of the various forms of abuse she has lived through, she has formed a protective shell to keep out nearly everyone she comes in contact with. For as many male characters as there are with affection for women, there are also male characters who have deeply misogynistic viewpoints. In Hornet’s Nest, Erika Berger receives emails and doctored photographs of a sexually harassing nature. She, like many other female characters in the novels, is called a whore. In Larsson’s Sweden, far too many men think of women as whores, usually with a few other choice expletives attached. It feels like a never-ending cycle of hatred. In order to get back at the men who have hurt her, Lisbeth is often equally violent, if not more so. She does what she thinks she must to gain control of her life. Comparatively, Jane Eyre does not endure nearly as much hardship.

As catchy as the first book’s title is – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I think the original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, is a more accurate description of not only that book but the entire series. In each of Larsson’s Girl books, women are oppressed and attacked simply because they are women. In Hornet’s Nest, one male character considers Lisbeth not to be a real woman because she is a lesbian (at least to his knowledge). Too often in Lisbeth’s world women are treated as less than human, more like throwaway objects than people. Violence against women is not restricted to serial killers, of which there are a few in the Millennium trilogy. Rather, it is a habit common among the men who populate Larsson’s version of Sweden. Perhaps it is the truth; I don’t know. What I do know is that Stieg Larsson had an undeniable gift for creating strong, memorable characters and he is much-missed. It’s too bad he didn’t live to see the new iPhones and iPads, since he surely would have enjoyed writing about them with the same gusto with which he chronicled Lisbeth’s uses of her Apple PowerBook G4 and Palm Tungsten T3.

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