The major theme of the novel is that death lurks everywhere, especially in the "white noise" of the modern world -- specifically in the waves and radiation with which we surround ourselves. The airborne toxic event makes visible this submerged death, and also heightens Jack's already dominating fear of death when it infects his bloodstream. DeLillo outlines several possible solutions to humanity's natural fear of death: by embracing and confronting it, as Tibetans and other Eastern religions advise; by blocking fear through "mystical" (since no one understands it) science, as Babette attempts through the drug Dylar; by using consumerism to deny it (see below); and by ignoring it, although only Wilder seems able to do this, whereas in the hands of adults it becomes a weakened form of repression. We try to face death through crowds, through safety in numbers, but we must ultimately face death alone.
Simulations replacing reality
DeLillo takes a quintessentially postmodern idea, that simulacra (or simulations) have replaced reality, and applies it throughout White Noise. The most obvious example is with the simulated evacuation, SIMUVAC; although the first run-through is for an actual emergency, SIMUVAC views it as practice for an actual simulation. In other words, its status as a simulation takes precedence over its use for a real emergency. On its second, simulated use, the people behind SIMUVAC continue to worry over its use in simulation, not in reality. The other major scene involving the dominance of simulacra is when Jack and Murray visit what signs call "the most photographed barn" in America. As Murray notes, people pay more attention to the signs than to the actual barn; they are wrapped in the simulated idea more than in the real barn. Another instance of simulation versus reality is when the family sees Babette on TV. At first they are frightened, but soon realize what is happening; only Wilder, not yet schooled in the way of simulacra, continues to believe it is really Babette and cries by the TV.
Aura of Authority
In some ways, this is a subset of the simulacra theme (see above). Murray observes in "the most photographed barn" scene that the observers cannot escape the "aura" of the barn. The barn assumes this aura of authority that controls the observers. In the same sense, there is much exploration in White Noise of how the media controls reality, even to the extent that we ignore our own senses; the girls consistently feel the symptoms of Nyodene D exposure only after the radio informs them of what they are. Tabloids also have the same effect over their listeners, who believe the mystical authorities of psychics. Before we scoff, DeLillo reminds us that most people blindly follow scientists the same way, putting faith in the technological language we cannot understand. Jack also frequently discusses the ways Hitler, through image-manipulation, could control crowds by sweeping them up in his aura of authority. Jack, too, tries to create this aura with his own authoritative academic costume. Ultimately, DeLillo questions to what extend we have control over our own brains, and to what extent they are independent chemical processes. The fact that one of Dylar's side effects is the user confuses language with reality suggests we are, fundamentally, nothing but these chemical processes, and that a drug can overtakes our senses and construct reality for us. Of course, this is the main point of Dylar, to create a new sense of reality by preventing the fear of death. That it fails in this point suggests that there is something uniquely human about fear of death that technology and science cannot fully control.
Consumerism as defense against death
From the opening scene of the station wagons arriving at school, DeLillo explores the American impulse to buy and belong to groups as a means to ward off death. Jack believes that Hitler unified Nazi Germany in this same way, by grouping them and making them feel invincible, and we frequently see frightened people clinging together in groups in the novel (after the airplane scare, throughout the airborne toxic event). However, consumerism creates its own death -- it amasses waste, a kind of cultural death -- and ultimately it leaves people feeling empty, as Jack feels after his shopping spree. Only someone like Wilder, who grabs at items off the supermarket shelves, can be fulfilled by consumerism, but DeLillo suggests it only works for him because he does not have the capacity to speak or think abstractly.
Ambiguity of identity
One of Jack's main quests in the novel is to figure out his identity. He is called "indistinct" by a colleague, and Jack is honest about his need for Hitler and his intimidating academic costume to fill out his identity. Murray points out the obvious idea that Jack uses Hitler as a figure "larger than death" to deal with his own fear of death. But Murray also wants to use an opposing figure -- Elvis Presley -- to complement his own identity. Jack also uses consumerism at times to complete himself, but these tactics inevitably fail (see above). Another intriguing idea in White Noise is about the ambiguity of racial identity in the modern world. Jack frequently wonders what ethnicity people are, such as Orest, and seems unable to deal with this -- everyone becomes an "Other" to him, a figure identified by his opposition to Jack. This anxiety emerges with Mr. Gray (Willie Mink), who torments Jack mostly because he is a hazy figure in Jack's mind. Since Jack is unclear about his own identity -- he's a Mr. Gray himself -- he is further tortured when his antagonist is indistinct.
DeLillo suggests the world is a network of huge systems that no one can understand, or feel the answer is just beyond them. This is why people always want to know about UFOs and aliens and believe in conspiracies; it explains why the shoppers panic when the supermarket shelves are rearranged, thus changing the system around for them. This tendency is true especially for Jack, whose wives have all been spies or remarried spies; he feels they constantly know something he doesn't. He also feels that scientists and doctors are above him in other ways and communicate to others through secret languages (note the coded envelope he gets from one doctor, or the flashing code the SIMUVAC man reads on the computer). In same way, White Noise can be read as a novel of systems. It has a huge amount of abstractly stated ideas (mostly from Jack, Murray, and Heinrich, but several others along the way) that cohere with the novel's structure; it is up to the reader to navigate these systems and figure them out.
The postmodern American family
DeLillo updates the novelistic family for the nuclear age of the 1980s. He takes previous conventions of families problems (sexual frustrations, sullen children) but gives them a subversive twist (the husband and wife debate who will die first, Heinrich is the smartest member of family and, with his receding hairline, seems like the oldest at times). The family is also called the disseminator of misinformation, a fact Murray ascribes to the advancement of society. Parenthood is also diffused in the Gladney family; no single child is biologically from both Babette and Jack. Moreover, Jack's status as a father is often usurped, as when Bob Pardee comes in and takes the kids out to dinner. The family is brought together by consumerism, a tactic that usually fails (as when they watch TV together), but DeLillo makes the more subtle point that at least consumerism tries to bring them together.
White Noise Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for White Noise is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.