The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
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LITERARY INK: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Article © 2010 PJ Reece

The publishers wanted a title they could take to the bank.  The original Swedish title you wouldn’t take to a dog fight: Men Who Hate Women.  What were they thinking over at the marketing department?  Capitalizing on a red hot cultural trend, the English publishers hit on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and they’ve been laughing all the way to ‘you know where’.  Whether by accident or design, they also deployed one of the most powerful literary devices – a highly graphic unifying image.  A literary tattoo! 

Symbols of any kind can help us decipher what lies at the heart of the story.  Think of the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the white whale in Moby Dick.  For that matter, who can forget the Polynesian harpooner (Queequeg) and his tattoos.  Every good film or book has a compelling image that serves as the theme’s touchstone, and only rarely in film or literature has it been a tattoo. 

The Girl with the Dragon TattooDragon Tattoo’s most creative invention is Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic co-protagonist who cleans up after the hateful men in her life.  Without this dark and vengeful angel the book may have proved too cruel to digest.  She, of course, is the woman with the dragon tattoo. 

Author Stieg Larsson didn’t over-cook the dragon motif.  In fact, it’s barely mentioned.  In my latest novel, ROXY, I treat a tattoo motif in the same subtle fashion.  Central images work best that way, just as the moral of many stories is buried in some minor incident.  Yet the detail reverberates throughout the story.  It’s just these kinds of ripples and cross-currents repeatedly encountered that make reading long-form fiction so enjoyable.  And what makes speculating upon the writer’s intention so much fun.  

So, what did the late Stieg Larrson intend with his dragon motif?  Obviously he wanted to add depth to the Salander character.  He wanted the reader to understand her without being told in so many unwieldy words.  Any tattoo has the potential to do that.  What might we have expected of her if, instead of a dragon, she wore a floral design, or Our Lady of Guadalupe?  We would anticipate a more forgiving character – definitely not the personality Larsson had in mind.  Readers rightfully expect a woman simmering with a latent vengeance capable of breathing fire.  

Sometimes an author will chose an icon with significance more far-reaching than he intended.  Larsson’s dragon, for example, may also speak to family history the plot uncovers, crimes so hideous that they could only have been committed by men held hostage by their own lizard brains.   

A tattoo helps to define my young protagonist in the novel, ROXY.  I wanted her to appear both rebellious and heart-felt.  A tattoo over her heart would accomplish that, a text tattoo spelling “Shangri-La”.  How could this possibly not imply something central to her life?  This is the tattoo’s uniquely powerful medicine – it serves as a talisman reflecting a person’s deepest fears or desires.

Roxy’s tattoo is a reminder of her long-dead grandmother, the person closest to her heart.  While that may sound so very sentimental, the tattoo is meanwhile helping to hold the story universe together in its role as central image.  It provides a clue to where the story is headed, quite literally.  And here’s the kicker – readers know this, if only on a subconscious level.  

A unifying icon like a tattoo is a nucleus around which readers can organize their participation in the story.  Yes, we do participate – by anticipating events in the plot, and finally by unlocking the story’s meaning.  This is what we expect of an emblem or myth or tattoo, and that’s what we get—understanding without laborious thinking. 

While reading a good book, the magical part of our brain thrives on hints and buried clues.  It works overtime – often without our knowing it – to interpret minor details, throw-away lines, and hidden symbols such as Salander’s dragon and Roxy’s ‘Shangri-La’ tattoo. 

PJ Reece -

For more info about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo see a review of the movie, a photo gallery of images from the movie and check out the meanings of Dragon Tattoos, Fire Dragon Tattoos, Water Dragon Tattoos & Wasp Tattoos.

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