Jack Gladney, the novel’s narrator, watches as packed station wagons full of returning students arrive at the College-on-the-Hill’s campus. Jack has witnessed this annual event for twenty-one years, continually amazed at the students’ excitement and the mannerisms of their affluent, contented parents. As Jack walks back to his house, he describes the quaint town he lives in, with its old houses, its Gothic and Greek churches, and its local insane asylum. Jack gives a brief history of his affiliation with the College-on-the-Hill. He is the chairman of the department of Hitler studies, a discipline he invented in 1968.
As he arrives at his home, Jack talks about his wife, Babette, a tall, ample woman with dirty blond hair. Jack describes her as disheveled and tousled, which he says gives her the dignified air of being someone with more important things to think about than her appearance. Jack lists Babette’s gifts to the world: she takes care of the children, reads to a blind man named Old Man Treadwell, and teaches a course in adult education. Jack finds great comfort in the open and capable Babette. She isn’t like his former wives, whom Jack describes as a “self-absorbed and high-strung bunch, with ties to the intelligence community.”
Wilder, Denise, and Steffie—three of Jack and Babette’s children, all from different marriages—arrive in the kitchen for lunch. Jacks says that the kitchen, along with the bedrooms, is the center of the house and the Gladney family’s domestic activity. Heinrich, Jack’s eldest son, enters but then disappears without speaking to the rest of the family. Denise chides her mother for buying healthy food and then failing to eat any of what she buys. Jack defends his wife and describes Babette’s exercise routine for the reader. The smoke alarm goes off during lunch, but the family doesn’t seem to react to it.
Jack describes the sweeping, dramatic robes he wears while teaching, then describes his colleagues. Hitler studies shares a building with the Popular Culture department, which is officially known as American environments. The faculty of this department, headed by Alfonse (Fast Food) Stompanato, is mostly comprised of what Jack calls “New York émigrés,” a tough, bitter, media-obsessed crowd of male professors.
Murray Jay Siskind, a former sportswriter turned lecturer, is something of an exception to this characterization. Over lunch, Murray tells Jack about living as a boarder in a rooming house and explains that he has come to the small college town of Blacksmith to get away from the complications of city living. He admires what Jack has done with Hitler studies and wants to do something similar for Elvis Presley.
A few days later, Jack and Murray take a drive into the country to visit the Most Photographed Barn in America. They find a group of tourists there who are all taking notes, setting up their cameras, and snapping photos of the barn. Murray argues that the barn isn’t significant in and of itself. Rather, the magic of this tourist attraction is the fact that so many people have come together to see this building and thus have collected all their energies in one location. The thousands of people who have seen this barn create an aura around the otherwise inconsequential building. It is the aura that is powerful and moving, Murray happily declares, and that aura is impossible to avoid or ignore.
Jack meets Babette at the local high school, where she is running up and down the stadium steps. As he watches her exercise, Jack lists the mundane details of their life together. He notes that throughout their everyday activity and conversation, the question “Who will die first?” seems to constantly lurk in the background. Jack wonders if the idea of death is simply part of love or whether death just hangs in the air we breathe, like an inert gas. Sometimes, Jack thinks that the fear of death is what cures his marriage of its innocence.
That night, the whole family gathers to watch television. This activity is a Friday night ritual mandated by Babette, who believes that turning television into a wholesome, domestic activity will deglamorize it and reduce its damaging effects. The rest of the family finds it somewhat painful, particularly Steffie, who becomes very upset whenever she sees someone shamed or humiliated on TV. It has become Jack’s custom to read books by and about Hitler after these family viewings and to read late into Friday night.
Jack recalls one such Friday night, when he told Babette about how, when he founded Hitler studies in 1968, the college chancellor advised him to purposefully construct a more powerful aura around himself so that he could be taken more seriously as an academic. Jack added an initial to his name and started referring to himself professionally as J. A. K. Gladney. His then-wife disapproved of his plan to grow a beard, but he did begin wearing heavy-framed glasses with dark lenses. Jack notes that now he has become a false character who simply follows his new name around.
Jack expresses his fear that his life is moving too fast. In a quick succession of scenes, he recounts a single day—from Babette’s reading of horoscopes at breakfast to a fragment of a commercial he heard after dinner, and finally to a sudden, startling fear of dying that comes over him while he sleeps.
Jack and Babette run into Murray at the supermarket. Murray expounds on the wonders of generic packaging. He notes the austerity of the plain white wrappers and how he somehow feels more spiritual when he buys generic, as opposed to brand-name, products. As Babette moves to the frozen food aisle, Murray tells Jack how extraordinary he finds Babette. The three leave the supermarket together, and Jack muses on how much comfort and reassurance he finds in the supermarket. Jack and Babette find that the sheer number of brightly colored products in their crowded bags lends their lives a sense of fullness.
Jack and Babette drop Murray off at the boarding house, as Jack notes how Murray has self-consciously constructed a persona that, Murray believes, women will find attractive.
The opening chapters of White Noise introduce three themes that recur throughout the novel: the power of appearances and imagery, the pervasiveness of consumerism, and the palpable but elusive presence of death in the world.
The clique of New York émigrés represents one level of the novel’s fascination with images and surface appearances. The faculty members study the iconography of popular culture, such as celebrities, soda bottles, and cereal packaging. Murray wants to create a whole department around Elvis Presley, a rock-and-roll singer he finds as relevant and historically important as Hitler, one of the most awesomely powerful figures of the twentieth century. The professors in the American environments department find this kind of cultural detritus deeply significant, although many people would consider it worthless and banal. DeLillo doesn’t shy away from the absurdity of the New Yorkers’ scholarship, but he also seems to acknowledge the validity of their arguments. The enveloping “white noise” found in commercial jingles, pop songs, and television sitcoms speaks to something deep and mysterious about American culture.
Jack is highly aware of the ways in which people, not in the least himself, manipulate surface images in order to construct their identities. He suspects that Murray dresses in corduroy because it’s a fabric associated with seriousness and higher learning. He believes that Murray self-consciously tries to cultivate an attractive air of vulnerability, which, according to Jack, results in him looking more sneaky and underhanded than anything else. Jack notes how Babette’s tousled, untidy appearance actually makes her seem very dignified, as if she has better things to do than tend to her looks and her clothing. Jack, in turn, alters many aspects of his appearance to present the illusion of having more depth and heft. Hitler is a hugely significant figure, and Jack feels that he must be a more impressive character to match his subject. On the chancellor’s recommendation, he adds an initial to his name and begins to wear heavy glasses. The image becomes part of his persona, but it remains dissociated from him, and Jack begins to feel that the name J.A.K. Gladney is somehow more real than he is himself.
One of the central locations in White Noise, the supermarket represents both the banality and the resonance of capitalist consumerism. For Murray, the entire world is open to interpretation, and the supermarket in particular holds a special place in his deconstructive analysis. Murray’s brief but expansive diatribe on the meaning of generic foods is comical, but it marks one of the novel’s first attempts to establish the supermarket as a place where the world’s vast mysteries can be decoded. As Jack, Babette, and Murray drive home, Jack feels a sense of completeness rooted in the quantity of their purchases. Consumerism has the power to complete the individual, and the supermarket stands at the center of that commodity-driven world.
The question “Who will die first?” is our first hint at Jack and Babette’s shared obsession with death. As Jack notes, the question is a reversal of the traditional question “When will I die?”and shifts the burden of sadness onto the living, rather than onto the person dying—and it is life, rather than death, that becomes a hardship. At the same time, however, both Jack and Babette are ultimately concerned with their own deaths, and that fear, not the fear of living on, drives their actions. The question will repeat throughout the novel like a refrain, highlighting the role that sound and noise play in the novel’s treatment of death. The interconnectedness of noise and death are also at play in the beginning of Chapter 5, when Jack rapidly recounts the events of a single day. That day has four elements: listening to Babette read the family’s horoscopes, a drifting line from a television program, the sound of blue jeans tumbling in the dryer, and Jack being jerked from sleep by a sudden, physical fear of dying. The first three elements are all sonic, and though they appear to be unrelated to Jack’s night spasm, they hover ominously around the event.