White Noise

White Noise Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10

Chapter 6:

Heinrich's hair is receding, and Jack wonders if he is at fault for having raised his son near a chemical dump site. He drives Heinrich to school and debate the rain; Heinrich informs him that the radio said it was going to rain tonight, while Jack points out that it is already raining, and that they don't need to believe the radio over their own senses. Heinrich believes the senses can lie and that truth is relative, and refutes Jack's common-sense arguments in a number of ways. Jack watches him walk into school, feeling Heinrich attracts a sense of danger; for instance, he plays chess-by-mail with a convicted murderer.

Jack goes to his college's movie theater, where he will screen in the background footage of Nazi rallies and films for his class, Advanced Nazism, a study of the mass appeal of fascism through rallies, parades, and uniforms. The footage concentrates on crowd scenes. The college students enter the theater. After the showing, Jack lectures on "plots" -- political, narrative, etc. He says that all plots move "deathward," that death is the contract both the plotters and the targets of the plot sign. He wonders why he has said this, and what it means.


The conversation between Jack and Heinrich is another subversion of traditional family relationships. While in most families the father and son may discuss sports or endure chilly silences, here the father and his son debate the objectivity of reality -- and, more hilariously, the moody, older-than-his-years (note the receding hairline) son bests his academic father on a number of rhetorical and imaginative levels.

The questions raised by Heinrich are valid. Do our senses falsely construct reality, much as Jack believes the media does? This wariness of media makes sense for Jack's character. He is attuned to the ways Hitler manipulated the media and popular judgment and managed to convince the masses they were in the right. Jack wants to believe that humans have an innate sense of reality, but Nazism disproves this; we are easily controlled by images and spectacle.

And we have not changed all that much since Nazi Germany. The students in Jack's class resemble a parody of a Nazi parade. They enter the theater in unison in their similarly-styled clothing, and they await the robed Jack's lecture with the same anticipation crowds had for Hitler's speeches.

Jack's statement that narrative plots move deathward is not a new idea; in Peter Brooks's Reading For the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Brooks also finds that death is the drive of all plots (as do many other thinkers, from Freud to Sartre). In a practical sense, we can say that narratives generally end when the plot ends so, in effect, the narrative dies with the end of the plot. Jack opens the field of plots up to everything, magnifying his belief that life is just a process of heading toward death. The scene also foreshadows the end of White Noise since, as a narrative, it must be moving deathward. The question, as Jack often wonders, is whose death will it be?

Chapter 7:

Jack describes Babette's twice-weekly lectures on good posture and mobility to an elderly audience in the town's Congregational church. He believes people think good grooming is a way to ward off death. At home, he and Babette fall into bed. They discuss what to do sexually; both are eager to defer their desires and please the other. They finally decide that Babette will read him erotic literature. Jack says that he and Babette tell each other everything, except about fear of death. He goes to Heinrich's room to find a pornographic magazine, as he wants Babette to read him the erotic letters, and Heinrich directs him downstairs. Jack finds old photo albums instead, and he and Babette pore over them for hours. Again, he wonders who will die first.


In another humorous subversion of typical family life, Heinrich directs his father to his stash of pornographic magazines. DeLillo's genius lies in his ability to combine seamlessly these ironic moments with rather intimate ones; Jack's exchange with Heinrich comes on the heels of an unsentimental, realistic portrayal of marital sexual frustrations. DeLillo's tone rarely deviates in White Noise, and it doesn't need to; it is already a combination of both ironic and sincere voices.

It makes sense that Jack and Babette have problems with sex. Sex, the creation of life, conventionally opposes death, and they are too obsessed with the end of life to engage in its beginnings. Instead, they put off sex to look over the old photographs, and these images of the past remind them that death is an inevitability, that time marches on despite our attempts to freeze the present.

Jack again brings up the idea of the simulation replacing reality. He points out that the publication of erotic letters may be more stimulating for their authors than the actual experiences. In the same way that the tourists reinforced the barn's aura by taking its picture, the deeper excitement for the letter-writers comes from seeing the letters in a national magazine, from being voyeuristically ravished by others; the letters are now the exploits of quasi-celebrities.

Chapter 8:

Jack reveals a major failing -- despite being the foremost authority of Hitler studies, he does not know German. He believes that Hitler's own difficulty with the "cruel" German language is the subtext of his autobiography (Mein Kampf). Jack's numerous attempts to learn German have failed, but he has begun secret lessons with a man named Dunlop who lives in Murray's boarding house. After the lesson, Jack invites Murray to dinner at his house. Murray accepts, and asks Jack why he's renewed his German lessons. Jack says the college will host a major Hitler conference in the spring.

At home, Denise puts a garbage bag in the kitchen compactor. Murray absorbs the hectic chorus of household appliances -- the dripping sink, the washing machine, etc. The family makes small talk, and Jack marvels at the subliminal connections the family makes together.


We see another instance of Jack's false identity; he can't speak German, and even seems incapable of it, but he surrounds himself with enough totems of authority -- the dark glasses, black robe -- that no one sees through him. He even deludes himself; he wants to believe that he and Hitler share a similar disability with German. In short, Jack continues the theme of constructing a simulated reality that replaces the objective reality.

Jack focuses on the "cruel" sound of German, on its "deathly power." As with other sounds in the novel, such as the "dreadful wrenching sound" of the kitchen compactor, the sounds of German herald death, albeit more overtly than the white noise of technology and modern culture. The family also communicates through this white noise -- Denise wordlessly connects Babette's running clothes and the garbage bag, and Jack wordlessly picks up on this mental connection. The constant background noise of the family's chatter is a more evident piece of this familial white noise. This theme will be developed more later, but already we can see their white noise focuses frequently on health and death -- they discuss the necessity of boiling water, of turning into a car's skid, and Babette always seems on the lookout for Wilder.

Chapter 9:

Jack says that the grade school had to be evacuated, as students were beset by a variety of health problems. No one knows what the cause is. Inspectors in Mylex suits swept the school to detect problems, but since Mylex is itself a dangerous material, they received ambiguous results. Jack takes the family to the supermarket, where they again run into Murray. Wilder grabs at items off the shelves, and Jack wonders why Wilder's vocabulary is so limited. Jack and Steffie wander off in to the fruit bins, where he listens to the noise of the supermarket. Steffie tells him that Denise reads the Physicians' Desk Reference to find out the side effects of Babette's medication. Jack asks her what medication this is, and Steffie tells him to ask Denise.

Murray tells Babette that the Tibetans believe in a transitional state between death and rebirth that recharges the soul, and he thinks the supermarket does this in their culture. Tibetans see death as the end of attachments to things, he says, which is a hard thing for people to do, since they want to deny death. He describes the depressing anonymity of death in American cities, while in towns people can at least identify you by trivial things, such as the car one drives.

Babette briefly loses Wilder, but they find him in a neighbor's cart. Murray invites the family to dinner next weekend. At the checkout line, Jack hears unidentifiable foreign languages. In the parking lot, they hear a rumor about one of the Mylex-suited inspector's dying while in the school.


Wilder is almost a symbol for the unthinking consumer; having a limited vocabulary to express himself, he grabs for items which he thinks will speak for him. (On a side note, Jack is much like Wilder, being unable to speak German but taking on objects such as his robe and dark glasses which will somehow speak for him, and this is probably part of his concern for Wilde's vocabulary.) The supermarket is the ideal place for this expansion of vocabulary. Stocking all varieties of exotic foods, it packs global meaning into a local space. Alongside the many foreign languages its inhabitants speak, the supermarket even has its own invented vocabulary -- "Kleenex Softique," for instance. This notion of a consumerist language will assume greater importance throughout the novel, but for now it is the noise of the supermarket, the "unlocatable roar," that reminds us of the white noise of death lurking beneath consumerism. Instead of detaching ourselves and accepting death, like the Tibetans, we try unsuccessfully to escape death by attaching ourselves to things, grabbing at them like Wilder. But we are in denial, and this is why the deathly sounds of the supermarket are "just outside the range of human apprehension"; we won't let ourselves listen to them.

There is great ambiguity in the novel's atmosphere of death -- no one knows what has caused the school's health problems, and the inspectors themselves may cause further problems with their Mylex suits. In this last part, we see another instance of simulation usurping reality. While the inspectors are not exactly a "simulation," they are secondary figures to the school; they are much like the tourists who visit the barn. And, like the tourists who add to the barn's aura of being photographed, the Mylex men add to the school's aura of irradiation (or whatever is wrong with the building).

Moreover, even if the rumor about the inspector's death isn't true, by speaking the rumor people reaffirm its reality. Again, the masses construct reality, as we have seen repeatedly through DeLillo's focus on media and Nazism.

The chapter contains two important instances of foreshadowing. The first is the revelation of Babette's medication, something that will play a major role in the plot. The second is when Wilder runs off. Babette is constantly worried about losing him, and this is the first case in which it actually happens.

Chapter 10:

In the kitchen, Denise and Steffie tell Babette not to chew sugarless gum, as its label warns of its carcinogenic qualities. Denise refers to Babette's failing memory, but quickly drops the discussion. Jack finds Heinrich strategizing chess moves in his room. Jack asks what he knows about his prison-partner, and Heinrich says he killed six people. After more prodding, Heinrich reveals more details about the murders, culminating in the murderer's regret that instead of killing strangers, he did not assassinate one famous person so he could become famous himself. Heinrich says his mother has invited him to visit her in the summer, but he's not sure what he wants -- as he finds it, there's so much activity in the brain that it's impossible to know what one truly wants.

Jack checks his balance at the ATM in the morning. He is pleased by his harmonious interaction with the computer system. At the same time, two armed guards escort a deranged person from the bank.


While the ATM is silent, Jack's operation of it is blanketed by metaphors and signifiers of noise -- he feels "waves of relief," the system is "disquieting," and he is in accord with the system's "harmonies." It hums with white noise, and the deranged person's escort by the armed guards reminds us that white noise, as always in the novel, points to death.

Death still lurks everywhere. Even something as seemingly harmless as gum is scrutinized for its ill effects. Again, only with some kind of sign -- the cancer warning on the package -- does the lethality of the gum take prominence in the minds of the characters. It is almost as if, for Denise, the sign is more dangerous than the chemicals. The gum debate also foreshadows another key ingredient in the plot, that of Babette's faulty memory. Since Denise brings it up, we can assume she is connecting Babette's memory with the medication that Babette supposedly takes.

Heinrich brings up the ambiguity of desire in his conversation with Jack, but he could just as easily be referring to the ambiguity of identity. Do we really define ourselves? We change constantly; who can say what our true identities are? The ambiguity of identity has become a cliché of postmodern fiction, but DeLillo seems to advocate embracing the ambiguity. In the world of White Noise, it seems only Heinrich is comfortable with ambiguity, and because of this he sees more deeply into people, acknowledging his prison chess-partner as a complex human being. Jack, on the other hand, denies ambiguity, trying to find his identity through Hitler studies. This denial on his part connects the ambiguity of identity to the ambiguity of death. Death, after all, is the greatest ambiguity of all, the unknown region beyond the narrative of our lives. Heinrich is Tibetan in this sense; just as they accept the inevitability of death, he accepts the ambiguity of life.