White Noise

White Noise Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-40

Chapter 36:

Jack says he sometimes thinks of his gun, hidden in the bedroom. The weather is getting warmer. One night, Jack gets a collect call from Janet Savory, Heinrich's mother, who now lives on an ashram (a secluded Hindu community). She wants Heinrich to visit her in Montana. Jack will allow him if he wants to, so long as he doesn't get entangled in her religion. After he hangs up, he wonders if the swami of the ashram would be able to answer Heinrich's questions better than he can. At night, he finds a sweatsuited Babette staring out the bedroom window.

The Hitler conference begins at the college. Jack makes the brief opening address from his German notes, speaking mostly about Hitler's mother, brother, and dog. He avoids the Germans in the crowd. He thinks about his gun and the sense of secrecy and power it gives him.

Steffie returns from Mexico, exuberant. She says Dana told her she was thinking of stopping her government work. Jack goes to take further medical tests at the place his doctor recommended. He gives them various bodily samples, answers questions, and takes a battery of tests. A doctor asks him a few more questions, and Jack answers with healthy-seeming responses, hoping it will add years to his life expectancy. The doctor tells Jack he has traces of Nyodene D in his bloodstream; Jack says he's never heard of it. The doctors tells him Nyodene D can lead to a nebulous mass -- a growth without a definite shape -- which can cause death. The doctor gives Jack a sealed envelope which he should show to his doctor.

Jack walks through town at night. He imagines a phone conversation between a grandson and his grandparents. Jack repeats the doctor's last line, regarding the envelope Jack should give to his normal doctor: "Your doctor knows the symbols."


It makes sense that Nyodene D can cause a nebulous mass -- a growth with "no definite shape, form or limits." Ambiguity is Jack's constant battle -- Mr. Gray, his own death -- and he specifically wishes his life to be limitless, to have no defined shape (remember what Winnie said about death creating a limit for life).

Jack again is made insecure by a former wife's access to a different system. Those on Janet's ashram have bonded together so that, even in their last life cycle (as Janet tells it), they can ward off death while being in a group. Moreover, Jack is worried that the swami knows more about the mystical world than he does, and will prove a better father figure to Heinrich.

But Jack's greatest insecurity is in the special, secret language of science -- "Your doctor knows the symbols." Only these mystics can understand each other, and Jack is not even allowed to look at his own envelope. They have an aura of authority he cannot pierce. Jack's imagined conversation between the grandson and the grandparents sheds some light on his feelings of inadequacy and death. He most likely identifies more with the old grandparents, obsolete and near their end, than with the young grandson, excitedly starting his life.

Chapter 37:

Jack and Murray go on a long walk one afternoon. Jack asks why humans can't be intelligent about death. Murray believes it's impossible to get beyond our basic fear. Jack wonders if the fear of death is what makes us die. He says he's slated to die from the Nyodene D, and says he does not regret anything in his life -- he only fears death. Murray tells him that, as a dying person, Jack will seem important to people, and he should not fall into despair. Murray asks Jack a series of questions about death, and Murray agrees with most of Jack's answers. Murray says Jack can put his faith in technology to revive his body. Jack doesn't want to do that. Murray says he can study the afterlife and take solace from the idea of its existence.

Murray believes Jack has studied Hitler because he is a "mythic figureŠlarger than death," and he hoped Hitler would help him deal with his fear of death. They go into the supermarket. Murray says Jack's problem is he doesn't know how to repress his fear, and that some people can't help this. Murray tells Jack he likes being around Wilder because Wilder doesn't know he's going to die. Murray tells him the final solution to approaching death. He says there are two kinds of people, killers and "diers." Most people are "diers," but the killers, by ending someone's life, somehow gain a "life-credit." Murray says it's only a theory, but Jack should think about it. Jack says every plot is to die; Murray says "'To plot is to live.'" He believes plotting is an attempt to affirm and control life.

Though Jack says he is "dier," not a killer, Murray reminds him of the "'reservoir of potential violence'" in males. Murray asks Jack who his doctor is, as he needs to see someone. Jack says he's afraid to see his doctor, and has hidden his medical printout in his dresser. Murray tells Jack the truth: "'Better you than me.'" He says it's a universal feeling about death. Jack tells him Babette wants to die first, but Murray is skeptical.

At home, Jack savagely throws away more things, feeling they have put him in this "fix." He transcribes the instructions for devising a secret code for an ATM card, and the multiple warnings about knowing your own code.


Jack brings up the possibility that "If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever." Previously, he has noted that humans are the only animals smart enough to know they will eventually die. But can Jack be right -- could we train ourselves to ignore the fear of death, thus staving off death? As Murray says, "We talk ourselves into it." We have seen other instances of people talking themselves into things -- the supposed symptoms associated with Nyodene D, for instance, that everyone got only when the radio discussed them. What Jack is searching for is the aura of fearlessness that Dylar would give him, an aura he believes would give him the authority to defy death.

That aura, according to Murray, can be found in the two great mystical sources: science and religion. Science gives us technology, which both causes death (the Nyodene D) and can possibly cure it (Dylar). Religion gives us the afterlife, something which also causes death (the person has died) but revives the soul as a new life form.

Murray, believing "to plot is to love," upends Jack's belief that plots move deathward. But Murray shows how a deathward plot can also be a life-affirming one -- the plot of killing. One can usurp death for one's own means by turning it on others and becoming an instrument of death. Killing, then, is like the dualities of both technology and the afterlife: with death comes the affirmation of life. Jack has already received a physical instrument of death, the gun; is he ready to turn himself into a killer?

Jack has been mystified so long about the "personal codes" and systems of others -- his ex-wives' spying background, Hitler, Babette's fear of death -- but, as the instructions for the ATM card reveal, only with one's own code can one "enter the system." Jack is afraid of finding out his own code -- literally, in the case of his medical printout that forecasts his death. As he told Murray, he does not want to know the exact date of his death, as that would be too definite. He also points out that death does not make his life more satisfying, rather, he is wracked with anxiety. His real problem is he is afraid of discovering his own private code -- his identity. Without this, life is a mystery to him, and it makes death even more mysterious.

Chapter 38:

In bed, Jack relates Murray's idea that some people can't repress their fear of death. She reminds him that repression causes a host of other ills, but he insists it's the only way to survive. He thinks about Mr. Gray, and feels he is in Mr. Gray's body.

Jack starts bringing his gun to school. He feels powerful with it. One day he examines the three bullets inside. At night, he asks Heinrich about Orest's quest. Heinrich tells him that no one would let him do it, so he had been forced to go to a hotel room in a nearby town, where the snakes bit him within a few minutes. Moreover, there were only three snakes instead of 27, and they weren't venomous. Orest has since gone into hiding.

Walking over to his office, Jack thinks someone is following him, and wonders if the gun is making him jittery. His hand on the gun in his pocket, Jack trots, then runs when he hears running from behind. He turns finally and sees Winnie Richards, who says she saw an article about the group that manufactured Dylar. She relates how they came close to succeeding, but one of their leaders, Willie Mink, ruined things by putting an ad in a newspaper for volunteers. After this, the group switched to computer testing. But they discovered that one of the volunteers began using the drug with Mink's help -- wearing a ski mask, she would meet him at a motel. Mink was fired, and the project continued. Mink still lives in the motel, in the Germantown section of Iron City.

At home, Jack argues with Babette about her habit of wearing running clothes all the time. He tells her he's going driving and doesn't know when he'll be back. She tells him to drive her to the stadium so she can run, wait for her, then drive her back. He tells her he doesn't want to do that, and that it's chilly -- she should wear a ski mask. He takes his neighbors' car -- they've been keeping the key in the ignition ever since the airborne toxic event. Trash caddies hanging from the dashboard are filled with debris. He drives to Iron City, ignoring a toll booth and two traffic lights on the way. He feels light and dreamy, but more so "an agitation of the passions." He rubs his gun.


Jack is inching closer to his plot of confronting Willie Mink, a.k.a. Mr. Gray. The great irony is that the motel is in Germantown; in a sense, Jack has always been close to him, to the associations of German deathliness. Perhaps the greater irony is that Babette would wear a ski mask to her meetings with Mink (something Jack bitterly reminds her of as he leaves). While Jack could never get a clear picture of Mink, it is really Babette who tried to obscure her identity. In the same way, she is obscuring her identity at home by constantly wearing her running clothes. One costume is for a sexual tryst, and one is for athletic purposes, but both conceal her.

After Jack's scare with Winnie, in which he questions if the gun makes him more fearful, he seems primed to face death fearlessly. He boldly defies the systems that previously frustrated him -- he flouts the toll booth and traffic lights, he steals a car -- and his "agitation of the passions" indicates he has tapped into the male reservoir of violence Murray and Babette spoke of previously. He even rubs his gun in a clichéd masculine pose of affection for the phallic weapon. He is surrounded by death once again -- the trash in the neighbors' car -- but now we get the sense he is above these consumerist trappings of death and is ready for the real thing.

Perhaps Jack realizes that he would rather lose to Mink than live his life in fear and insecurity. Orest's failed attempt with the snakes shows that Orest would have been better off had he died boldly than survived meekly -- at least in the eyes of Orest and the kids at school.

Chapter 39:

Jack drives through Iron City and finally finds the Roadway Motel in a deserted area. He parks elsewhere and walks back to it. His plan is to find Mr. Gray, shoot him three times in the stomach for maximum pain, make it look like a suicide, take whatever Dylar he has, then drive back to Blacksmith and park the car in Treadwell's garage. He finds himself becoming more aware of things, such as the falling rain. He walks to the motel's office, which has a gibberish message written on the door. He looks in the windows, and in one sees a figure sitting in an armchair.

Jack opens the door and sees Willie Mink, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Budweiser shorts. Mink asks if he's there for Dylar, and Jack says he is. Mink says he must behave in a manner required of rooms, a point with which Jack agrees. Jack has difficulty determining Mink's ethnicity. He studies Mink's face, and feels sorry Babette had to seek refuge in him. Mink throws a bunch of Dylar tablets at his own mouth, swallowing some. Jack asks Mink a few questions about his background to put him at ease. Mink speaks about how Dylar failed, but it will eventually succeed -- and with that, death will adapt and get stronger as well. Jack feels they are inching closer to death. Mink takes more pills.

Mink asks how much Dylar he wants to buy. Jack stares at him, imagining Babette and Mink wrapped up in sex. Mink brings up a woman in a "ski mask," whose name he now forgets, and says American sex is how he learned English. Jack repeats his plan to himself. Mink takes more pills, and Jack remembers Babette's warning of the side effects of Dylar. Jack says the words "'Falling plane,'" then "'Plunging aircraft,'" and Mink fearfully gets in a crash position. As Jack advances, Mink pulls out of his fear, and asks why Jack is here. Jack advances more, and Mink says, among other gibberish, that the woman said she wore the ski mask because kissing was "'un-American.'"

Jack repeats the plan to himself. As he holds the gun, he says "'Hail of bullets.'" Mink drops to the floor in fear and crawls to the bathroom. Jack plans to tell Mink who he is and who the woman in the ski mask is. He takes out his gun. Mink takes more pills. Jack fires and hits Mink's stomach. He fires again to feel the excitement. He wipes off the gun and puts it in Mink's hand. Then Mink shoots and hits Jack's wrist. Jack is in pain, and he's disappointed his plan didn't work perfectly. He sees colored dots at the edge of his vision.

Jack looks at Mink and feels a sense of compassion. First he tends to himself, taking out his handkerchief and tying it around his wrist. He drags Mink outside the motel and to the car, leaving his trail of blood behind them. Mink takes more Dylar. As Mink goes into a frenzy, Jack gives him mouth-to-mouth respiration. Jack feels selfless. After a few minutes, Mink takes normal breaths. When he asks who shot him, Jack says Mink shot himself. Jack pulls Mink into the car, feeling even better about himself, and drives around for a hospital.

They arrive at a three-story building with a neon cross over the entrance. A nun answers the door, and takes them in when she sees they've been shot. Inside, the place looks like a clinic. Two orderlies and more German-speaking nuns come in with medical instruments. The nun from the door takes away the gun from Mink's hand and puts it in a drawer with several other guns and knives. A doctor comes in, speaks German with the nurses, and tends to Mink. The first nun takes Jack aside and works on his wound. She tells him they are the last Germans in Germantown, and reveals her name is Sister Hermann Marie. Jack speaks German to her, hoping it will curry her favor, something he tries with all doctors and nurses. She fixes his wound and tells him the doctor will give him a prescription for antibiotics. Two more nuns come by and they all speak German with Jack.

Jack looks at a picture in the room of John F. Kennedy holding hands with Pope John XXIII in a cloudy depiction of heaven. He asks the nun if the Church still says heaven appears like that. She finds his question ridiculous, as neither she nor the other nuns believe in heaven, saints, or angels. Jack doesn't understand how she couldn't be a believer, but she says the picture of heaven is for others -- for those who believe that the nuns believe. The world would collapse, she says, if they didn't pretend to believe, for the nonbelievers require believers. After they argue some more, she speaks rapid German to him. Jack believes it is some kind of prayer that he can't understand, but he finds it beautiful.

Jack leaves and gets his prescription from the doctor. He finds out Mink won't die, though he won't be healthy for a while. Jack drives home and leaves the car in the neighbors' driveway, even though it's covered with blood. He goes upstairs, watches his sleeping children, then gets into bed with Babette. He can't sleep, has a cup of coffee in the kitchen, and decides there is nothing to do but wait until the next sunset.


This chapter is the climax we and Jack have been waiting for all along, his confrontation with Mr. Gray/Willie Mink and with death itself. The plot of the novel has been inching deathward, as Jack claimed plots do, and Jack even recites his "plan" to kill Mink several times as he closes in on death. But Jack also gains a heightened awareness of the world -- "I saw things new." Perhaps Murray is right -- to plot is to live, not to die. Jack's plan changes, after all, into one of life-saving. He feels he is "selfless," and it seems his act of forgiveness, and not murder, is what gives him the life-credit Murray spoke of previously.

In the murder scene, DeLillo exposes all the forms of white noise that have been lurking, death-like, throughout the novel. Mink is watching the "flickering light" of the TV attached to ceiling, almost as if it's deity to whom he's praying. Jack repeatedly mentions the whiteness of the bathroom, and sees colored dots when he's shot, those subliminal dots his deathly dark glasses have caused previously. He also mentions a few times that the "surfacesŠgleam" in the room, echoing what he felt on his shopping spree in the mall when he used consumerism to defeat the white noise of death. Most saliently, he becomes increasingly aware of the water, an auditory reminder of the white noise: "Water struck the roof in spherical massesŠClose to a violence, close to a death."

Mink is also a paragon of the universality that defines the American consumer. He wears a Hawaiian shirt and Budweiser shorts, a costume of random geography and commerce. He also rapaciously ingests Dylar like a child scarfs down sweets. Jack can't decide what race he is, and Mink calls Jack "'white man'" a few times and says Jack is "'very white.'" He is clearly an opposing figure to Jack, an "Other," much like Orest. In a sense, Mink is like a "medicine man," Dylar is his primitive form of currency, and Jack is the white imperialist who plans to rob and kill him.

Jack uses the side effect of Dylar to his advantage. Language replaces reality for Mink, but this is more than mere simulation (words) replacing reality (events). Language now has a new aura of authority. In same way characters in the novel believe messages from the radio over their own sensations, language -- and, consequently, the speaker -- has that same authority to control the Dylar-taker's sense of objective reality.

Jack, too, has a heightened sense of language, an all-encompassing one: "I fired the gun, the weapon, the pistol, the firearm, the automatic." It is as if he is becoming omniscient and god-like with the powerful gun, and he can see everything in all its linguistic forms and make language equal reality. But he also shows how useless language is -- five words for "gun" don't match its power when it actually fires. Jack notes this himself after he shoots Mink and looks at his blood: "I saw beyond words. I knew what red was, saw it in terms of dominant wavelength, luminance, purity." He sees beyond the simulation and to the reality -- or, more accurately, to a new scientific reality (he previously says he now understands the neurochemistry of his brain). He has finally attained that mystical authority he sought, the language of scientific mystics.

That other language that has always given him trouble, German, comes up with the nuns. It is ironic that Jack, who has always seen it as a deathly language, speaks it with the nuns as they heal him. The greater irony, of course, is that the nuns do not, in fact, have religious faith. If anything, they are more technological and modernized than most people, putting their faith in science as they heal the sick and wounded. DeLillo brings us back to the idea that simulation has usurped reality. The simulation of the nuns' belief -- their pretense to believe -- is enough to keep the world from collapsing. Everyone else operates from a second level of belief -- they believe the nuns believe -- and that doubly simulated level is somehow stronger than real faith. Even Jack, unable to comprehend what may be a "scornful prayer" in German from the nun, still finds it beautiful. He wants to believe there is something transcendental in it even though she has admitted she has no faith.

Chapter 40:

Wilder rides his tricycle around the block, over some obstacles, and pedals across the nearby highway as two elderly women try to call him back. Wilder ignores the honking cars and reaches the grass island in the middle. He then crosses the other lane as cars dodge him. He rides parallel with the traffic and falls. In the creek next to the highway, he cries. A driver pulls over and picks him up.

Jack describes how he, Babette, and Wilder frequently go to the overpass to watch the sunset, along with many other observers. They watch in "wonder or dread," unsure of what is to come. After darkness falls, the people disperse.

Jack says the Mylex-suited men still patrol the area. Jack's doctor wants to discuss his impending death, but Jack is avoiding him, and taking no calls.

One day, shoppers find to their confusion that the supermarket shelves have been rearranged. They wander the aisles, feeling betrayed. But Jack says it doesn't matter, as the terminals have scanners which decode every item. He believes this "language of waves and radiation" is "how the dead speak to the living." Waiting on line together, people have the chance to browse the tabloids, where we can read about "The cults of the famous and the dead."


The event that has been foreshadow throughout the novel -- Wilder's disappearance -- finally happens, and it also brings out a rush of white noise from the passing cars -- "sound waves mixing in the air." However, Wilder ignores the cars and his possible death. Is this the best way to deal with death, by ignoring it? To do so we would have to be non-linguistic, as Wilder is, unaware of anything abstract outside our most basic needs.

Moreover, Wilder does not mind being in a chaotic system. Adults, on the other hand, need to feel in control of their lives -- even if it ultimately makes them more fearful. When the supermarket is rearranged, they wander the lanes in panic, opposite from the way Wilder peacefully navigated the highway lanes. Accordingly, they are more reliant on language -- they scrutinize labels, for instance -- since abstract thought is the only way they can feel on top of things.

Jack tries to ignore death like Wilder does -- he avoids his doctor and, like Orest, stops taking phone calls. He isolates himself through this kind of denial, but we see another way he faces death through bonding at the sunset. The sunset is the day's death, and Jack says the observers watch in "wonder or dread, we don't know what we are watching or what it means, we don't know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjustŠ" Death remains a mystery, and it is unclear what it is and what death means to people as they approach it. Whatever it means, they watch in a group, just as they wait on the check-out lines together; this is the way people ward off death, as Jack has previously decided. But the sunset watchers still retreat to their "separate and defensible selves"; people must eventually face death alone.

We will all die, just as the sunset and the shopping experience come to an end. Buying things will not help, for it is a vain attempt to master a system that is already decided by technology and deathly waves, as the rearranged supermarket and scanner-equipped terminals suggest. Inevitably, we look to the tabloids for answers, to the belief that there is some mystical authority out there that has figured out death and to feel that we are joined with others in our anxiety and mystery.