The Arrival tells a universal story of immigration. The story is about a man leaving his home to find work and support his family. The "graphic novel" conveys messages of solitude, alienation, and hope in a foreign land.
Without the use of dialogue or text, Shaun Tan portrays the experience of a father emigrating to a new land. Tan differentiates The Arrival from children's picture books, explaining that there's more emphasis on continuity in texts with multiple frames and panels, and that a "graphic novel" text like his more closely resembles a film making process. Shaun Tan has said he wanted his book to build a kind of empathy in readers: "In Australia, people don't stop to imagine what it's like for some of these refugees. They just see them as a problem once they're here, without thinking about the bigger picture. I don't expect the book to change anybody's opinion about things, but if it at least makes them pause to think, I'll feel as if I've succeeded in something."