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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?” 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.