White Noise

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Symbols

Main Ideas Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Hitler

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.

Sunsets

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.