White Noise Summary and Analysis
by Don DeLillo
In the supermarket, Jack watches the old people, who look lost. It's crowded because there's a forecast of snow. He sees Murray, who tells him that his rival in the college for teaching Elvis has drowned. They discuss the drowned man's huge size. Jack takes Wilder over to the fruit and reflects that he enjoys being with him, as he is instantly gratified by what he sees.
That night, Jack drives Babette to her class. They discuss the newly brilliant sunsets, which Babette believes are a product of the Nyodene D. At home, she tells him they want her to teach another class in eating and drinking. Jack resolves not to tell her about the dangers of his Nyodene D exposure. He nuzzles in between her breasts, drawing "courage" from her touch. He almost asks her to put on her legwarmers before they have sex, but doesn't.
Babette spells out the continuing theme of how people need to be told by authority figures what to do (for the eating and drinking class), even if their "wisdom" just reinforces common sense.
Jack longs for Wilder's transient (if it's present at all) sense of mortality; he grabs sensually for objects, then quickly forgets them. Jack, on the other hand, can't get over the fact that Murray's rival, a man so physically big, has disappeared from the earth. People and things linger for him; death is eternally present.
Jack seems to be envious of Wilder in another way: Babette's maternal connection with him. Jack frequently calls Babette "Baba" (granted, so do the others), a self-admitted infantile sound. Here, he buries himself in her bosom, seeking a return to infantile nourishment (his own class in eating and drinking?). Even his near-request that she wear her legwarmers is a way for her to protect herself and for him, as her "baby," to derive increased protection from her.
Jack increases the length of his German lessons. He does well with writing and grammar rules, but he still has trouble with pronunciation, despite Dunlop's intimate observation (and, once, manipulation) of Jack's tongue. In the town, Mylex-suited men patrol with German shepherds. Heinrich believes there is still a great quantity of Nyodene D present in the town, though they are told there are only trace amounts. Babette points out that there are daily small toxic spills around the country, and that though they're serious, they're controllable. Heinrich says the real issue is the daily low-dosage radiation people encounter -- from microwaves, power lines, etc. He cites various evidence.
Babette changes the subject to general historical and educational questions, and the family drops the issue. Jack relates that a hotline has been set up in the area for people's sense of déjà vu. Jack feels that without a nearby large city, the small town has no one to blame for its fear of death.
Jack's difficulties with speaking German can be traced back to his feelings that the language is cruel and deathly. So much of Hitler's power was derived from his oratorical skills, his ability to work the crowd into a frenzy through his unique rhythms. Jack seemingly cannot bring himself to speak this language of death. It will remind him that he, too, is associated with death, that he, too, will die. Now he has even more proof; though he has no genocidal Hitler waiting for him, he has the toxic Nyodene D. Ironically, Jack doesn't mind the German shepherds, but he and everyone else fear the men in Mylex suits. They resemble Nazi storm troopers, anonymous in uniform and privy to some greater authority.
Babette believes that the small toxic spills are controllable but serious. In the same way, each day saps us of more life and brings us closer to death. She knows it's a serious matter, but it somehow seems more controllable. Is she being honest, or does she fear the toxic spills and the gradual approach to death more than she lets on here?
Jack discovers Babette's bottle of Dylar inside the bathroom radiator. He shows it to Denise. They decide not to say anything to Babette. Denise informs him that further research has yielded no clues as to what Dylar is. Calls to two doctors are fruitless. Jack sees Heinrich doing chin-ups; he says he's compensating for his receding hairline. Heinrich tells him that his friend Mercator is training to break the world endurance record for sitting in a cage of poisonous snakes. Jack and Heinrich agree that they usually want the person attempting such records to get bitten, as they're trying to cheat death. When Babette is standing by the window, and she doesn't seem to notice when Jack returns to bed.
Now Jack has proof that Babette was either lying about the Dylar or truly has memory lapses. That no authority figure knows what Dylar is can mean two things to Jack. One, if they don't know what it is, as higher authorities, then he may not have to worry about it. Two, the more likely and frightening possibility, it may be something beyond even their scope. Whatever Dylar is, its location inside the radiator somehow continues the theme of silent, deathly radiation surrounding us.
The discussion of Mercator is intriguing. Here is someone who is defying death, attacking it head-on. Is this the right way to go about death? Is sitting in cage full of poisonous snakes embracing death, as DeLillo has suggested may be the best way to deal with death, or is it an aggressive, arrogant defiance of it? Whatever the case, it seems that DeLillo has purposely juxtaposed the episodes of the Dylar discovery with Mercator's goal; perhaps the effects of Dylar are in some way the exact of opposite of Mercator's intended effects.
Jack takes a tablet of Dylar to a neurochemist at the college, Winnie Richards. She tells him to return in two days. At home, Jack tells Babette she seems different. He reveals that he found the Dylar, but she denies knowing what it is, and changes the subject. He revisits Winnie, who tells him that the Dylar is a "drug delivery system"; it gradually releases medicine through a small hole in the tablet. She doesn't know what the chemical components are or what it does, though. Jack insists she must know, since she's brilliant. She denies this, and says that all she knows is that Dylar interacts with some part of the brain, and that Dylar is not on the market. Jack tries to think of something funny, since Winnie blushes whenever she hears something funny.
While this is mostly a plot-oriented chapter about Dylar, DeLillo raises interesting points about scientific knowledge. Jack needs to believe that Winnie, a brilliant neurochemist, must know about Dylar. As an academic, he entrusts scientists with mystical knowledge the way Babette's blind reading group put their faith into tabloid psychics.
Winnie says that the infant's brain develops in response to stimuli, and that humans lead the world in stimuli. Jack's somewhat cruel desire to make her blush at the end of the chapter shows both the complexity of the human brain and of the stimuli surrounding it. Scientists still do not know why embarrassment causes blushing. Jack is upset that Winnie cannot answer him, so he will do something to her that she cannot explain scientifically and that hurts her in turn.
In bed, Jack orders Babette to tell him about Dylar. He tells her what he learned from Winnie. Babette tells him that about a year and a half ago, she developed a mental condition she thought would go away. She thought she'd be able to correct it, but when it wouldn't go away, she researched it through various sources without Jack's knowledge. Then, one day, while reading a tabloid to Treadwell, she saw an ad asking for volunteers for secret research. She calls the company Gray Research, though that's not it's real name, and calls her contact, a composite of several people, Mr. Gray. She was selected as one of the people to take the experimental drug Dylar. The potential side effects are dangerous. It could even ravage her brain so much that she would not be able to distinguish words from reality; "'if someone said speeding bullet,' I would fall to the floor and take cover.'" The firm eventually decided it was too risky to let anyone try it, but Babette pushed. She and Mr. Gray -- the project manager -- made a private arrangement. In return for sex in a motel room, he would give her the drug.
Jack is hurt by this, and asks how long this went on for; she says several months. Babette cries. He asks her more about Mr. Gray. She says she won't talk about him for Jack's own good. Jack asks why Gray Research didn't test on animals. Babette says animals don't have this condition, that their brains aren't complex enough to fear what humans can. Jack has an idea of what the condition is, and makes her tell him. She says she's obsessively afraid to die. Jack tries to reason with, saying that everyone fears death, but she can't let it go. He finally confesses that he is obsessed with death, but he never told her to protect her. They compare the respective magnitudes of their fear, musing on what death is -- "'nothing but soundUniform, white.'" They hold each other and make love.
Jack asks what Gray Research accomplished. Babette says they isolated the sector of the brain that is fearful of death, and that Dylar relieves it. She says that everything in the brain is comprised of chemical impulses. Jack asks why Babette's been sad lately if the drug counters fear of death. She says Dylar isn't working, and there are only five pills left -- four, Jack reminds her, since she's forgotten about the one he had analyzed. Jack brings up her memory lapses. She says it's not a side effect of the drug, but of her condition; Mr. Gray told her it was an attempt on her part to deny her fear of death. Jack confides that to her about his forecasted death from Nyodene D. Babette cries, clawing and biting Jack. After she falls asleep, he looks inside the bathroom radiator: the bottle of Dylar is gone.
A great deal of exposition reveals Babette's lurking fear of death, one that has been hinted at all along -- her casual but probing discussion of death, her fear of losing Wilder. Other themes resurface -- that death is white noise, that the brain is nothing but a chemical stew out of our control. A new one comes up that will play an important role later: Dylar possibly separates words from objective meaning. In other words, a statement to someone on Dylar can seem like the real thing. One can construct reality based on language, much as we have seen the media in the novel construct an objective reality.
Jack makes the statement again that all plots move deathward, and White Noise, despite its profound subject matter and style, is shaping up, as Jack admits, into a conventional thriller: the hero's wife sexually betrays him with another man in a motel room for a favor. DeLillo even throws in an old-fashioned suspense twist at the end of the chapter when Jack discovers the Dylar is missing.
To add to this atmosphere of mystery, Mr. Gray is the epitome of ambiguity, of a film noir figure. He is a composite figure, given an appropriately shady name, and Babette even tells Jack that Gray is "not tall, short, young or old." She wants to keep him an ambiguous figure for Jack's emotional health, but doesn't realize that Jack, who wrestles enough with questions of his own identity, will drive himself crazy figuring out who Gray is.
Despite all the suspenseful tactics, the scene still plays out as a postmodern, identity-shifting scene of marital strife and reconciliation. The husband and wife have an argument over her infidelity, albeit one that is related to her consuming fear of death and a secret drug. They make up with sex. Then the husband confesses his own infidelity of sorts, his secret about his own fear of death her and his predicted demise from the Nyodene D. Finally, Babette assumes both a regressive infantile manner -- she bites Jack -- and an overtly maternal one -- she rocks his head back and forth on the pillow.
Jack has a medical checkup which reveals nothing about his impending death. On the way back to the supermarket, he runs into SIMUVAC-in-progress -- a simulated evacuation, complete with emergency vehicles and volunteer victims. An authority figure tells him to leave. Jack parks his car elsewhere, then walks back and approaches the "victims." He finds Steffie among them, and feels bad that she already sees herself as a victim. He listens to a man from "Advanced Disaster Management," the consulting firm that runs the simulated evacuations. The man gives detailed instructions for the evacuation, which he says is the only way to prepare for a real emergency. Jack decides not to watch.
As he arrives home, he hears the start of the evacuation, prompted by siren blasts. He sees Heinrich, dressed in military gear, who informs Jack he is a "street captain." With him is Orest Mercator. Jack asks him why he wants to sit in a cage of poisonous snakes. Orest says he wants to be the best at what he does. They debate the possibility of death; Orest doesn't think he will die, and Jack tells him he will. Jack goes inside and discusses with Babette how Wilder cheers them up. He asks her where the Dylar is, and she says she didn't move them. She suggests he wants to take them, and he promises he doesn't. He wants to know who Mr. Gray is, and she says she promised not to reveal his identity to anyone.
Jack picks Denise up at school (for the first time ever), and tells her the Dylar is to improve Babette's memory. She says he's lying. Jack says he knows Denise took the tablets from the radiator. She says she'll only return it when she finds out what Dylar does. He won't tell her, and she vows to throw out the bottle. A series of arguments from Jack and Babette don't work on Denise. Jack fantasizes about the effects of Dylar on him, countering the fear imposed by Nyodene D.
As we saw earlier, the SIMUVAC people in the Airborne Toxic Event illogically viewed the real evacuation as a simulation. What were they preparing for, then? Another simulation, it seems here; as the man from the Advanced Disaster Management says, "We learned a lot during the night of the billowing cloud. But there is no substitute for a planned simulation." While he is speaking about learning the proper techniques to combat a disaster, he may as well be exalting the uniqueness and value of simulation over reality.
Orest's skin is described as an "uncertain pigmentation." Jack later admits he has no idea what race Orest is, and that "It was getting hard to know what you couldn't say to people." Throughout White Noise, much of the ambiguity of the postmodern world is derived from racial uncertainty, and DeLillo details the attendant insecurity regarding these racial ambiguities. Jack is careful using certain words or phrases -- he says Dunlop's tone is what he wants to call "flesh-colored," or that Babette's hair is what used to be called "dirty blond" (a classification of which a professor of Hitler -- who believed blonde Aryans were pure -- would be particular aware). At the supermarket, he is bewildered by the fusion of races and languages. Orest is the paragon of racial uncertainty. His last name alludes directly to a Mercator map projection, a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world. In the same way, Jack can only identify Orest's ethnicity in flat terms -- by the language of names, colors, religions. He does not have a full idea of Orest's probable heterogeneous background; Orest stands as the universal "Other" for Jack, a figure of pure difference.
Moreover, Orest may take his first name from Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who avenged his father's death by killing his mother and her lover. The Classical allusion repositions Orest as a mythological origin who blends both Greek myth and Biblical allusions (by returning to Eden and confronting the serpent) with his indeterminate lineage. That Orestes avenged his father's death reminds us that Orest's father is an unknown progenitor, hailing from seemingly every continent; it is as if Orest is orphaned and has no idea who his parents are. By squaring off against a slippery, serpentine death, Orest tries to slay his indeterminacy, an equation DeLillo writes throughout White Noise. But Orest accepts his death, as Eastern religions do, observing that "'They want to bite, they biteAt least I go right away.'" What is clear is that Orest is in opposition to Jack. Both may have muddled identities, but Orest seems more accepting of his and is willing to confront death to discover it. Jack wants to deny death and believes that will reveal his living self.
In the kitchen, Jack asks Steffie how the evacuation went. She said most people didn't show up, and the victims just waited. She tells him that her mother (Dana Breedlove) wants her to visit her in Mexico City over Easter, but that she has signed up to be a victim again around Easter and doesn't think she can go. Jack tells her she can be excused from the evacuation.
Jack relates his relationship with Dana. His first and fourth marriages were to her. She was a reviewer of fiction for the CIA, investigating coded structures. Jack finds it curious that he keeps marrying spies: other than Dana, Tweedy's family were longstanding spies, and Tweedy is now married to a spy, and Janet Savory, Heinrich's mother, used to do research for a secret group of theorists.
At the college cafeteria, the popular culture department discusses personal trivia; many of the questions center around death, such as if they ever took pleasure as a kid in "imagining yourself dead." One of them says he does it more now, imagining his friends at his funeral feeling sorry they weren't nicer to him, and calls it the "most satisfying form of childish self-pity." Alfonse discusses how internal medicine is the "magic brew," that internists have the real power in the world.
Jack leaves and waits outside for Murray. He asks him how he can handle discussing death all day, and Murray says even when he was a sportswriter, the other writers discussed only sex and death. Jack doesn't want to believe that the two are linked. He asks how Murray's car crash seminar is going. Murray says his students view car crashes in movies as the "suicide wish of technology," but that he urges them to view the crashes as American optimism, as spectacular, technological one-upmanship. He believes we should look past the violence and to the innocent celebration of these crashes.
Jack's marriages, as he says, are to a string of spies or intelligence-related women, and even Babette now has a secret world with Dylar that blocks out Jack. It is a great irony that he, who seeks knowledge specifically about the unknown of death, is married to those who have this mysterious knowledge but cannot share it with him. Jack feels he is trapped within huge systems, the sources of all the white noise around him, and these systems withhold important information that keep them out of his grasp. A good example frequently brought up in the novel is science; as Alfonse professes, internists are nearly magicians, wielding power over invisible parts of our bodies. No wonder Jack views Mr. Gray as "hazy, unfinished. The man was literally gray." He thinks, as does Grappa the popular culturist, that everyone is against him, that they "scheme in silence" against him.
Jack brings up another irony in the novel when he discusses Murray's department. Jack finds the excessive discussion of death too much to handle. By now, it should be obvious that many characters in the novel besides Jack, especially Murray, the other pop-culturists, and Heinrich, are mouthpieces for DeLillo's ideas (even ones with which he doesn't necessarily agree). White Noise is a novel of ideas, and in the same way that Jack finds the intellectualization of death stifling, many readers find DeLillo's characters' ideas too cold and abstract. But this is just a personal preference and should not enter into a critical assessment of the novel; the more intriguing idea is that White Noise itself resembles the large, chaotic systems that intimidate Jack. The novel brims with ideas, both intrinsic to the work and baldly stated, and it is up to the reader to make the connections, to figure out the "system."
White Noise Essays and Related Content
- White Noise: Major Themes
- White Noise: Essays
- White Noise: Questions
- White Noise: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Don DeLillo: Biography
- White Noise Summary
- About White Noise
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 22-28
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 29-35
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-40
- Related Links on White Noise
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources