White Noise

views updated May 18 2018

White Noise




Published in 1985, Don DeLillo's White Noise is designed to critique the society it reflects, the United States during the 1980s. The novel focuses especially on how the representation of things has become more real than things in and of themselves. DeLillo's technique, derived in large measure from film rather than literature, depends upon non-sequential jumps from scene to scene. This is an attempt to create the hyper-awareness of a world that has become oblivious to criticism via its mind-numbing familiarity—a familiarity achieved particularly through the omnipresence of uniform information that is repetitively generated by an all-pervasive mass media. DeLillo's means of representing reality is not through the exploration of character or environment but through caricature.

DeLillo's style is frequently called postmodern. Postmodern writing often offers a critique of its own content, and it presents the familiar in jarring, hyperbolic ways in order to question the accepted nature of meaning and reality. A satirist of contemporary reality, DeLillo presents the story as a caricature of itself rather than as a realistic representation. Because of this, the book has attracted much critical applause, and has remained popular with readers. While the book critiques 1980s America, it has remained relevant over the following decades. Indeed, a 1999 paperback edition of White Noise is still in print.


Don DeLillo was born to Italian immigrants on November 20, 1936, in the Bronx borough of New York City. His father was an auditor at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Although DeLillo abandoned his family's Roman Catholic beliefs by the end of adolescence, he retained affection for its rituals and disciplines. DeLillo was a lackluster student in high school. And he only began to read seriously around the age of eighteen when he had a summer job as a park attendant. DeLillo majored half-heartedly in Communications Arts at Fordham University, but spent most of his time in the bohemian world of Manhattan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went to jazz clubs and art-house cinemas instead of studying.

After graduating from college in 1958, DeLillo became a copywriter for a major advertising agency. He quit after five years. While working on his first novel, Americana (1971), he earned money writing feature articles for national magazines. Through the 1970s, DeLillo wrote six more novels, none of which received a lot of critical attention. In 1975, DeLillo married Barbara Bennett, an investment banker who switched careers to become a landscape designer. In the last years of the 1970s, DeLillo lived in Greece, where he wrote The Names, which was published in 1982. In 1985, White Noise was published. The novel won the National Book Award and established his reputation as a serious mainstream American novelist. The following year, DeLillo's first play, The Day Room, an exploration of anxiety about death, was produced. In 1988, DeLillo's novel Libra, concerning the assassination of John Kennedy, was published. Mao II, his 1991 novel about art and terrorism, received the PEN/Faulkner award in 1992. In 1999, DeLillo was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, and his play Valparaiso was produced. The play Love-Lies-Bleeding was produced in 2005. His third play, The Word for Snow, saw its first production in 2006.

DeLillo's 1997 novel, Underworld, was judged in a 2006 New York Times survey to be among the best American novels of the preceding twenty-five years. DeLillo's work, like White Noise, continues to reflect the contemporary world. DeLillo tried his hand at writing for film with the screenplay for Game 6 in 2005. In 2007, DeLillo published Falling Man, a book centered on the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. He has continued to write and live near New York City.


Part I: Waves and Radiation


Jack Gladney, Hitler studies specialist, watches station wagons bring students back to college. He offers a catalogue of the students' possessions—essentially luxury toys like televisions, stereos, personal computers, and miniature refrigerators—as they are removed from the parents' vehicles. Gladney also describes the self-satisfied, somewhat ironic complacency of the parents. The scene prepares the reader for the novel's exploration of vacuous consumerism.


Jack's wife, Babette, teaches an adult education course in posture and reads to a blind man, Mr. Treadwell, from supermarket tabloids. Four of their children from previous marriages live with them—Denise, Heinrich, Steffie, and Wilder. Jack's older daughter, Bee, does not live with them.

It is lunchtime in the Gladney kitchen. Everyone prepares his or her own lunch, but the family eats together.


On campus, Jack wears a sleeveless black academic robe and dark glasses. He and Murray Siskind visit "THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA." The barn stands as an emblem for one of the major themes of the novel, that image supersedes substance and that celebrity is a function not of achievement but of the hype that can be developed around something.


Jack sees Babette at the high school track running up and down steps in her sweat suit. They watch their daughters run. Driving home, Jack says his daughter, Bee, wants to visit. That evening, they eat take-out Chinese food and watch television. Afterwards, Jack reads Hitler. In bed, he tells Babette his first department chair advised him to change his first name in order to be "taken seriously." Jack confesses he feels inauthentic. Each expresses the wish to die before the other.


At breakfast, Babette reads everyone's horoscope aloud. That night, in bed, Jack thinks about death. The next morning, the family shops at the supermarket and run into Murray. He praises Babette's hair. Jack drives Murray home.


Jack talks with Heinrich about whether reality can be described and if anything can be known. Commenting on the plot to kill Hitler to his Advanced Nazism class, Jack says the nature of plots is to tend toward death.


Babette returns from posture class. She and Jack check on the children and go to bed. They discuss what sort of pornography he would like her to read aloud. They mock the language of pornographic literature. They decide on trashy magazines. Jack goes to get some from Heinrich, who is in his room doing a physics experiment as Wilder watches. Heinrich tells Jack to look downstairs. Jack finds old photo albums. He and Babette look through them; each wonders "Who will die first?"


Jack does not speak German and decides to learn it for an upcoming Hitler conference. Howard Dunlop, a reclusive boarder in Murray's rooming house, is his teacher. After the lesson, Jack invites Murray home for dinner. Murray watches as Denise compacts the garbage; Heinrich talks on the telephone about incest and neutrinos; Babette looks for Wilder; Steffie reports that on the radio someone said to boil water for safety. Jack thinks about the mystery of their family connection.


Because a toxic substance is found in the children's school, the building is closed. Denise, Steffie, Wilder, Babette, and Jack see Murray at the supermarket. He thanks Babette for dinner. Steffie tells Jack that Denise believes Babette is secretly taking medication. Murray tells Babette about the Tibetan idea of death. Babette notices that Wilder is not in the shopping cart. Murray spots him in another woman's cart. Murray invites the family to dinner. In the parking lot, they hear that one of the men examining the school building and wearing a protective but possibly toxic "Mylex" suit "collapsed and died."


Jack observes how students sprawl in the library. At home, Denise warns Babette that the gum she chews causes cancer in lab animals. Steffie talks on the phone. Neighbors call, wanting to drop by. Steffie makes excuses. Jack and Heinrich talk about the prisoner with whom Heinrich plays chess by correspondence, about how many people he killed, how he killed, and whether will or brain chemistry caused his action.


Jack wakes in the night terrified of death. In the morning, Steffie makes burnt toast. Jack, Steffie, and Babette discuss age and Steffie's mother, who works part time for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Steffie takes a computerized marketing survey phone call. In the evening Jack and Babette have dinner in Murray's room and talk about the importance of television. Walking home, Jack and Babette discuss her forgetfulness. Jack asks if she is on medication. She denies it.


Jack attends a German class. Denise's father, Howard Pardee, is in the kitchen. Denise expresses anxiety about his checkered work history. Bob takes the older kids to dinner. Jack drives Babette to Mr. Treadwell's. Jack waits in the car with Wilder. The Treadwells are missing. Jack, Babette, and Wilder join Bob and the kids in the restaurant. The next morning the river is dragged.


Heinrich goes to the river to watch. Treadwell and his sister are found dazed in an abandoned cookie store in a mall.


The family watch a sunset from the window in Steffie's room. Heinrich distrusts its splendor. Jack studies German. Denise and Jack discuss their plot to discover if Babette is taking medication. Steffie joins them. Heinrich says there are pictures of a plane crash on television. The girls go to watch. That evening, a Friday ritual, the family gathers in front of the television, eat takeout Chinese food, and watch disaster reports.

Monday morning Murray is waiting in Jack's office. He fears another faculty member will be appointed the Elvis Presley specialist. Jack offers to support his appointment by dropping in on his class. The chairman of the department, Alphone Stompanato, bullies the department members at lunch, challenging them with pop culture trivia questions.


Jack co-teaches Murray's class providing an observation about Hitler for every remark Murray makes about Elvis Presley.


Wilder begins to cry in the afternoon and cries non-stop into the night. Babette takes him to the doctor to no effect. Jack drives her to her posture class and waits in the car with Wilder on his lap, listening attentively to his crying. As Jack drives Babette home, Wilder stops.


Jack drives the family to a mall. Denise asks Babette what she knows about Dylar. Babette diverts the conversation to other subjects. At the hardware store, Jack meets a colleague who says he does not look as frightening off campus as he does in his academic robe and dark glasses. Jack becomes animated by shopping. He tells the children to select Christmas presents. They eat in the food court and listen while "a band played live Muzak." At home, Jack notices Steffie mouths the words of the characters on television as she watches.


Jack drives to the airport to meet Bee; he notices the blandness of his town. He sees Tweedy Browner, Bee's mother, there. Bee's flight has not yet arrived. They discuss their failed marriage and her present, unfulfilling marriage. Passengers arrive whose plane lost power and dropped four miles, but the motors returned and the pilot landed safely. Bee arrives.


Bee makes the family self-conscious. After Jack drives her to the airport at the conclusion of her visit, he stops at a cemetery and senses the dead as a presence in his life.


Reading obituaries, Jack thinks about his own death and fantasizes about Attila the Hun's death, picturing the scene as it might be presented in a Hollywood epic. Jack and Babette talk about who will die first. Babette leaves for her class. Murray visits, talks to the children about popular culture, and watches television with them. Jack makes coffee; Heinrich and Jack talk about the wasteful motions people go through performing daily routines. Jack brings Murray coffee. Babette is on television; her class is being broadcast. Everyone is excited except Wilder, who sits in front of the set afterwards and cries softly as Murray observes him and takes notes.

Part II: The Airborne Toxic Event


Unlike the other chapters of the novel, all quite brief, the account of the evacuation is presented in one long chapter, appropriately representing a kind of relentless disruption of routines that comes to feel, itself, like a routine event. Indeed, this chapter comprises the entirety of the novel's second section. A train carrying a toxic chemical derailed and spilled it into the atmosphere. With radio reports in the background, the family tries to follow their normal routine until a passing sound truck orders all houses evacuated. In a traffic jam, they listen to radio reports that deadly Nyodene D. has been released. They follow radio directions to a designated shelter. Men wearing special suits and their dogs patrol the area. The children wonder about the toxic effects on dogs and consider the differences between mammals and vermin. Jack sees Babette swallow something and suspects Dylar. She says it is a Life Saver. Jack fills the tank at an untended gas pump, possibly exposing himself to Nyodene D.

At the shelter, Heinrich explains Nyodene D. Jehovah's Witnesses proselytize. A computer technician tells Jack that, although it is too soon for certainty, he may be endangered by exposure to the gas.

Wilder, Denise, and Steffie sleep. Heinrich makes notes on maps. Jack listens as Babette reads tabloid stories to Mr. Treadwell and other blind people. Heinrich points out to Jack how little he knows about the technology that runs his life. Outside, Jack sees Murray negotiating with some prostitutes for a session. Jack and Murray talk about the toxic spill, the evacuation, about Jack's exposure, and about death. Jack wants to be able to stop thinking about himself. In the morning, everyone is moved from this shelter to another shelter, where they remain for nine days before going home. A man carrying a small television set complains about the lack of media coverage. He says he feels like he has seen Jack before. Déja vu is reportedly a symptom of exposure to the gas. He says Jack looks "Haunted, ashen, lost."

Part III: Dylarama


Murray becomes the Elvis Presley specialist after his rival drowns. Jack drives Babette to class; they stop to watch the sunset. Sunsets are lengthy and spectacular since the chemical spill. Jack is aroused by Babette's leg warmers. She has been asked to teach a course on eating and drinking. He is melancholy about the death within him because of his exposure to Nyodene D. He does not tell Babette about it, fearing how upset she would be to know his death will precede hers.


Jack continues German lessons. The town is patrolled by men in Mylex suits with German shepherds. At dinner, the family discuss the degree of danger and whether the government is withholding disturbing findings. Heinrich says the danger from toxic spills is inconsequential compared to the danger of radiation from radios, TVs, microwaves, radar, and power lines.


Jack discovers a bottle of Dylar taped to the underside of a radiator cover. He telephones Babette's doctor. He has not prescribed Dylar, has never heard of it. Jack decides to take a tablet to school and ask a colleague in the chemistry department to analyze it. Heinrich chins in his closet and tells Jack about his friend, Orest Mercator, who gave him the bar and is preparing to sit in a cage with poisonous snakes, hoping to set a record. He is tempting death, Jack observes, when most people seek to avoid it.


Jack gives a Dylar tablet to Winnie Richards to analyze. He asks Babette about Dylar. Babette denies knowing what Jack is talking about and says she feels like going to bed with him. The next day, Richards says she can explain how the time release polymer case containing the medication functions but cannot say what Dylar is.


In bed, Jack shuts the radio as Babette listens to a woman recount a disturbing experience; Jack tells Babette he found the Dylar, and asks her what it is. Because of her great fear of dying, she contacted a man, after reading an advertisement in a tabloid, hoping to be given an experimental drug that could block the receptors in her brain that cause the fear of death. In order to get the medication, Babette had sexual relations with him. Jack is less upset about the sexual infidelity than about her fear of death. She had been his protection against his fear. Babette says the medication did not work. When Jack searches for the Dylar underneath the radiator cover in the bathroom, it is missing.


Jack's repeated medical exams show no sign of illness. Driving to the supermarket, Jack turns into a street where a simulated catastrophe is being rehearsed. Steffie plays a victim. Heinrich is a "street captain." Orest Mercator is with him. Jack asks why he is in a hurry to die. Orest asks how many pounds Jack can bench press and mentions his own desire to punch someone in the face to know what it feels like. In the kitchen at home, Babette feeds Wilder. Jack asks where the Dylar is; she tells him not to take any; it does not work. He says it is not behind the radiator. She says she has not taken it. Denise refuses to say if she has removed the bottle. Jack wonders if Dylar might stifle his fear of death.


Wilder sits on a stool by the stove watching water boil. Jack and Steffie discuss her trip to Mexico to visit her mother. In the college cafeteria, American Popular Culture department members argue about movies, boast about daredevil stunts they have performed, and describe the pleasure of imagining their own death. Jack and Murray walk around campus; Murray says he thinks car crashes in American movies represent a "spirit of innocence and fun."


Jack and Babette, in the supermarket, discuss his health and their death anxiety. Jack continues his German lessons. Harold Dunlop shows him The Egyptian Book of the Dead. When Denise is not home, Jack searches through her things for Dylar. He begins "throwing things away." On television, he sees a dead body carried out of a backyard grave. A few nights later Heinrich watches an update of the story. A mass grave is not found. Jack "tried not to feel disappointed."


Waking in the night with the dread of death, Jack insists Babette say who the man who gave her Dylar is and how to find him. She refuses, saying Dylar is ineffective and she no longer sees that man. On a campus hilltop, Jack and Winnie Richards watch the sunset. Jack tells her that Dylar suppresses fear of death. She thinks "it's a mistake to lose one's sense of death, even one's fear of death."


Jack pays a cable TV bill. The family eats fast food in the car. They discuss astronauts, the temperature of outer space, and UFOs. Babette tells Jack she wants to die before him and she wants "Wilder to stay the way he is forever."


Murray says Harold Dunlop "looks like a man who finds dead bodies erotic." Jack and Heinrich watch an insane asylum burn down until the fire releases a toxic smell; everyone disperses. Jack and Heinrich drink warm milk. Jack stays up thinking of the man who gave Babette Dylar.


Jack mistakes Babette's father, sitting in the garden, for death. He stays for a few days and gives Jack a loaded gun. Jack searches Denise's room for Dylar. She wakes and says she put it in the garbage compactor.


Jack searches for Dylar in the garbage. He goes for a medical exam. The doctor sends him for more tests.


Babette listens to talk radio, plagued by fear of death. Being with Wilder comforts her because he does not talk. Babette goes running; Denise insists she wear sunscreen. Jack takes Heinrich and Orest to dinner. They discuss Orest's training, being bitten by snakes, and death. Steffie, about to visit her mother, is nervous her mother will not send her back. Jack assures her she will and that he would travel to Mexico to get her. There is a simulation of an evacuation for a noxious smell. A few days later, a real noxious odor settles on the town for a few hours. No one does anything. The smell disappears.


Heinrich's mother wants Heinrich to visit her at her ashram. She tells Jack her swami says it is the "Age of Darkness," the "last age." After the Hitler conference, Jack goes for medical tests. They are inconclusive. Walking the streets at night, Jack imagines a family phone call between a teenager who likes bagging groceries in a supermarket and his grandparents.


Jack tells Murray death does not give life meaning, only makes it incomplete. Murray says religious or scientific systems designed to negate death are comforting even if bogus. He suggests Jack submerge himself in studying Hitler, hide from death in Hitler's immensity, and promote his identity through the fame scholarship can bring. Murray says there are only killers and diers, and asks Jack which he is. Jack throws more things away and thinks about how he can say good-bye to himself.


Jack tells Babette that Murray advised him to repress his fear of death. She says repression causes neurotic symptoms and is unnatural. He says it is natural for human beings to repress their nature: that distinguishes them from animals. He thinks of the man who gave her Dylar. The next day, Jack begins to carry the loaded gun. Jack learns from Heinrich that Orest sat in a hotel room with three non-poisonous snakes and was bitten and has now gone "into complete seclusion." Jack goes to his office to look at final exams. Winnie Richards tells him of an article in a psychology magazine about Willie Mink, the man whose ad Babette answered. Mink is in a motel in the German section of the city. Babette is going out running and needs the car to drive to the stadium. Jack steals his neighbor's car and goes searching for the motel.


Jack confronts Mink. After a conversation about malaise, death, and Dylar, Jack shoots him. He places the gun in Mink's hand, thinking he is dead; Mink fires and wounds Jack in the wrist. Bloody, Jack drags Mink to the car and takes him to an emergency room. Jack talks with a nun about the need people have for nuns to believe in God and Heaven for them. The nun says she does not believe but her "dedication is [not] a pretense," her "pretense [to believe] is a dedication." The doctor tells Jack that Mink will not die. Jack drives home.


Wilder rides his tricycle across a busy highway safely and tumbles into a muddy, shallow creek. A stranger stops his car, goes down the embankment and rescues him. Jack, Babette, and Wilder drive to the overpass and watch the sunset. The pollution detectors in their Mylar suits continue to patrol the city. Jack decides not to continue medical tests. In the supermarket, the merchandise has been rearranged and the shoppers are confused. Jack describes the scanners, the colorful packaging, and the tabloids, which have, Jack says, "everything we need that is not food or love."



Babette, Jack's fifth wife, runs to keep her weight down after she stops smoking, reads tabloids to old Mr. Treadwell, who is blind, and teaches an adult education class in posture. She also listens habitually to Talk Radio. Like Jack, she is afraid of dying. Although apparently personal, her fear is also symbolically symptomatic of the gnawing sense of vacuousness that is widespread, although often unacknowledged, in the novel. She answers an ad in one of the tabloids she reads to Mr. Treadwell that is soliciting participants for an experiment taking a medication, Dylar, designed to banish the fear of death. Her husband, Jack, wants to think of Babette as a solid, comforting, cheerful prop for him, but she is haunted by the same malaise, a destabilizing fear of dying, as he is.


Bee is Jack's daughter who does not live with him. When she visits, the others feel self-conscious because of the way she watches everything.

Dana Breedlove

Dana Breedlove is one of Jack's former wives and works part time for the CIA.

Tweedy Browner

Tweedy Browner is one of Jack's former wives, his daughter Bee's mother. She is married to a CIA type operative who often lives in jungles.

Sundar Chakravarty

He is Jack's doctor. Jack and Babette admire him for what they consider to be a beautiful use of English when he speaks.

Dimitrios Cotsakis

Cotsakis worked as a bodyguard for rock groups. He teaches at the college and is Murray's chief rival for the position of Elvis Presley specialist, until Cotsakis drowns.


Babette's daughter Denise is a feisty, rather bossy pre-teen. She has a habit of reading about medications, badgers Babette about her health, and tells Jack she suspects Babette of surreptitiously taking medication.

Vernon Dickey

Vernon Dickey is Babette's father. Despite his age, he nevertheless considers himself a ladies' man. A gun enthusiast, he gives Jack a pistol, which Jack takes to Mink's motel room. As with most of the characters in the novel, Dickey defines himself by the image he projects. Aging though he is, he tries to maintain an image of wild youthfulness.

Howard Dunlop

Dunlop is Jack's German teacher. He is a withdrawn man who lives in the same rooming house as Murray, who says that Dunlop looks like a necrophiliac.

Tommy Roy Foster

Heinrich plays chess by mail with Foster, who does not appear in the book in person. He is in jail for a series of murders.

Heinrich Gerhardt Gladney

Heinrich is Jack's fourteen-year-old son. He is intellectually combative and argues against the authority of sensory data or the certainty of knowledge. Although he seems to know a great deal, most of what he knows comes in the form of factoids. Often his knowledge is confused, as when he conflates the playwright Tennessee Williams with the singer Tennessee Ernie. He is beginning to lose his hair.

Jack Gladney

Jack, the narrator of the story, is the Hitler Studies specialist at the College-on-the-Hill. He has been married five times and has four children. He is anxious that he lacks authority and has attempted to fashion an imposing image. To that end, he has changed his first name Jack to J.A.K., and he always wears dark glasses on campus. His academic interest in Hitler is devoid of any sense of the horror of Nazi history or of any awareness of its violation of humanity. Jack's expert knowledge of Hitler merely inflates his own self-image and gives him an aura of importance. His abiding fear of dying is intensified after his exposure to the toxic chemical Nyodene D.

Nicholas Grappa

Grappa is one of the members of the American Events department at the university.

Elliot Lasher

Lasher is one of the members of the American Events department at the university.

Eric Massingale

Massingale is a former microchip salesman now teaching in the computer science department. When Jack runs into him at the hardware mega-store, Massingale says that Jack does not seem as imposing outside the academic context as he does at school.

Orest Mercator

Orest Mercator is Heinrich's friend, a nineteen-year-old high school senior who is in training to sit in a cage with poisonous snakes, hoping to set a world record. Ultimately, he sits in a hotel room with three non-poisonous snakes and, after being bitten, disappears. Heinrich idolizes him at first but, after his failure, regards him with disdain. Mercator is a weak reflection of Jack. In himself, he is nothing. As Jack takes on a persona because of his association with Hitler, so Orest hopes to take on importance through his association with dangerous snakes.

Willie Mink

Mink appears at the end of the novel under his own name. Earlier, Jack and Babette refer to him as Mr. Gray. He is the inventor of Dylar, the medication supposed to effect relief from fear of death. Babette answers his ad in a tabloid and carries on a sexual relationship with him in order to obtain the medication. When Jack finally encounters him, Mink is holed up in a motel room watching television and scarfing down Dylar. After Jack shoots him and, thinking he is dead, plants the gun in his hand to make it look like suicide, Mink shoots Jack in the wrist. Mink represents the banality and futility of the attempt to evade death.

Bob Pardee

Babette's ex-husband, he is Denise's father and appears briefly, practicing his golf swing and taking the kids to dinner.

Winnie Richards

Winnie Richards is a neurochemist at the college with a reputation for brilliance and evasiveness. She runs wherever she goes in order not to be seen. Jack gives her a Dylar capsule to analyze, but she cannot identify its contents. She advises Jack that awareness of death is important and ought not to be avoided. Unlike most of the characters in the novel, she is not concerned with her image. In fact, she wishes to avoid being seen.

Janet Savory

Janet Savory is one of Jack's former wives and is Heinrich's mother. She had been a foreign currency analyst but abandoned that career, entered an ashram, and changed her name to Mother Devi.

Murray Jay Siskind

Murray is a New York Jewish intellectual and a visiting lecturer in the American Events department at the university. His specialty is Elvis Presley. He lives in a rooming house, fantasizes about late night liaisons with a dominatrix, and studies children, transvestites, and popular culture in order to get a sense of the American experience. Jack confides his fear of death to Murray. Murray is interested in the influence of images on culture, but not with his own image. He observes, rather than projects, images.


Jack's pre-teen daughter, Steffie, who is younger than Denise, is moved by the calamities she sees on television and participates in emergency drill simulations.

Alphonse Stompanato

Stompanato is the chair of the American Events department at the college. He puts down his colleagues and has the general demeanor of a thug. He has the same name as the movie actress Lana Turner's underworld boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato; Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death by Turner's daughter when he attacked Turner.

Adele T.

Mentioned briefly, she is a psychic whom the police employ to find missing people and things. She always finds something, but it is always something other than what the police were immediately seeking.

Gladys Treadwell

She is the sister of the old blind man to whom Babette reads. Jack reads her obituary along with several others as he thinks about his own death.

Mr. Treadwell

Mr. Treadwell is a blind man. Babette reads to him from supermarket tabloids. He and his sister get lost in an abandoned cookie store in a mall and are thought to be dead before they are found.


Babette's two year old son, Wilder, speaks little and seems to have a deeper understanding of being alive than the rest of his family. He watches water boil, cries for almost seven hours one day, crosses a dangerous highway on his tricycle without injury. Wilder is a comfort to Babette just by his existence, particularly, she says, because he does not yet talk. Wilder is the one who shows Jack death in the form of Babette's father waiting for him in the garden.


The Blandness of Vicarious Experience

Experience in White Noise is, in large measure, bland, vicarious, and determined by the mass media, that is by those who simulate reality for popular consumption. The Gladney family's main sources of stimulation are watching television, listening to the radio, and going to the supermarket and the mall, where they listen to live Muzak, that is, to a live performance of music designed to sound canned. Steffie mouths the words the actors speak as she watches them on television. Reality is filtered through tabloids. Disasters are simulated and, when a real disaster occurs, it has the look of a movie. Even Jack's plot to kill Willie Mink is set up like a parody of a B movie. Only Wilder, whose name suggests an uncivilized state, and who is preverbal, seems to be in touch with authentic experience whether it is crying from the depth of his soul as an existential act, or weeping in front of the television, or facing the danger of a crowded highway.


  • Jack and Heinrich discuss whether our actions are the results of our free will or of our brain chemistry and genetics. Write a research paper detailing the state of contemporary thought among biologists, psychologists, and philosophers regarding the forces that determine human actions.
  • If you can, get a copy of the films Weekend, Pierrot Le Fou, or Alphaville, by Jean-Luc Godard, on DVD or video. Prepare a presentation for your class showing some stylistic and thematic similarities between one of these films and White Noise.
  • A toxic disaster is at the center of White Noise. Compile a list of actual environmental disasters that have occurred since 1980 and discuss their social, ecological, and industrial effects, as well as the effect they have had on individuals. What is the progress or lack of progress in dealing with these disasters?
  • Construct a questionnaire about death and anxiety about death. Using your questionnaire, interview people of varying ages and report your findings in an essay.

Death, Fear of Death, and Attraction to Death

Death, a pervasive theme throughout the novel, is first introduced in Jack and Babette's conversation about who will die first. Later, both confess their terrible fear of death after Denise discovers Babette's Dylar pills and Jack finally learns that Dylar is supposed to suppress the fear of death. The toxic event brings death into the foreground of the town's landscape and to the foreground of Jack's consciousness until it becomes his obsession. The near crash of an airplane, preceding the chemical spill, is a harbinger of that disaster. Heinrich's friend Orest attempts to expose himself to death as he prepares to sit in a cage with poisonous snakes. Lecturing to his class and discussing the plot to kill Hitler, Jack asserts that "all plots tend to move deathward," a hypothesis which, whether valid or not, forecasts the momentum and direction of the plot of White Noise. Echoing the closing words of James Joyce's story "The Dead," the last words of White Noise are "and the dead."

Free Will versus Determinism

Inside the context of a society in which people's attitudes and behaviors are shaped and propelled by mass media, the age-old conflict between free will and determinism (the belief that human behavior is not a result of an individual's will, but of superior, unseen forces outside of the individual's control, whether divine, social, or chemical), takes on renewed importance. The problem is the subject of a conversation between Jack and Heinrich as they discuss the serial killer Tommy Roy Foster.


As a kind of white or background noise, White Noise presents a continual flow of allusions to consumer products and brand names, indicators of the pervasive environment surrounding Americans in the latter part of the twentieth century. People themselves, Jack and his academic colleagues, for example, are also presented as competing, marketable products. Consumption, in the novel, becomes a means of vicarious experience. The characters in the novel are defined by the cultural markers they ingest rather than by something essential about themselves.

The Constant Presence of Catastrophe

The possibility of catastrophe is juxtaposed throughout the novel with the habitual blandness of daily life. Airplane crashes, toxic spills, a memory of Nazi atrocities, and a murder plot all take place against a background of dull routines and vicarious, media stimulation. Daily life seems to be a continuous effort to evade mortality and repress awareness of death. Through catastrophe, the repressed is ever present.

Repressed Violence

Although overt violence enters into the plot with Jack's assault on Willie Mink, violence in White Noise is usually of a repressed sort. Alphonse Stompanato bullies the members of his department, the television reports a backyard gravesite, Vernon Dickey is obsessed by guns, Murray glamorizes car crashes, and both the shadow of Nazism and industrial disaster hover over the lives of the characters in the novel.


Cinematic Construction

Narrative in White Noise often imitates cinematic form, rather than literary form. Juxtaposition of elements often replaces expository presentation. As family members gather, for example, their activities may be punctuated with snippets of phrases coming from the radio or television playing in the background, just the way music fades in and out of the scenes in a film. Often, transitions between scenes in the novel are lacking and are instead replaced by cuts (a jarring move from one thing to the next). This is a common device in movies. In addition, many scenes in the novel have a filmic feel. The long evacuation chapter is reminiscent of such scenes in disaster movies.


DeLillo is a satirist targeting the inauthenticity of life as lived in contemporary society. His technique is to highlight events so common that they often are accepted without thought and to present truly uncommon and frightening events, like the toxic spill, as routine. He salts the narrative with random, free-standing words, product names, and phrases from television and radio, as if they were floating in the air, as if they were themselves escaped toxic particles. In addition, DeLillo actually composes the sorts of items that actually do appear in supermarket tabloids, stretching the genre only slightly. These intrusive bits are not explained. They are not presented as ideas about contemporary reality. They are presented without connectives so that they actually impose themselves on the narrative as pieces of reality.

Random and Trivial Details

Punctuating the narration throughout the novel, becoming part of the narration, is a presentation of the landscape of daily life, snatches of phrases from the radio or the television, descriptions of the washer or dryer spinning or tumbling the laundry, descriptions of traffic jams, of computer terminals or of printouts, or even of the detritus left in garbage compactors. There are also continuously intruding trivial details. When Jack and Murray, for example, are leaving Murray's rooming house in chapter 8, Murray stops to tell the landlord about a leaking faucet.



Adolph Hitler, 1889-1945, leader of Germany's National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazi Party), became chancellor of Germany in 1933. The following year, he consolidated his power through terror and by murdering his opponents. In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. With the German invasion of Poland in 1939, World War II and Hitler's quest for world domination, began in earnest. Emblematic of the evil of the Hitler regime were the concentration camps and death camps established for the incarceration and extermination of people abhorrent to the Nazis. More than ten million people—Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, and Jews—were tortured and exterminated by the Germans in these camps.

The Reagan Years

Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January, 1981, as president of the United States and was re-elected in 1984. The years of his presidency are reflected in White Noise. The Reagan years were characterized in general by a feel-good consumerism of the sort DeLillo depicts along with a media infiltration of consciousness that allowed appearance to become more compelling than reality. Reagan, for example, told a story about how a brave pilot behaved during World War II when, in fact, he was recalling the plot of the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer.

Talk Radio

Since its inception, there have been people who spoke over the radio. Talk Radio, however, usually refers to a specific genre. Talk Radio of the kind that Babette habitually listens to involves a regular host who takes calls from listeners about a number of subjects, although most often about politics and cultural issues, or psychological and interpersonal issues. This format became dominant in the 1980s and has continued to grow until many radio programs adhere to it.


  • 1980s: Although they publicly proclaim that the United States will never make a deal with Iran to supply arms for hostages, President Ronald Reagan and his administration do the exact opposite. This fact is not overtly reported by mass media.

    Today: In 2002, President George W. Bush and his administration mistakenly claim that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and is connected to the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center. The strategy allows them to begin the Iraq War in 2003. In 2007, they claim that the Iranian government is secretly in the process of developing nuclear weapons. While the former is not overtly reported by the mass media until well after the Iraq War has begun, the latter is indeed reported by the mass media.

  • 1980s: Environmental disasters like the toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India, the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and the dioxin contamination in Times Beach, Missouri, are shocking examples of the dangers of the careless handling of complex industrial technology.

    Today: Increased environmental safety standards and legislation reduce the occurrence of large-scale environmental disasters such as those that occurred in the 1980s. Nevertheless, small-scale industrial pollution may be contributing to climate change, the effects of which will eventually lead to environmental disaster.

  • 1980s: The power of the mass media, and especially of television, is widespread. It affects the political, cultural, and commercial behavior of the majority of the population.

    Today: The decentralization of media through advances in technology (such as the Internet) does not diminish the power and influence of the major media companies. In many instances, it only strengthens it by providing more outlets for standardized content. At the same time, the Internet does present an opportunity to communicate alternative points of view.

Industrial Accidents

On December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant located in the Indian city of Bhopal released forty tons of methyl isocyanate gas when a holding tank overheated and exploded in the wee hours of the morning. Over 2,500 people were killed and more than 100,000 people's health was affected. On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, exploded. The explosion sent highly radioactive material into the atmosphere in a plume like the one DeLillo describes in his novel. More than 330,000 people in the immediate area of the Chernobyl plant were evacuated; this disaster had an immediate death toll of 56, with nearly 10,000 believed to have died due to radiation exposure. The toxic radioactive material was spread by wind over the Soviet Union, Eastern, Northern, and Western

Europe, and possibly as far as eastern North America. This was not the first nuclear accident in the world. On March 28, 1979, at about 4:00 a.m., a meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear power plant near Middle-town, Pennsylvania. While there were several operator errors that exacerbated the accident, the core meltdown did not breach the containment building's walls. Some radioactive gases were believed to have escaped, however no deaths have been linked to this incident with certainty. A different, but no less compelling, disaster occurred on March 24, 1989, around midnight, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound. The tanker spilled nearly eleven million gallons of crude oil into the sea in Alaska that was home to salmon, seals, great white sharks, otters, and sea birds. The remoteness of the spill's location severely hampered the cleanup effort. These are but a few of the disasters that have marked and continue to mark the course of recent industrial and social history.


White Noise is DeLillo's eighth novel, and it won the 1985 National Book Award. It is considered to be the novel that brought DeLillo's work into the mainstream of contemporary American literature. Indeed, David Cowart reports in Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language that "White Noise has generated more critical attention than any other DeLillo novel." In the introduction to New Essays on White Noise, Frank Lentricchia observes that DeLillo is a novelist of ideas whose novels "are montages of tones, styles, and voices that have the effect of yoking together terror and wild humor." Lentricchia also comments on DeLillo's portrayal of "the essential tone of contemporary America." DeLillo's characters are, he argues, "expressions of—and responses to—specific historical processes." Michael Valdez Moses, also writing in New Essays on White Noise, argues that "White Noise is DeLillo's exploration of an America in which technology has become not merely a pervasive and mortal threat to each of its citizens, but also … a deeply ingrained mode of existing and way of thinking that is the characteristic feature of the republic." Mark Osteen, in American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo's Dialogue with Culture, states that "the characters of White Noise try to counteract dread by mouthing chants and litanies, practicing pseudo-religious rituals, crafting narratives that deflect or purge their fear, [and] performing violent or death-defying actions."


Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In the following essay, Heims discusses the importance of style as content in White Noise.

White Noise is narrated by Jack Gladney, the college professor and specialist in Hitler studies, who explores what it is like to be alive in a world where life is devitalized and where being alive means becoming a consumable image. As he and his family are inside a mall, eating, "a band played live Muzak." Muzak is, by definition, recorded music of an essentially bland and seemingly unassuming nature that is piped into public spaces, usually shopping centers or elevators. Its general purpose is twofold, to sooth customers and, by enhancing the shopping environment, to stimulate them to buy things, even things they had never thought they wanted. The idea of live Muzak is an oxymoron, a yoking of contradictory terms. Nevertheless, it is clear that by refurbishing and updating the perennial insight that life imitates art, DeLillo is establishing a purposeful symbol.

Within the phrase "live Muzak" one of the novel's governing patterns of construction can be found. The live performance is a simulation. It is something real pretending to be something artificial, consequently conferring more authenticity to the artificial than it actually has. The actual, in fact, is in decline throughout White Noise. The actual is undermined by the media, the home of the ersatz (fake), and it is threatened by an increasing number of catastrophes that make actual experience less desirable than simulations. Actual experience, unmediated by style, is fraught with anxiety and difficulty. Style indicates a denial of anxiety and difficulty. It is an end run around death.


  • Produced in 1986 (a year after the publication of White Noise), DeLillo's first play, The Day Room, is also an exploration of anxiety about death.
  • Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" (1955) is a phantasmagorical re-creation of a supermarket. The poem establishes the supermarket as a symbolic representation of America.
  • Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) is a grim account of the role that the ordinary citizens of Germany played in the extermination of European Jewry.
  • Paul Goodman's epic novel The Empire City (1959) explores American society and the values that guided or conflicted with it during the twenty-year period in which the novel was written.
  • Norman Mailer's An American Dream (1965) is a portrait of America as it is idealized and is also a portrait of what Mailer saw as its raw corrupt actuality.
  • Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilych explores the terror of death, the strain of enduring that terror, and the meaning of death in the construction of the meaning of life.
  • Albert Camus's The Plague (1947) concerns the outbreak of a plague in an Algerian city and contemplates the problems of living in a world that is essentially irrational and stripped of meaning.

Indeed, Jack wonders why Babette's students, mostly senior citizens, want to improve their posture. He concludes that "we seem to believe it is possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming." But, as with Jack and Babette, the fact of death is inescapable. It lodges deep within their psyches when it is forced out of their surrounding world. Of himself, Jack says: "I am the false character that follows the name around." He is the simulation of the person he tries to project, the person he would like to be rather than the one he is, or at least the person whom he would like others to think he is. Jack represents a person whose reality is the result of his style, not of his content. His persona is a matter of his mastery of surface presentation rather than the expression of something deep-seated, the representation of a real personality. The paradox is, however, that style becomes content; persona becomes personality. Yet, as in Jack's case, the inadequacy of image when substance is essential creates a gnawing sense of insecurity, general inadequacy, and inauthenticity that express themselves symptomatically through his fear of death. Moreover, the deception achieved by style may be insufficient. When Jack runs into a colleague at a hardware mega-store, his colleague comments that without his academic robe and dark glasses, "you look so harmless…. A big, harmless, aging, indistinct sort of guy." Although Jack denies taking offense at his colleague's observation, he immediately pays for the "rope and hurr[ies] out the door." Jack then states that "the encounter put me in the mood to shop." This is odd, unless one realizes that shopping is a way of fortifying the power of style and of merging one's own individuality with, and surrendering it to, a received social image.

Jack notes "my family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last." Of the effect of shopping, Jack says that "the more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums…. These sums … came back to me in the form of existential credit." A sense of sufficiency, of actually existing as oneself, is achieved through the sense of existing as the mirror image of oneself, the image that one wishes to see, the image achieved through conforming to the images that consumer culture projects.

What defines White Noise as a novel, as well as Jack's character and those of the others in the book, is its style rather than its content. The story in the book is, after all, simple, almost a contrivance of cliché s rather than a story. The subject matter, too, is conventional, the sort of warning against consumerism, technology, alienation, and the loss of abiding values that can be seen in the works of such varying social critics as Vance Packard, Norman Mailer, C. Wright Mills, Neil Postman, or Paul Goodman.

In White Noise, a blended upper-middle class American family finds its daily routines shaken by the occurrence of the kind of industrial disaster that has become all too common over the last half century. The characters are familiar, if not stereo-typical. To the degree that they become recognizable as individuals to readers, they do so because of DeLillo's skill in evoking stereotypes, that is, in creating convincingly familiar caricatures. The narrator and protagonist is an apparently comfortable college professor actually beset by anxiety about his lack of an imposing persona and a gnawing fear of death. He hides these anxieties under his style. His wife is a faculty wife who spends her days doing volunteer work, jogging, trying to eat well and not resume smoking, and tangentially tending to her family. She, too, is hiding a secret terror of death.

Fourteen-year-old Heinrich is a conventional nerd, a balding intellectual who doubts the possibility of the certainty of perception, yet he is a repository of factoids and is endlessly curious about the world around him. Denise and Steffie are regulation sitcom daughters. Denise is tart and bossy, but at heart she is worried about both her parents. She worries about whether Babette is secretly taking medication or exposing herself to carcinogens. Denise is concerned about her father, Bob Pardee, and his ability to hold a job and earn his living. Steffie is tender-hearted but also fearful. The baby, Wilder, embodies the magical life force often attributed to preverbal infancy. Meanwhile, Jack's academic colleagues are caricatures of neurotic, one-upping, self-aggrandizing professionals. Their trivial competitions in identifying pop phenomena at lunch reveal their grave, unacknowledged personal insecurities; their boasts about the death-defying stunts they have performed indicate their own repressed anxiety about death. They tempt the thing they fear and gain strength from eluding it at the last minute.

The action of the novel begins as a reflection of suburban life, segues into the kind of scenario found in disaster movies, and ends with a sort of film noir cat-and-mouse encounter between Jack and a man with the suggestive name of Willie Mink, who represents the forces of sex and death. The dialogue is a collage of common, even clichéd speech. The themes of death, insecurity, social malaise, and alienation—important in themselves—are, nevertheless, common, and are referred to rather than considered. They appear like Woody Allen's quirky one-liners, hooks, rather than thoughtful analyses. They constitute the decor of the novel rather than its subject.

The social environment evoked by the novel is derived from the televised representation of the world rather than from the world as it is experienced by individuals. Rather than holding a mirror up to nature (as most writers do), in White Noise, DeLillo holds a mirror up to a mirror and thereby mirrors the mirror of a culture that has usurped the power and the authority of nature. The triumph of style over content, of image over reality, of imitation over spontaneity and authenticity, of simulacra over nature, in effect, cripples or limits the range and power of the senses and, consequently, the capacity for experience and action.

The only authentic experience in the novel, the horror of Hitler's catastrophic battle against everything human and humane, exists merely in the background. The unspeakable horror is presented as a shadow, something Jack can approach only within an academic frame, as trivialized tidbits of gossip. He uses Nazism in order to exploit it for his own aggrandizement; it is something he never experiences in its terribleness. In a world where image trumps reality, equations between Hitler and Elvis Presley can be offered without embarrassment. Nor does the horror of the Holocaust ever enter into the world of the novel.

DeLillo, it seems, quite consciously borrowed the style of White Noise from the movies, particularly from the cinema of the great New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Eschewing sequence and linearity in his films, Godard introduced a technique of disjunction that allowed him to juxtapose sequences and images that go against a sequential narrative flow. Similarly, in White Noise, DeLillo harnesses disparate elements that exist in a disjunctive, coexistent, but alienated relationship with each other. The jumble of modern life that results from an overload of information is reflected in White Noise. By this means, the novel offers a critique not only of information but of the information age itself, not by any expository argument but simply by an overwhelming accumulation of details. Radio and television sound bites are transcribed, cable TV bills reproduced, supermarket tabloid stories recounted, supermarket products described; the accidents of contemporary reality that tend to render everything absurd are represented.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on White Noise, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Lou F. Caton

In the following essay, Caton explores the elements of romanticism and postmodernism that can be found in White Noise.

A critical exploration of romanticism in Don DeLillo's eighth novel White Noise may initially seem misguided or odd. And yet, some of the values and topics commonly associated with popular notions of romanticism, like sympathy, unity, authenticity, and an interest in the "unknown," do emerge in this supposedly postmodern novel. They emerge not from overarching themes but rather from the common thoughts and desires associated with the novel's viewpoint character, Jack Gladney. By judging such characterization as romantic, that is, supportive of these broad transhistorical values, I find a deeply qualified postmodernism within White Noise.

Granted, in spite of these observations, a first response to DeLillo's fiction is probably not romantic; after all, his novels frequently show contemporary society struggling with a nostalgic palimpsest of old-fashion values that have been layered over by the textual, semiotic materialism of marketing, commodification, and computer codes. Cited as quintessentially postmodern, DeLillo reportedly writes a novel of simulacra with an endless regress of mediation. John Frow portrays DeLillo's curiosity here about simulation and iteration as "a world of primary representations which neither precede nor follow the real but are themselves real …" Bruce Bawer has gone so far as to claim that DeLillo merely presents "one discouraging battery after another of pointless, pretentious rhetoric. [DeLillo] does not develop ideas so much as juggle jargon." Paul Cantor directly calls sections of White Noise "self-reflexive" and "mediated;" a bit later, he claims White Noise transforms the "autonomous self" into the "inauthentic self."

Clearly such declarations portray DeLillo as uninterested in old-fashion romantic notions like a mysterious unknown or authenticity and sympathy. However, this sentiment centers itself on DeLillo's cultural critiques, his novel's "messages," while disregarding the possibility of any romantic human nature in his characters. For instance, John Kucich quickly looks past the psychology of DeLillo's male characters by stating only that they "persist" in the outdated belief that "oppositional stances can be differentiated and justified." Kucich, in other words, sees DeLillo's characters naively embracing the tired belief that cultural difference can be adjudicated, that a truth-system of correspondences can still order the arbitrary nature of reality. Such views by these characters must be devalued, according to Kucich, because DeLillo's larger postmodern message denies the possibility of truth statements; the supposed central idea of White Noise is that a romantic, nostalgic character like Jack Gladney is only deceiving himself. The novel forecloses on a character's romantic desires as it erects a technological society where metaphysical truth is replaced by the materialistic codes of media and capitalism. The hard truth for DeLillo, Kucich and others seem to say, is that Gladney's romantic belief in a unified, shared definition of cultural truth no longer exists.

What such an argument misses, though, is that DeLillo's romantic characterizations turn what might otherwise be thought of as an already clearly developed ideological position into a complex problem. Kucich is certainly right in stating that Gladney does believe in the unfashionable notion of an orderly universe; however, such a belief operates in healthy opposition to the postmodern anxiety within White Noise. Gladney's romantic assumptions regarding family unity and sympathy must be analyzed on their own merits; such views are more than mere foils for the novel's worries about mediation and representation.

In effect, I am contesting Frank Lentricchia's observation that DeLillo is a political writer who "stands in harsh judgment against American fiction of the last couple of decades, that soft humanist underbelly of American literature …" This "humanist" tradition that DeLillo supposedly critiques is, among other things, a tradition that invokes transhistorical notions of consciousness (thus, romantic as well as humanist notions are being maligned here). According to Lentricchia, DeLillo's mind is made up; he advocates a contemporary political position which dismantles the mystified rhetoric of universals and timeless values about human nature:

But the deep action of this kind of fiction [the non-DeLillo, old-fashion, transhistorical kind] is culturally and historically rootless, an expression of the possibilities of "human nature," here, now, forever, as ever. This is realism maybe in the old philosophical sense of the word, when they affirmed that only the universals are real.

Lentricchia presents DeLillo as already convinced, the problem of the romantic (i.e. transhistorical beliefs) and the postmodern having already been resolved; DeLillo becomes a cultural worker writing within a skeptical, antinomian tradition that prevents "readers from gliding off into the comfortable sentiment that the real problems of the human race have always been about what they are today."

Lentricchia is wrong here; DeLillo's novels question rather than endorse this historicist stance. The transhistorical perspective entangles the historical; their supposed separate spheres, I intend to demonstrate, rely on rather than compete against each other. Jack Gladney the naive sentimentalist, foil of the postmodernist (who still insists on universals, human nature, and the mythology of a human nature), recognizes but mourns the emergence of a constructed political postmodern culture (which rejects any universal subjectivity and sees all knowledge as interested and ideological). In appreciation of this conflict, DeLillo maintains a romantic uncertainty throughout White Noise.

Each of the following three scenes presents evidence for this uncertain romanticism composing the character of Jack Gladney. On the one hand, he is a traditionally unified character: a romantic who questions society but all along deeply values his personal relations and family. He is a communal person who desires to tell a simple story about a man trying to understand the eternal human questions of life. His is, as DeLillo describes him, "a reasonable and inquiring voice—the voice of a man who seeks genuinely to understand some timeless human riddle."

Colliding with that, however, is his other growing awareness: that the world is turning him into a post-industrial, computer generated individual, someone who is slowly gaining a "non-authentic self" which is socially constructed, essentially valueless, and enveloped by an unstable matrix of material goods. This becomes clear to him when the SIMUVAC attendant reminds Jack that he is only "the sum total of [his] data. No man escapes that."

Jack Gladney, then, is both "timelessly" searching for unification and arbitrarily fragmented. This double-self, a self both materially constructed by a fragmented, commercial community and one authentically trying to construct a unified community, reflects the movement of the introductory scene. The novel's first paragraph uses the possessions of a college student to enact this clash of values about identity formation.

DeLillo's vision of cars as a stream of machines slowly weaving through a pastoral landscape implies that these students are products of an assembly-line culture. The opening procession of station wagons doubles as a mechanical pilgrimage or industrial wagon train. Similar to a metallic snake sliding and easing itself into the center of the university, the focus here is on the mechanical residue from the industrial age. Indeed, even the students appear to be machine-like as they "spring" out of their vehicles. Moreover, these students and parents seem not to stand in opposition to their possessions but, instead, to be themselves erected by these very same objects. Accenting their hard opacity, DeLillo refuses to give these students emotional and personal details; instead they are defined by the things that surround them. A college student seems, in this scene at least, to be a constructed product, not a transcendent being: "The stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons …"

And on and on. Eighteen lines of clothing, sporting equipment, electronics, grooming aids, and junk food, from nondescript "books" to specific "Kabooms" and "Mystic mints," the student becomes another commodity built from commodities. Even the parents seem propped up by this commercial world. They have "conscientious suntans" and "well-made faces."

However, these families do not simply add up to the products of an empty consumerism. DeLillo complicates the social constructivism of this scene with romantic, community matters; he sees the current obsession with materialism as ironically satisfying a deeper, spiritual urge. DeLillo completes the scene by brashly joining this consumerism with a unity provided by spiritual mad communal rhetoric: "The conscientious suntans. The well-made faces and wry looks. They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition … they are a collection of the likeminded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation."

DeLillo here folds into the scene a dimension of spiritual identity. Our transcendent sense of who we are, the romantic desire to experience ourselves as part of a greater whole, strives for identity within the dynamics of capitalism. Even though the earlier emphasis on machinery would appear to devalue spiritual issues, DeLillo's combined use of religious and communal terms at the end of the scene reinstates these more metaphysical concerns. Instead of reading this mixture of social construction and spirituality as an ironic comment on the inferior position of religion in a postmodern world, one should interpret the scene as emphasizing the undying force of spiritual and communal urgings, whether fashionably inferior or not.

As things and students spill out, parents feel both renewed in a supersensible manner and materially affirmed; on the one hand, the virtuous and almost sacred gestalt of children and parents separating translates itself into the terms of material goods. Parents and students objectify this exalted moment. The parents are commodified by financial interests. DeLillo claims "something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage." Their money and things blend with all the other station wagons until they "earn" a sense of spiritual collectivism. And yet, on the other hand, students and parents do not uniquely accept this elite position of "buying" a college education; they also experience it as a celebratory, communal moment. The gathering of the wagons becomes almost a religious ceremony: "more than formal liturgies or laws." The upper-middle class has cashed in their material possessions for a taste of something which might have been denied them without the money to buy it: community and spirituality. The romantic desire for community may exist only ironically, only in this tainted capitalistic and privileged fashion; however, it still exists, resisting commodification and vying for its own legitimacy.

In the same manner of sensing spiritual desires among material possessions, DeLillo presents his viewpoint character, Jack Gladney, as being both essentially authentic and culturally constructed. Jack's narrative role as the storyteller infuses his cultural observations with a personal authority that makes it impossible to separate society's ills from Jack's personality. That is, DeLillo recognizes the influence of a psychological, unified ego, but simply sends it to the edges of the narrative; in its place a constructed, commodified lead character stalks center stage.

Jack Gladney speaks of himself only at the end of this first scene. His voice, seemingly of a single consciousness, feels subordinate, inferior to the grand reporting of the materiality of common things which preceded it. Indeed, even the description of the town takes precedence over any desire to humanize the ego of the only interior voice of the novel. In fact, the town itself is de-personalized, divested of any particular character; this dreary city called Blacksmith is home to a narrating voice as flat and common as the city itself.

Nothing seems very remarkable in Blacksmith. What details DeLillo gives are the details of sameness, of any small, college town: "There are houses in town … There are Greek revival and Gothic churches. There is an insane asylum with an elongated portico, ornamented dormers and a steeply pitched roof … There is an expressway …" Not only does the town seem boring and sleepy but the method of using "there is" and "there are" is equally gloomy and uninspired. And yet such arid prose belies a deeper issue.

DeLillo counters this deadness with a brief, almost hidden recognition of the possibility of a mysterious, spiritual unknown. As the expressway traffic speeds by, it develops into "a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream." Here the dead are mythically revived, muttering and rippling at the edge of consciousness. Their voices belong to past story-tellers who have refused to be silenced. They represent an imaginary over-soul that resists this culture's particular ideology. The reference to souls and dreams babbling suggests an unknowable world of rivers and voices that refuses to be reified by the marketplace ethics of station wagons and stereos. The socially constructed world of commodification meets the myth of an universal consciousness that will not die.

This is the introductory conflict between matter and spirit embodied in the character of Jack Gladney. The immediate introduction of this viewpoint character is not metaphysical, philosophical, or even psychological but occupational: he is the chairman of Hitler studies. DeLillo offers a practical, materialistic definition of this narrator: he is what he produces; we are what our jobs say we are. However, like before, this recognition of material reality does not stand alone. DeLillo undercuts it with a closing sentimental, one might say "romantic," paragraph regarding lost dogs and cats. The concluding image in Jack Gladney's introduction arises in the crude, primitive vision of innocent youth. As the mechanized police in their "boxlike vehicles" prowl the streets, children cry for the intimacy of domestic animals: "On telephone poles all over town there are homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats sometimes in the handwriting of a child."

DeLillo ends this first scene with one of the many romantic collisions that erupt throughout the novel. In this particular configuration the question is as follows: how can the desire to live in an innocent world persevere while at the same moment we experience ourselves as isolated, socially constructed, economic units? DeLillo retains this question, along with others, in order to inject a romantic mystery into White Noise.

A version of this same conflict reappears a few pages later when Jack and Murray visit the most photographed barn in America. Jack accompanies Murray as a student to a teacher. They approach the barn after seeing several signs declaring this barn to be "THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED." Only the teacher talks; Jack listens silently to Murray's explanation as to why no one sees the "real" barn. For Murray, the commercial interests of marketing have replaced any natural, original, or unique qualities that the barn may have had: "Once you've seen the signs about the barn," Murray instructs, "it becomes impossible to see the barn." Speaking like a McLuhan disciple, Murray claims that one can never see the barn; one can only experience it as a consumer. Its marketplace representation as a commodity overrides any hopes of seeing the original, unaffected, unadulterated "barn." Murray's declaration that perception is predicated on economic forces links the viewer to that collective consciousness of consumerism. As with the students and parents in the previous scene above, forms of mass-marketing construct how we experience the world. And yet this selling and buying motif continually collides with Jack's spiritual desires.

In the post-Christian era, we religiously embrace whatever image popular culture devises for us; in this case, DeLillo's characters see themselves as consumers. They are financially essential, not only targeted but coveted by business strategists. Our objectified, exchange-value lives are sacred in the world of commerce. And that world of profit-and-loss commodification becomes the world from which they define themselves, according to Murray. It is one's information-age identity. Murray glories in this obscene recognition of a capitalistic spirituality:

"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."

Business and tourist interests merge into a spiritual and collective recognition of consumerism: "We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it. Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."

Murray's "nameless energies" are the combined forces of spiritual desire and advertizing [sic] expertise. The barn represents a new-age mix of spirituality, media, and cultural constructions. Murray accelerates his pitch until his voice becomes that of a postmodern preacher; he basks in his realization that the contemporary consciousness has been manipulated and formed by advertising executives. We are what advertisements have made us: "‘We can't get outside the aura,’ Murray exclaims gleefully. ‘We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now.’ He seemed immensely pleased by this."

The economic representation has itself become the object. In fact, the conventional ontological object, the barn as a romantic object, dissolves. Jack is left only with perception. Frank Lentricchia contends that this scene presents a "strange new world where the object of perception is perception itself. What they view is the view of the thing." The experience of a correspondence between an object and its mental image has been altered; a single representative activity has faded into a fascination for an endless egress of images that forever occlude the original object.

Murray's upbeat mood regarding these disclosures underscores by contrast Jack's silence. Rather than jubilation, Jack registers caution and a death-like voicelessness. After all, this play involving the real versus the simulation also implies a loss, a kind of moral fall. For Murray, the primacy of simulation brilliantly bankrupts any urge to locate an original, romantic object. For Jack, however, the moment is less celebratory. His reticence implies a resistance to this contemporary account of a world empty of stable realities and non-commodified experiences. Jack's behavior later in the novel will confirm that, for him, the commodification of culture's self-referring systems of codes and arbitrary signifiers has not replaced or destroyed the spiritual myths of community and authenticity. Indeed, it is Jack's recognition of the potential, divine loss involved with Murray's analysis that propels the narrative toward these romantic themes.

Finally, I want to use my last scene to highlight how the romantic and communal base of Jack's personality challenges any totalized vision of a postmodern relativistic universe. In this third scene, DeLillo moves to his largest question: How can one communicate in a radically indeterminate world? Jack's exchange with his son Heinrich demonstrates the emotional cost around such a crucial contemporary dilemma.

Jack begins this scene in the role of an empiricist. The world can be known and trusted, he seems to say; it is not fundamentally a theoretical construct but, instead, a knowable and physical environment displaying somewhat predictable natural laws. He enters into a confrontation with his son in an effort to answer a simple question: Is it or is it not raining? The replies lead to a comic, and sometimes absurd, interchange while Jack drives Heinrich to school:

"It's raining now," I said.
"The radio said tonight …"
"Look at the windshield," I said. "Is that rain or isn't it?"
"I'm only telling you what they said."
"Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses."

Heinrich's responses are deeply skeptical and distrustful; his answer to the question depends not on what he can see or assume but on the meteorologist speaking through the radio, an expert who clearly claims that it will rain later, not now. Thus, Heinrich defers his answer to Jack's question as to whether or not it is raining at that exact moment: "I would[n]'t want to have to say," he demurely replies.

Heinrich's non-answer frustrates Jack. His desire to gain assent from his son in regards to this banal but ingenuous question represents a common fatherly effort to meet with a son in conversation. For Jack, the question has little to do with rain but more to do with his romantic desire to join with his son in an appreciation of an intimate and shared physical event. Heinrich, instead, plays the mixed role of relativist, materialist, and cynical skeptic. He views the question not as a social, communal event but as a request for exact information, for verifiable data. Jack, however, pushes him to informally affirm the rain in order to achieve a simple, everyday, familial union; he wants confirmation of their common ground. Why not meet through the faith in our universal human situation, our shared physical senses, Jack seems to ask. Heinrich answers as a doubtful contemporary critic, not a son: "Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they're right. This has been proved in the laboratory."

The dialogue continues in this vein; Heinrich meets each of Jack's desires for affirmation and community with the well-known skepticism and undecidability of the postmodern theorist. In the age of deconstruction, all we can know is our inability to know. Even the common social bonding implied in a father and son conversation about the weather has been subverted into an academic debate about the principle of uncertainty:

"You're so sure that's rain. How do you know it's not sulfuric acid from factories across the river? How do you know it's not fallout from a war in China? You want an answer here and now. Can you prove, here and now, that this stuff is rain? How do I know that what you call rain is really rain? What is rain anyway?"

Heinrich denies Jack the romantic bond of community between a father and son. This great theme of romance, the dialectic of love and union between a father and a son, becomes a nostalgic, outdated, dream for a naive world that no longer exists. And yet Jack's hunger to experience this common ground never dies in White Noise; in fact, it only gains authority as the novel progresses to its tragi-comical ending.

Source: Lou F. Caton, "Romanticism and the Postmodern Novel: Three Scenes from Don DeLillo's White Noise," in English Language Notes, Vol. 25, No. 1, September 1997, pp. 38-48.


Cowart, David, "Timor Mortis Conturbat Me," in Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language, University of Georgia Press, 2002, pp. 71-91.

DeLillo, Don, White Noise, Penguin, 1999.

Lentricchia, Frank, Introduction, in New Essays on White Noise, edited by Frank Lentricchia, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 1-14.

Moses, Michael Valdez, "Lust Removed from Nature," in New Essays on White Noise, edited by Frank Lentricchia, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 63-86.

Osteen, Mark, "The American Book of the Dead: Channeling White Noise," in American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo's Dialogue with Culture, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, pp. 165-91.


Dewey, Joseph, Beyond Grief and Nothing: A Reading of Don DeLillo, University of South Carolina Press, 2006.

In this book, Dewey traces the development of the themes of retreat, recovery, and resurrection in DeLillo's fiction.

Lentricchia, Frank, ed., Introducing Don DeLillo, Duke University Press, 1994.

Lentricchia offers a collection of essays surveying DeLillo's themes and style. The volume also includes an interview with DeLillo.

McLuhan, Marshall, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, Vanguard Press, 1951.

The Mechanical Bride is a collection of observations on the popular culture of the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, with particular attention paid to the language and imagery of advertisements.

———, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,

McGraw Hill, 1964.

In this book, McLuhan explores the power of media, such as radio, television, and the telephone, to involve their users and to influence them psychically.

White Noise

views updated May 18 2018

White Noise


There are uncertainties in dynamics of social and natural processes. Basic approaches of statistical analysis model these processes based on theoretical derivations or empirical observations. The primary goal in statistical modeling is to extract as much underlying information of the processes as possible and let the residuals approximate a realization of white noise. White noise is one of the fundamental stochastic processes in many fields. Mathematically, it has a constant spectrum, which is the same as the white light we observe through our eyes.

White noise has been utilized to mask distraction of undesirable sound in the environment. Financial analysts have applied white noise to model stock markets. In fact white noise has been used for audio synthesis, impulse response, art, sensory deprivation, sleeping aid, and more. White noise is a basic form of stochastic process that provides the foundation for almost all useful statistical models used in natural and social sciences.

Let {Zt } be an equally spaced time series (a sequence of random variables) with a mean of zero and finite auto-covariance

where E (X ) is the expected value (mean) of random variable X and t, s donate the time. If {Zt } has a nonzero mean, without loss generality, it can be subtracted from the time series to get a time series with a zero mean. The expected value of a discrete random variable X is defined as

where P (X = x ) is the probability mass function of X. For a continuous random variable, its expected value is

where f (x ) is the density function of X.

If the autocovariance function γ (t, s ) of time series {Zt } is only a function of |t s |, then {Zt } is a (weak) stationary process. White noise is the simplest stationary process with

where is the variance of Zt.

White noise plays an important role not only in physical sciences such as in signal processing, but also in almost all statistical analysis of time series observed from social and economic activities. For example, according to George Box, Gwilym M. Jenkins, and Gregory C. Reinsel in their 1994 book Time Series Analysis: Forecasting and Control, the widely used Autoregressive and Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA(p,d,q)) models in time series analysis are generated by the white noise innovations {Zt } through the following expression:

where Yt is the time series under study, φ (B ) = 1 is the back shift operator defined as BYt = Yt Yt 1, d is an integer, and Zt is the Gaussian white noise with mean zero and variance σ 2.

From expression (5) we can see that Yt of ARIMA(0,0,0) is the white noise.

ARIMA(0,1,0) denotes a random walk model, which is a model of unit root and widely used in modeling financial markets. ARIMA(p,0,0) becomes an autoregressive model of order p (AR(p)), ARIMA(0,0,q) is a moving average model of order q (MA(q)), and ARIMA(p,0,q) is ARMA(p,q). For a proper range of the parameters al and βj, the Yt in ARMA(p,q) is stationary and invertible (Box, Jenkins, and Reinsel 1994).

Many methods have been proposed to estimate the parameters in ARIMA models from observed time series. A crucial step in model diagnosis is to check, through a battery of tests and plots, if the residuals from the models are consistent with white noise (Box, Jenkins, and Reinsel 1994).

In general there are two types of techniques in analyzing time series. The first type is based on direct modeling such as ARIMA models, which are called time domain techniques (Box, Jenkins, and Reinsel 1994). The second type, according to M. B. Priestley in the 1981 publication Spectral Analysis and Time Series, is in the frequency

domain that utilizes the spectrum of a stationary process. The spectrum is defined as

where γk = γ (t, t + k ) and i =. For a stationary ARMA(p,q) process, the spectrum is f (ω ) = σ 2|θ (e i ω)|2|φ (e i ω)|2, where |.| is the norm of a complex number.

For white noise, its spectrum is

a constant for all value of frequency ω. That is, the plot of the spectrum of white noise is flat against ω. The spectrum of white noise can be estimated through the periodogram of finite observations with length n. Let gk be the sample autocovariance computed from the n observations of a stationary time series {Yt }:

where . Then, the periodogram ordinates are

usually computed at the Fourier frequencies ωj = 2πj /n. The plot of the periodogram ordinates gives a visual examination of the underlying spectrum of the process. For a sample of white noise, its I (ω ) is distributed as , where is a chi square random variable with 2 degrees of freedom. Note that I (ω ) is an unbiased estimator of f (ω ), but not consistent (Priestley 1981). Many techniques were proposed to construct unbiased and consistent estimators of f (ω ) using functions of I (ω ), and many tests on white noise can also be constructed via periodogram ordinates I (ω ) (Priestley 1981).

White noise is not only the driving force for classic ARIMA models, it also plays a fundamental role in the popular Generalized Autoregressive and Conditional Heteroscedastic (GARCH) models in financial analysis, in vector cointegration models for economic time series, and in long memory time series models such as in Autoregressive Fractional Integrated Moving Average (ARFIMA(p,d,q)) models with d being a non-integer. White noise is the core of statistical analysis. However, some realizations of simple deterministic chaotic systems may exhibit white noise like sequences. The study of chaos requires new techniques and concepts that are beyond the classic approaches of time series analysis.

SEE ALSO Autoregressive Models; Cointegration; Randomness; Regression; Regression Analysis; Residuals; Unit Root and Cointegration Regression


Box, George E. P., Gwilym M. Jenkins, and Gregory C. Reinsel. 1994. Time Series Analysis: Forecasting and Control. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Priestley, M. B. 1981. Spectral Analysis and Time Series. London: Academic Press.

Dejian Lai

White Noise

views updated May 21 2018

White Noise ★ 2005 (PG-13)

Despite an eerily effective marketing campaign—touting the science behind Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), in which ghosts use electric static to contact the living—this cheap Michael Keaton vehicle should have gone straight to video. After architect Jonathan Rivers (Keaton) loses his wife Anna (West) in a suspicious accident, he retreats into despair. That is, until a stranger (McNeice) convinces Rivers that Anna is sending him messages from beyond the grave via EVP. Rivers becomes obsessed with the transmissions, which awakens a malevolent force unamused with his meddling. The last hour plays like a low budget “Final Destination” retread. 101m/C VHS, DVD, HD DVD . US Michael Keaton, Chandra West, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice, Sarah Strange, Nicholas Elia, Mike Dopud; D: Geoffrey Sax; W: Niall Johnson; C: Chris Seager; M: Claude Foisy.

white noise

views updated May 17 2018

white noise Noise occurring in a channel and regarded as continuous in time and continuous in amplitude, the noise being uniform in energy over equal intervals of frequency. (Note that, by contrast, white light is uniform in energy over equal intervals of wavelength.) Compare impulse noise.

white noise

views updated May 14 2018

white noise • n. Physics noise containing many frequencies with equal intensities.