White Noise

White Noise Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20

Chapter 16:

Wilder cries incessantly all day, and nothing they do makes him stop. They take him to a doctor, but Jack stays in the car, as the negativity in a doctor's office depresses him and reminds him of his own death -- he would rather visit an emergency room, where the health problems have little to do with his own "eventual death, nonviolent, small-town." Babette comes back with the doctor's advice: an aspirin and bed, the same prescription Denise offered.

As Jack starts the car, Wilder's crying changes pitch to a more "mournful" quality. They debate taking him to the hospital, but instead Jack drives Babette to her class at church. As Jack sits with the wailing Wilder in the car, he gives in to the crying, letting it "wash over" him. He drives and lets Wilder steer. On the way home with Babette, the crying stops suddenly. At home, the others are careful not to provoke Wilder in any way, and watch him with awe.


Wilder's crying is a more urgent, audible instance of the white noise that has been building up in the novel. A parent worries about nothing more than his child's health, and Wilder's crying sends Jack and Babette to the doctor. They are scared his crying foretells his death, but it is only through submitting to this that Jack can bear it. He gives in to Wilder's cries, which are described with words befitting water -- "wash," "rain," -- and specifically waves -- "fall and tumble." The sound waves are not so terrifying once he concedes their presence, and Jack is motivated to do another risky thing -- letting Wilder steer the car. By engaging in this dangerous practice, he is giving in to death slightly, admitting that it is inevitable someday. However, it seems unlikely that Jack will continue to embrace death as he does in this episode.

DeLillo continues the theme of the authoritative power of auras. Jack and Babette admit they didn't pay attention to Denise because she's a kid, even though she offered just as sound medical advice as the doctor. Again, they need the assurance of a sign, an aura of higher authority, and only then will they put their trust in others.

Chapter 17:

On the way to the mall, Denise asks Babette what she knows about Dylar. Babette asks if that's the name of a black girl they know, and this leads to a series of free-association factual errors, such as that Lagos is the capital of Dakar. Jack believes the "family is the cradle of the world's misinformation," and believes the need to survive "generates factual error." Murray believes facts threaten us, and that the strongest families live in the least developed societies. At the hardware store, Jack runs into Eric Massingale, a computer teacher at the college. Eric tells Jack that he looks "harmless" and "indistinct" without his collegiate uniform.

Jack goes on a spending spree in the mall. He feels closer to his family, and that he has "found new aspects of myself." He grows more benevolent, letting his kids pick out items for themselves. After a while, they drive home in silence, retiring to their rooms. He watches TV later with Steffie.


This chapter details in greatest length the family as a "cradle of misinformation"; we have previously seen rapid-fire banter, but never to this hilarious effect. The family creates its own sort of white noise, drowning in its own river of ill-formed facts, and perhaps Murray is right. Knowing the objective truth is frightening, since it means we also must acknowledge we will die. By denying factual truths, we can deny death.

We see further signs of Jack's ambiguous identity; without his collegiate apparel of the dark glasses and robe, Eric thinks he looks "indistinct." To remedy his lack of identity, he becomes a voracious consumer. It does make him feel like part of his family, and he believes he rediscovers himself through purchasing.

But DeLillo's critique of this consumerist identity is evident through his language. Jack's spending spree is associated with glossy textures and surfaces -- "Brightness settled around me," "Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms." To make up for his indistinct identity, Jack settles on a superficial, reflective one that projects an image of himself he would like to see. It is ultimately a media-saturated one, as the image of the family on TV monitors suggests. Furthermore, the experience does not bond the family. Even when Jack and Steffie watch TV together, she silently mouths the words along with the characters; she would still rather be on television than in the real world.

Chapter 18:

Jack says that since Blacksmith is not near a large city, it doesn't feel threatened by cities the way other small towns do. He drives to the airport outside of Iron City, a large, economically depressed town, to pick up his 12-year-old daughter Bee. Instead, he finds Tweedy Browner, her mother, who says that Bee is coming in later and they will spend some time together before Tweedy has to go to Boston. Bee is in Indonesia, as Tweedy's husband, Malcolm, is trying to kick-start a Communist revival. They drive through Iron City. Tweedy confesses that she thought Jack would love her forever, and Jack points out that she came away with the lion's share in their divorce. Jack discusses Heinrich's mother, Janet Savory, and how she involved him in financial schemes. Tweedy is frustrated by Malcolm's undercover job, as it obscures his identity and he doesn't reveal anything to her.

They return to the airport. Before Bee's flight is scheduled to arrive, other passengers file out, looking shaken and fatigued. Jack finds out from a passenger that the plane had lost power, making the passengers -- and what's worse, the pilots over the intercom -- believe they were going to crash. Another intercom message relayed one of the pilot's profound thoughts of death. The flight crew prepared everyone not for a crash but for a crash landing, since one can prepare for a crash landing. As the passenger tells Jack the story, more passengers crowd around, as if they were learning about it for the first time. Then, the man says, the power went back on in the plane, restoring people's sense of life.

Jack finds Bee, who asks where the media is; Jack informs her there is no media in Iron City. Bee is disappointed that they "went through all that for nothing." On the drive home, Tweedy ruminates on the importance of allowing children to travel alone on planes.


Though Jack says there is no media in Iron City, the people develop their own media in the form of the man who tells Jack the story. They crowd around him, endowing him with the aura of authority. They believe his words more than their own experience, his simulated retelling more than their real experience.

Additionally, as a crowd they perform another task, which is to ward off death. Jack brought up this idea in his lecture in Murray's class, and here we see it in action. After a terrifying ordeal, they bond together in safety. However, it is also clear that their status as a crowd did them little good on the fear-inducing plane ride.

The pilot on the intercom who says that the anticipation of death is "worse than we'd ever imagined" also succumbs to the inevitability of death. In his over-the-top speech (which destroys whatever modicum of realism DeLillo is trying to impart), he ends by declaring his love for someone named Lance. While it seems like he has accepted death, his opening himself to vulnerability exposes a breakdown of authority to the passengers, and they panic anew. Crowds only protect against death, then, when there is a central figure of authority, such as the man who tells Jack the story.

As we gather from Tweedy, Jack told her just about everything, as he does with Babette. He has a compulsion to reveal his whole personality to others, since he is so unsure of his own identity. He is afraid of being like Malcolm, a shadowy figure without any real identity.

Chapter 19:

Jack says the sophisticated Bee makes the family feel self-conscious, aware of their flaws. Bee discusses her mother's problems with Malcolm, Tweedy's own identity problems, and Babette's virtues. Jack feels Bee is implicitly inquiring into his own life. Jack later drives her to the airport, and on the way back visits an old, quiet cemetery. He reads the tombstones. He feels the dead have a presence, that people believe they watch over them. He makes a few advisory statements in the imperative voice, including "Do not advance the action according to a plan."


Jack's cryptic final remarks in the chapter remind us of his discussion of plots. He previously said that all plots move deathward, and here he makes three statements embracing aimlessness and chaos. The way to avoid death, he seems to be saying, is to be aimless in life.

But this is not totally true, as Bee's previous comments on her parents make clear. Malcolm is always embroiled in terrorist plots, and he has an exciting life, though his identity is muddied and he is always near death. Tweedy, on the other hand, has little to do in her life, no action and no plots, and she is unhappy.

We can read Jack's statements as ironic ones. We know that White Noise is heading toward some kind of plot conflict with Babette's medication, as she has deflected attention from it previously. Like it or not, life inevitably does contain plots, and we all move deathward. Jack can neither totally ignore plots (like Tweedy) nor totally embrace them (like Malcolm), as both options lead to indistinct identities.

Chapter 20:

Jack relates a series of deaths from the obituaries, including that of Mr. Treadwell's sister, who died from the "lingering dread" of her experience in the mall. He compares his age to the ages of the deceased. He thinks about Atilla the Hun, who died in his forties, and wants to believe that Atilla faced death bravely. Babette tells Jack that she wants to die first, as she'd be lonely without him. Jack says the same thing about himself.

Murray visits for his study of children, and he watches TV and talks with the kids. Jack and Heinrich argue about Babette's preference for coffee; Heinrich wants to start her on tea. Heinrich criticizes Jack for wasting motion in his preparations, and speaks about the importance of saving waste. Jack admits to himself that, in truth, he would choose loneliness over death, although he is frightened by loneliness as well.

Jack brings coffee in to Murray, and sees Babette's face on the TV. They are all shocked and confused. She seems alien to Jack. After a moment, they realize she is being interviewed in the church about her class. Wilder touches the screen. Denise tries to adjust the volume, but the sound gets distorted. After the interview ends, the girls excitedly go downstairs to wait for Babette, and Wilder cries softly by the TV. Murray takes notes.


Babette's appearance on TV is the first case of one of the family member's being projected as a simulated reproduction through the media. Understandably, they have a hard time recognizing her at first, especially Jack. He doesn't see her so much as the collection of pixels and light from the TV. Her voice is scrambled because it doesn't matter as much as her image; people are used to hearing someone who is not there (as over the phone, for instance), but they are not used to seeing someone who is not there. Wilder's crying states in bald terms the confusion and fear Jack also feels.

Heinrich's discussion of waste brings up a topic that interests DeLillo greatly, especially in his 1997 novel Underworld. Waste is a major postmodern topic, as it has grown considerably in the latter 20th-century. Heinrich associates waste with inefficient living, an argument that shuts up Jack, who would give anything to live longer. Waste itself is reminiscent of death; it is the discarded, the refused, the buried. In the consumerist culture, however, so much waste is accumulated. It is a vicious cycle -- the more we buy to stave off death, the more we surround ourselves with reminders of wasted death.

We see another instance of the consumerist mantra when Jack says the names of three credit cards. Why credit cards, specifically? For one, they're an all-purpose symbol of consumerism. But it seems especially telling that he names them after he discusses Babette's fear of loneliness and emptiness after Jack's death. Previously, we saw Jack's expenditures in the mall fill in his loneliness and empty identity; here, the credit cards alleviate Babette's fears of the same.