Silence Speaks: The Quiet Power of Wordless Novels

An online exhibition of books from Archives & Special Collections
Western Washington University Libraries


The American novelist John Steinbeck once said that “A man without words is a man without thought.” Wordless novels, a genre of visually rendered narratives that were forerunners of today’s graphic novels, challenge this idea. Pioneered in 1918 by Frans Masereel, a Belgian artist who inspired a generation of illustrators (including the first female wordless novelist), the books’ uncaptioned, mostly black-and-white images express the artistic, social, and political turmoil of the years between the First and Second World War. More broadly, they raise timeless questions about the complex relationship between power, knowledge, and silence.

Lack of words, contrary to Steinbeck’s assertion, does not always mean lack of thought. Sometimes, in fact, our minds are at their busiest in moments of quiet, and you only have to turn on today’s 24/7 news networks to realize that endless words are not necessarily a sign of deep understanding. For all their power to expand knowledge, words can also confine and even inhibit it. Think, for example, about how hard it can be to break free from cherished myths, enshrined in textbooks and other published histories, that have shaped our national and local consciousness, or about how some written forms of communication, such as scientific journals, shut out indigenous ways of knowing. Of course, words can also give the illusion of communication. Stripping them away completely is one approach to encountering truth and unshackling the mind. As Francis Bacon observed long ago, “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”

This online exhibition introduces major wordless novels in Special Collections at the Western Washington University Libraries. The materials are on display in the Special Collections exhibition gallery on the sixth floor of Wilson Library from September 22, 2021 through June 10, 2022.


Exhibition curated by Michael Taylor, Special Collections Librarian

Content warning

This exhibition contains images that some viewers may find disturbing. Western Libraries' Division of Archives & Special Collections aims to foster academic dialogue and contextualize its collections of historical material in a respectful manner. We welcome feedback on any issues of concern. Please contact us at