The importance of faces in The Arrival

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is strikingly effective in depicting the constant sense of displacement that immigrants feel, as well as the search for a sense of belonging that lies at the heart of the experience through faces. While I don’t deny the power of visual art to evoke strong emotions in viewers, I was particularly impressed with Tan’s ability to capture the complex/layered immigrant experience in a purely visual form. I think he captures the perpetual sense of “displacement” consistently through many aspects of the story, not least of all setting. But a single part of his drawings stand out: facial expression. Following the idea that this book presents like an old photo album, the faces throughout the story are essential to understanding the narrative. Tan seems to pay meticulous attention to each face, drawing out each particular moment and mood in the way that the features are frozen. This is what lets him get away with a wordless story. Tan depicts extremes: the main character’s pure, unbridled joy in his interactions with his family, the confusion and anxiety of his arrival in a new city, and the sense of bemusement and wonder as he discovers the stories of other strangers. Tan powerfully reasserts the individuality of the immigrant figure, pushing against the societal habit of generalizing and judging.

Which character or face stuck out to you the most?

(My personal favorite was the old man!)

2 Replies to “The importance of faces in The Arrival”

  1. Hi Devon,

    I agree with you about the power of the facial expressions used here, but I would argue that what he achieves most successfully in this usage is conveying emotions typically associated with immigrants’ experiences over the individuality of figure. This was especially true for me on the page in which the protagonist is being interrogated, as he enters the new city. The reader doesn’t need words to comprehend that he is having trouble understanding the different language, experiencing discomfort and frustration. To me, there’s not much about his expressions or depiction that reflect his home country, but much more emphasis in his facial features on how he experiences the juxtaposition of the new environment to his old.

  2. The faces are one of the parts of this book that I truly appreciated and took the time to understand.  I think your post highlights the importance of them perfectly.  I think the way that he portrayed differing emotions in all of the faces that he used was so interesting especially because in a situation like immigrating to a new city, everyone is experiencing different emotions since everyone’s circumstances are different.  I also found the face that you selected to be my favorite.  It seemed so whimsical in a series of other faces that seemed more calm and serious.  Thanks for this post, I think it really helped shape my opinions on the importance of faces in his book.

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