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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Chapters 19–20

Chapters 15–18

Part II: “The Airborne Toxic Event”

Summary: Chapter 19

Upon arriving at Jack’s house, twelve-year-old Bee makes the entire family feel self-conscious. Bee is elegant, worldly, and self-possessed, and Jack says that he admires her but also feels threatened by her. On Christmas day, Jack and Bee have a conversation about Bee’s mother, Tweedy. Bee tells Jack that Tweedy looks anxious all the time and that she believes Tweedy’s agitation stems from the persistent absences of her husband, Malcolm. Bee says Tweedy’s real problem is that Tweedy doesn’t know who she is. As Bee talks, comparing Tweedy to Babette, Jack gets the disturbing sensation that Bee is attempting to communicate with him in some different, mysterious way and that she’s trying to pry secret information from him.

The next morning, Jack takes Bee to the airport. As they drive, quietly listening to the radio, Jack notices that his daughter is watching him carefully, with a compassionate yet condescending expression on her face.

On his way back to the airport, Jack stops at a graveyard, marked with a sign that reads “The Old Burying Ground.” The burying ground is beyond the noise of the traffic, and Jack stands there for a moment, waiting to feel “the peace that is supposed to descend upon the dead.” Jack says that the dead have a kind of presence; an accumulated energy that the living can detect.

Summary: Chapter 20

Mr. Treadwell’s sister, Gladys, dies from what the doctors call “a lingering dread,” resulting from the four days she and her brother were lost at the mall. Jack says that whenever he reads obituaries he automatically compares the age of the deceased to his own age. He speculates how great men of history like Attila the Hun must have felt about the prospect of death. Jack wants to believe that Atilla the Hun met death without fear, accepting it as a natural part of human existence.

Over breakfast, Babette comments to Jack that their life is good. When Jack asks what brought on that observation, Babette says that she felt it needed to be said, before telling Jack that she has bad dreams. They once again discuss the question “Who will die first?” Babette is adamant that she wants to die before Jack but believes that as long as there are children in the house, nothing serious can happen. Jack counters her, saying that he wants to die first, because without her he would feel incomplete. They continue to debate, back and forth, into the night.

Later, Babette leaves to teach her posture class. Murray comes over to talk to the children, because he believes that children are open to special forms of consciousness. Jack goes to make Murray a cup of coffee, and Heinrich chastises him for not doing it efficiently, thereby expending huge amounts of unnecessary motion. Jack admits to us that he does not actually want to die first—though he doesn’t want to be alone after Babette’s death either. Jack doesn’t know who to plead his case to, because he doesn’t know “who decides these things.”

Later, while watching television, Babette’s face comes onto the screen. Everyone is frightened and confused for a moment, until they realize that a local cable station must be televising Babette’s class. The program doesn’t seem to be producing any sound, but the family watches Babette’s image, awestruck, anyway. Jack says that they’re being penetrated and irradiated by Babette’s image. When the image of his mother vanishes, Wilder begins to cry softly, while the rest of the children eagerly run downstairs to greet Babette.

Analysis

The scene at the Old Burying Ground represents perhaps the first moment in which Jack doesn’t find himself bombarded by white noise of any kind. The small graveyard lies beyond the technological sounds of traffic or factories, and the solitude frees Jack from human babble as well. Here, Jack enters a meditative state, and a moment of eerie stillness settles over the novel. For a man who claims to suffer from an irrational, gripping fear of death, Jack spends a lot of time surrounding himself with the object of his fear. He specializes in the study of Hitler, one of the most murderous despots in modern history, and he names his son—evocatively, if not intentionally—after Heinrich Himmler, a cold-blooded Nazi leader. Jack feels soothed by the presence of Hitler, just as he now seems to find tranquility in the graveyard. Jack often speaks of hiding within Hitler, allowing the tyrant’s huge aura to render Jack’s own anxieties small, insignificant, and manageable. His meditative moment at the Old Burying Ground might spring from a similar impulse: perhaps Jack wants to hide among the dead, so as to avoid facing the painful prospect of his own solitary, terrifying death.

Jack’s interlude in the graveyard ends with Jack entreating, “May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.” In making this plea, Jack seeks to be released from the structures of plot. In the literary sense, plot could very aptly be defined as “the plan according to which the action is advanced.” Plots are what lend stories their momentum; a good plot implies that a novel will advance meaningfully, and a well-constructed plot ensures a satisfying conclusion. However, when it comes to human lives,only one conclusion is ever truly possible: death. The more momentum Jack’s life gains—the more heavily “plotted” the action of his life seems—the faster he speeds toward his greatest fear. But if he can arrest his life, slowing it down and sending it on a purposeless ramble, he might be able to avoid having to ever reach a conclusion. Aimlessness becomes a defense against death.

Jack’s exhortation recalls the opening lines of Chapter 5, when, “fearing some kind of deft acceleration,” he tells himself, “Let’s enjoy these aimless days while we can.” Soon after these lines appear in Chapter 5, Jack jerks awake with a sudden muscle contraction, which he initially confuses for a death spasm. Here, as in the scene at the burial plot, the plea for aimlessness feels like a mantra or a prayer, a feeble attempt to push back the terror. However, in each case, the plea goes unanswered. In the earlier chapter, Jack jerks awake and finds his mind racing, as he wonders if death will be just as abrupt as a muscle contraction. Jack’s questions are answered only by the blankly ominous sound of blue jeans, tumbling in the dryer. At the Old Burying Ground, Jack’s supplication similarly gets no answer, since the chapter ends just after Jack speaks those lines. The very next chapter, however, opens with a recitation of obituaries, suggesting that though death may be delayed, it cannot be denied forever.

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