Meaning of Wordlessness

Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” plays on the idea of understanding and misunderstanding. On a very overt level, Tan uses the lack of words to highlight how someone who does not know the language or cultures of another country may feel when they arrive. This distinction gives the book the ability to make the reader have an intense personal connection to the book if they have also experienced a similar situation. Tan does a wonderful job incorporating aspects of older photographs into his work – giving the piece a realistic vibe of immigration. The towering statues are reminiscent of the Colossus of Rhodes, or other imposing classical pieces of giant architecture. While clearly an allusion to the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, these statues represent the imposing nature of newness and fear. These objects form the focal point for the idea of fear in the book – as they are the most impressive structures in the city. Additionally, the snaking, serpent-like tail that follows the protagonist and his family in their home town shows the apprehension that the family and protagonist have in the upcoming journey.

I wonder if the story had words, perhaps only minimally, if that would shift the tenor and overall message of the book in a massive way. Certainly, the feeling of misunderstanding might be lost a little due to our own understanding of language. On the other hand, perhaps the words could contextualize a backstory of the characters for the specific reasons he is leaving for a new land. Tan’s decision to leave out words makes the reader focus much more on the illustrations.

One Reply to “Meaning of Wordlessness”

  1. Hi Will,

    I agree that it’s interesting to consider the meaning behind Tan’s decision to articulate his story purely through illustration. I think this not only helps to convey the confusion and helplessness of an immigrant in a new country but also adds to the anonymity of the main character. This allows the reader to identify with the character and project our own stories and backgrounds in a way to make the story relatable to ourselves. In my opinion, by giving the reader agency over the interpretation in such a way, it makes the reading experience a lot more enjoyable and personal. It almost makes the viewer write/create the story in our own minds to fill in the space between the illustrations.



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