Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Fear of Death
The fear of death lies at the center of White Noise. As Babette notes when she confesses her fear to Jack, “What is more underlying than death?” Everything in the novel—from Hitler to the supermarket, from the airborne toxic event to the white noise of the novel’s title—circles back to human beings’ primal, deep-seated fear of dying. DeLillo’s novel details how modern life attempts to push this fear out of sight, and yet, as in the character of Jack Gladney, the fear continues to resurface and fill us with dread.
Different characters in the novel approach death in different, often contradictory ways. Jack approaches it with terror. Heinrich faces death dispassionately and analytically. Murray sees death all around him and remains continually fascinated and engaged by it. Winnie Richards notes that death adds texture to life, while Jack and Babette would give anything to avoid it. Jack and Babette speculate that death might be nothing more than an eternal hum of white noise: detached bits of data, garbled gibberish, and meaningless sounds, all vibrating at an equal frequency so that nothing in particular stands out and everything remains potentially significant. However, this description could also apply to Jack’s life and to White Noise in general. While there is a general plotline in the novel, the bulk of the book is comprised of digressions, tangential conversations, and snippets of overheard machines and broadcasts. Though DeLillo avoids drawing any distinct conclusions himself, preferring to leave the novel in an open state, this close relationship between life, death, and white noise might mean that death lingers menacingly in the background of our lives, or it might mean that death, as an inextricable part of life, represents something we shouldn’t be afraid of. Both attitudes seem supported by the novel, which presents white noise—and the stronger, yet more elusive strain of sound that people like Murray and Jack detect behind that white noise—as simultaneously a thing of dread and of intangible transcendence.
The Tension Between Reality and Artifice
Throughout White Noise, the authentic and the artificial often blur together, and substance seems interchangeable with surface. This confusion between appearance and reality represents an essential part of Jack’s own existence. Although Jack has created a venerable, professorial persona for himself, he remains painfully aware of the total fabrication of this character. Aided by the distinguished outfits and the weighty-sounding professional name, Jack manages to hide the fact that he lacks the ability to speak German, a seemingly basic skill for the field of Hitler studies. Jack is driven to learn the language only when an academic conference threatens to expose his lie—not in order to study his subject more deeply. Jack, in turn, is only invested in Hitler as a surface entity and seems more preoccupied with the cultural myths surrounding Hitler than in the historical facts about the man. Jack relies on Hitler’s larger, more powerful persona to bolster his own fragile sense of self-worth and self-identity, capitalizing on Hitler’s surface to build up his own.
Jack feels inadequate because, in his mind, artifice is inherently inferior to reality. However, other moments in the novel contradict this position. When Murray and Jack visit the Most Photographed Barn in America, for example, Murray argues that the barn itself isn’t intrinsically significant. Rather, the fact that countless tourists have come to visit the location gives the site meaning and value. Each time a tourist comes to admire this essentially empty and meaningless structure, he or she adds to the psychic energy surrounding the barn. The barn becomes relevant because many people have invested in the image of the barn. In Murray’s opinion, no genuine difference between surface and substance exists.
At the same time, DeLillo satirizes postmodern human beings’ inability to discern the genuine from the fabricated. The SIMUVAC, or Simulated Evacuation, is perhaps the most extreme example of the tension between what is real and what is artificial. For SIMUVAC, real events, such as the airborne toxic event—which was itself caused by a derivative of an original chemical—are used to prepare for later simulations, and later simulations are used to prepare for other simulations. In this environment, where technology allows for endless duplication, it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain where reality ends and replication begins.
The Pervasiveness of Technology
In White Noise, the pervasive presence of technology proves both menacing and comforting. Throughout the novel, in counterpoint to the human babble of Jack’s friends, family, and neighbors, modern technology asserts itself through the humming of machines and the constant stream of media sounds and images. Technology has become as much a part of the texture of daily of life as humans are themselves. In fact, the two seem inextricable, as DeLillo’s narrative weaves seamlessly between human and mechanical voices.
Faceless and beyond the grasp of the individual, technology makes everyone anonymous. Sometimes, this distance and objectivity seems comforting, as when the ATM confirms Jack’s own financial calculations, and Jack becomes filled with a sense of peace. At other times, this detachment proves threatening, as when the SIMUVAC technician, after punching Jack’s details into a computer, manages to learn something of incredible significance about Jack yet cannot (or will not) give Jack any concrete information. The airborne toxic event, a dense, threatening cloud of dangerous chemicals, provides a particularly frightening image of technology gone terribly, fatally awry. Yet even this seemingly overt symbol of technology’s capacity for destruction proves more complex than it first appears, as the airborne toxic event paradoxically causes the most beautiful sunsets the region has ever seen. The chemical cloud is noxious and lethal, but it also creates beauty. When Steffie mumbles “Toyota Celica” in her sleep, a similar tension is being evoked, as a crass marketing term becomes transformed, in Jack’s eyes, into something mystical and beautiful. The phrase, which seems to represent cold, mechanized modernity, ends up expressing something primal and deeply human.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Early in the novel, Jack states that all plots tend toward death. Jack repeats this simple statement several times throughout the novel, and it serves as a structural guide for the narrative. Since Jack is afraid of death, it seems logical that he would avoid plots, and indeed the story he narrates seems to meander, without any commitment to a straightforward, propulsive plot. However, once Jack becomes exposed to Nyodene D.—and, therefore, aware of his own inevitable mortality—the story begins to gain momentum and starts to resemble a conventional plot. Suspense, mystery, infidelity, and a gun rapidly enter the narrative. DeLillo’s plot becomes so deliberately structured that it almost seems like a satire of narrative plots. Jack’s initial statement turns out to be true—plots do tend toward death. In that regard, the book’s structure was evident from the start.
White Noise, in keeping with its title, consists of a chorus of background sounds that hum throughout the narrative. The traffic hums, Babette hums, the supermarket is filled with endless sounds, and commercials and fragments of television shows continually interrupt the narrative. Jack perceives the world as essentially constituted by this cacophony, as a stream of sounds, some human, some artificial. Jack and Babette speculate that perhaps death is nothing but an awful, endless stream of white noise, and so white noise filters into the narrative and becomes part of it, just as death becomes part of nearly every conversation had by the characters. These noises are not simply the background sounds of life—they are part of life, the very substance of which our days are made.
The Question “Who Will Die First?”
The question “Who will die first?” frequently recurs in Jack and Babette’s conversations and provides an insight into their relationship to each other and to death. The question enters both the narrative and their conversations abruptly, and it further puts the idea of death into the story. Jack and Babette don’t just ask the question—they debate it, comparing their potential grief and misery. Each claims to want to die first, because the burden of living without the other would be more than either of them could bear. The irony, however, is that each is so terrified of death that they can hardly bear to live.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Jack’s interest in Hitler as a historical figure relates only tangentially to the historical man, Adolf Hitler, and the genocide and war he instigated. Hitler’s importance to Jack rests almost exclusively in the sheer size and stature of Hitler’s persona. As perhaps the most hated and feared figure of the twentieth century, Hitler has spawned a myth larger than life and, as Murray notes, larger than death. The name Hitler invokes the Holocaust and the massive destruction caused by World War II, rendering Hitler the man a symbol for death and devastation. Though Jack remains fixated on the fear of his own death, he realizes that the wide-scale extermination caused by Hitler dwarfs his individual death. By wrapping himself in Hitler’s image and subsuming himself in Hitler’s persona, Jack hopes that he too can become greater than death and stave off his insignificant fear.
The spectacular sunsets of White Noise, beautiful in the beginning and almost overwhelmingly brilliant by the end, simultaneously suggest mystery, dread, and awe. DeLillo never elucidates whether they are the products of toxins in the environment or part of some other unnatural, or potentially natural, phenomenon. Indeed, part of their power lies in their mystery, and part of it lies in the quiet sense of fear they invoke. They are beauty and dread wrapped into one, and through the combination of the two, they become sublime. These visionary landscapes seem to perfectly mirror the fusion of life and death that lies at the heart of existence, as depicted in White Noise.
The Airborne Toxic Event
The airborne toxic event, caused by a train derailment, embodies the artificial, technology-induced danger that is characteristic of the modern world. The substance behind the event, Nyodene D., is a derivation of an original chemical, suggesting the terrible potential of mechanical replication. The symptoms and potentially lethal effects of the airborne toxic event are never certain or clear, and in that regard they are part of the “daily falsehearted death” of technology that Jack notes. Jack describes the toxic cloud in mythological terms, giving the event historical proportions. Previous eras had death ships, as Jack notes, while the modern era has a dark, billowing cloud full of man-made toxins. This is our new symbol and the new face of dread, the modern death ship with its unknown and unintended consequences threatening the edges of our lives.
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