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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Study Questions & Essay Topics

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Study Questions

1. What is the relationship between Jack’s appearance and his character throughout White Noise?

Jack makes repeated references to the robe and dark glasses he wears while on campus. He admits that he deliberately plans his appearance, in order to project a greater sense of authority. By gaining weight, changing his initials, and donning a pair of dark glasses, he became a more significant figure, worthy of Hitler, his weighty subject matter. In moments of doubt or fear, Jack instinctively longs for his academic regalia, because he has come to believe, however irrationally, that those distinguished accessories can and will protect him from death. As Jack notes, he has become the false character who follows the name J. A. K. Gladney around. The appearance he has created now exists independently from him. He needs the costume to feel full and strong, because it is the costume—rather than an inherent aspect of Jack’s character—that exudes an air of authority and power.

This distinction becomes explicit in Jack’s brief encounter at the shopping mall with a colleague from the college. Jack’s colleague notes that, without his dark glasses and robe, Jack looks like a harmless figure as opposed to the commanding department head he appears to be on campus. Jack, suddenly aware of his vulnerability, responds by claiming a new authority as massive consumer. He shops with reckless abandon not because he wants to, but because shopping is the only way he can regain his sense of authority in the absence of his glasses and robe. Once Jack’s exposure to Nyodene Derivative has been diagnosed, he wears his glasses more frequently, and in particular moments of weakness he openly declares that he wishes he had his robe. Until the end of the novel, Jack has vested all of his self-worth in the illusion of the college professor and department chair he has successfully created.

2. Describe Heinrich’s attitude toward and relationship with death.

Early in the novel, Jack relates his concerns for his son, noting that an air of darkness seems to surround him. Jack’s concern certainly seems well founded. Heinrich deliberately surrounds himself with death: he plays chess with a convicted murderer, his only friend is a nineteen-year-old senior training to sit in a cage of poisonous snakes, and he’s the family expert on disasters. Heinrich not only associates himself with death but also actively cultivates a relationship with it. The closer he gets to it, the stronger and more confident he becomes. His shining moment is at the Boy Scout evacuation camp, where his encyclopedic knowledge of Nyodene Derivate’s potentially lethal consequences allows him to flourish as he never has before.

Heinrich’s attitude toward death represents an alternate perspective to his father’s outlook. Jack tries to avoid and fight death, while Heinrich stares at it straight on and smiles. During the family’s evacuation from the airborne toxic event, Heinrich is the only one in the car clearly excited by what is happening. Heinrich’s appreciation for death takes on another layer when we consider his name, which Jack gave him because he thought a German name would confer upon him a certain authority and power. The name, however, invokes Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi police and the man responsible for executing the Final Solution, the Nazi program that sought the systematic extermination of Jews during World War II. Heinrich’s morbid sensibilities disturb Jack, but Jack must himself take some responsibility for shaping that temperament.

3. Briefly discuss the role of plot in shaping the narrative structure of White Noise.

At the close of one of his lectures, Jack states that all plots tend toward death. Jack’s comment concerns the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life, yet the word plot reverberates throughout the novel in both its literal sense—defined as “a secret scheme” or “plan”—and in a literary sense—defined as “a narrative’s pattern of events.” If all plots, literary or otherwise, tend toward death, then Jack’s acute fear of dying would reasonably lead him to avoid plots or plans of any kind. Plots imply progress, and since neither lives nor novels can go on indefinitely, plots must also imply endings, finality, and death. Jack believes that if he can avoid gaining momentum, he can delay or possibly avoid his inevitable conclusion. While standing alone at the Old Burying Ground, he reminds himself to live aimlessly, without following a plan, and the novel’s structure mirrors that idea in its first half. The story ambles from one event to the next, leisurely accumulating details and developing characters while resisting anything that might conventionally be construed as plot. In this way, the narrative—and its narrator—resists death.

However, a radical shift occurs in the final third of the novel, when Jack learns of his wife’s infidelities and her mysterious prescription. Suddenly, a series of events are set in motion, forming an unambiguous plotline that Jack cannot avoid or escape. In a quick succession of implausible coincidences, Jack receives a loaded gun, learns that murder might relieve the fear of his own death, and discovers the whereabouts of his nemesis, Willie Mink. Jack doesn’t initiate any of these events but rather lets himself get caught up in narrative’s domino effect. The machinations of the plot overwhelm Jack, carrying him along to the seemingly inevitable conclusion—death. And yet, in the novel’s concluding moments, Jack confronts death only to sidestep it once again. He decides not to kill Willie Mink, taking him instead to a hospital for treatment of his wounds. In the final chapter, Jack’s stepson Wilder rides his tricycle across a busy highway, miraculously managing to escape any harm. The novel thus ends with life asserted twice in the face of seemingly certain death, a move that retroactively undermines the notion that all plots lead toward death.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What does the white noise of the novel symbolize?

2. How does DeLillo’s use of humor affect the story?

3. What role does the supermarket play in the lives of the characters?

4. In the end, does Jack succeed in overcoming his fear of dying?

5. What is the significance of the stunning sunsets?

6. How is technology represented in the novel?

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