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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.