Jack Gladney is the narrator and principal character of White Noise. Jack suffers from two linked fears: the fear of his own death, and the fear that he will be exposed as an essentially incompetent, insignificant man. As the chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack shrouds himself in the distinguished, stately trappings of a successful academic. He wears sweeping, dramatic robes whenever he’s on campus and refers to himself professionally as J. A. K. Gladney. He builds his career around Adolf Hitler, capitalizing on Hitler’s reputation as one of the most prominent figures of modern history. At the same time, Jack realizes that his own professional persona is mostly fabricated. When establishing himself as an academic, he added a false initial in order to give his name more weight and, in the process, subtly evoke the initials of John F. Kennedy, another extremely important historical figure. Jack also feels like an intellectual fraud, since he has never mastered even the rudimentary basics of the German language, despite his field of expertise.
Jack also suffers from an acute fear of dying. His study of Hitler speaks, in large part, to that fear: Hitler represents death on an unfathomably large scale; in the face of the Holocaust, Jack’s own, individual death seems insignificant and, therefore, manageable. However, his fear often threatens to overwhelm him, especially when he becomes exposed to a toxic chemical called Nyodene D. The technicians inform him that Nyodene D. remains in the human body for thirty years and that in fifteen years they will be able to give him more specific figures about his chances for survival. Even though these figures are incredibly vague and, given the fact that Jack is already middle-aged, don’t actually affect his life expectancy, Jack becomes increasingly gripped by fear and anxiety.
Although the fear of death seems unwarranted, Jack’s worries grow in intensity. Jack’s unspoken fears speak to greater anxieties at play in late twentieth-century America. An endless stream of white noise, both technological and human, characterizes Jack’s life. As he wades through the never-ending currents of data and chatter, Jack senses something larger, deeper, and more primal emanating from behind, or possibly within, all the noise. Often, this unnamed entity fills Jack with dread, but just as often Jack—like Murray—finds it wondrous and potentially transcendent. The experience of reading White Noise, with its constant digressions and seemingly pointless anecdotes, resembles Jack’s own experience of modern life, with its pulsating interconnectedness and stream of stimuli.
Babette, Jack’s fourth wife, is described as the quintessential loving mother and spouse. Slightly overweight, with a head full of messy blond hair, Babette bakes cookies for the children, tells her husband everything, and, in her free time, reads tabloids to the blind and teaches a course on posture to the elderly. In her apparent honesty and sincerity, Babette contrasts with Jack’s previous wives, who were closed off and secretive. Jack takes great comfort from Babette and the openness that characterizes their marriage. Babette, however, has secretly been taking an experimental drug called Dylar. When first Denise and then Jack confront her about the pills, Babette completely denies any knowledge of it. Only after Jack finds a pill and has it analyzed does Babette confess that she has been sleeping with a doctor in exchange for Dylar, in the hopes that the drug would relieve her own overwhelming fear of death. The shift in Babette’s personality, from open and loving to evasive and cynical, reflects the novel’s pervasive concern with the fluctuating and unstable nature of identity.
A former sportswriter and current college professor, Murray Jay Siskind is one of the tough, media-obsessed New York émigrés who teach in the American environments department at College-on-the-Hill. Like the other émigrés, Murray is preoccupied with the iconography of American popular culture and dreams of someday devoting himself to the study of Elvis. Murray makes no distinction between his scholarly and everyday lives. He always uses highly academic, intellectualized language, and he constantly analyzes and deconstructs the mundane world around him. For Murray, analysis is romantic in that it allows him to elevate and celebrate the seemingly insignificant. The supermarket, for example, reminds Murray of the Tibetan holding place for dead souls. He believes that television emits enormous quantities of spiritual and psychic information, which people don’t know how to read properly.
Murray is a satire of the postmodern college professor, who finds deeply significant meaning in everything—particularly things that other people would consider shallow or irrelevant. Often, however, at the heart of Murray’s lectures on television and consumerism lies an accurate, if perhaps somewhat extreme, perception of the contemporary world. Beneath his deliberately constructed intellectual persona, complete with pipe and corduroy jacket, Murray is prone to generalizations and stereotypes. Murray enjoys being contrary and pushing other people’s buttons.
Willie Mink is a shadowy figure who makes a brief but significant appearance at the end of the novel. Long before he actually appears in the text, we know of Willie Mink as Mr. Gray, the corrupt project manager behind the drug Dylar. Mink has been carrying on an affair with Babette, who believes Dylar can alleviate her overwhelming fear of dying. Willie Mink is both the center of Jack’s jealous rage and Jack’s only hope of getting Dylar himself.
When Willie Mink finally does enter the story, he has already become a pathetic, half-crazed figure. Deranged and debilitated, he personifies the corrupting influence of technological and media stimuli, the novel’s titular white noise. Fixed in front of a soundless television, muttering phrases from old shows and commercials, Willie Mink fills the narrative with his own white noise, or babblings. For Willie, the distinctions between real and artificial have collapsed entirely, and he can no longer differentiate between the two. Willie Mink is the ultimate casualty of this world of simulations, where characters live almost entirely under the illusions they create.