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.