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White Noise | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In Part 1, Chapter 9 of White Noise, what is the significance of the Tibetan Book of the Dead?

Murray Siskind introduces the concept of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the supermarket in Part 1, Chapter 9. He brings it up to Babette Gladney while they shop, comparing the supermarket to the "transitional state between death and rebirth" mentioned in the book. While there is something absurd about Murray comparing something as mundane as the supermarket to a spiritual text about death, he links them by stating that he believes supermarkets "recharge[s] us spiritually." In fact, Tibetan Buddhists see death as "the end of attachment to things," while the supermarket is all about commerce and material things. Don DeLillo introduces this juxtaposition to stress the absurdity of Murray's "learned" pronouncements on trivial matters.

In White Noise, what role does the supermarket play as a setting?

The supermarket serves as a frequent backdrop in the novel. Jack Gladney and his family often run into Murray Siskind there, and he offers them philosophical musings on the spiritual function of the supermarket. For Jack, the supermarket is a place where he feels complete and renewed, noting in Part 1, Chapter 5 that purchasing things with recognizable and comforting packaging helped him feel "the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls." Don DeLillo offers up a setting and experience most people find mundane—shopping at the supermarket—and turns it into something spiritual. The setting is one of the postmodernist touches in the novel; there is no hierarchy for the characters among supermarkets and true spiritual experiences.

What role does consumerism play in Don DeLillo's White Noise?

Consumerism plays a significant role throughout White Noise. Shopping is a form of therapy for the characters. When Jack Gladney takes his family to the mall, he overhears what he thinks is an insult from one of his colleagues, which sends him on a grim shopping spree in an attempt to feel in control again. He notes that the more he buys, the more he grows "in value and self-regard." In addition, the sound fragments of commercials are interspersed among the narration and dialogue of the book, signifying how pervasive and ever-present consumerism is in contemporary American culture. For Don DeLillo, bombardment by brand names and product information from the media is one form of the "white noise" that flattens all experiences and gives them the same value. For example, in Chapter 21, Jack hears Steffie murmuring words in her sleep, and listens closely, finding the sound beautiful, only to realize that she is saying the name of a car over and over: "Toyota Celica."

What role does Murray Siskind play in DeLillo'sWhite Noise?

Murray Siskind is a comic foil for Jack Gladney: an exaggerated version of what a cultural studies professor might become. Jack has such a narrow grip on his field of Hitler studies that he must take secret German lessons in order to appear scholarly at a conference. Murray, on the other hand, can critique anything: the most photographed barn in America; the spirituality of the supermarket; Babette Gladney's "important" hair; the "spirit of innocence" in movie car crashes. He talks in a profound-seeming way about any topic, elevating the most mundane objects and events to make them appear worthy of serious discussion. At the same time, the fact that he can talk this way about anything at all reduces the value of his topics in the eyes of readers.

How are quotations and brand names from TV and radio commercials presented in White Noise?

There is no typographical separation of the quoted advertising text except for setting it apart in its own paragraph. In a typical setting, a sentence ending in the ominous phrase, "... the sense of cosmic darkness," is followed by a single-sentence paragraph: MasterCard, Visa, American Express. The effect is to disrupt the narrative of the story, while reminding readers of the extent to which noise from the media has become a part of American life. The quotations and brand names function much like Murray Siskind's idea of "psychic data," offering more information the characters must wade through in order to construct meaning in their lives.

In White Noise, how does the author weave the motif of death throughout the novel?

The fear of death drives much of the plot. Characters are constantly thinking about it, such as when Jack and Babette Gladney worry over who will die first. Jack Gladney worries constantly about his own mortality and looks for hidden codes in symbols as benign as his alarm clock. Even peripheral characters are haunted by the possibility of death, such as when Mr. Treadwell gets lost in the mall and passengers on a plane narrowly avoid dying in a crash. Ordinary settings, such as the mall and the supermarket, take on ominous tones tinged with death. Strangely, the only way Jack can escape the "white noise" in his life is by visiting a graveyard, where he ponders the dead. In this way, Don DeLillo makes death the most pervasive "white noise" of all.

In Part 1, Chapter 6 of White Noise, what does Jack Gladney mean by "all plots tend to move deathward"?

Jack Gladney utters this phrase to a room full of his students after showing a film on Hitler, while leading a discussion on the nature of plots. He adds that "we edge nearer death every time we plot," but immediately after, he wonders whether this is true, why he said it, and what it might mean. In this scene, Don DeLillo pokes fun at Jack, because his ability to lecture on a topic he admits he doesn't know much about portrays him as a character who is more interested in illusions than reality. Yet his utterance is significant on several counts. Jack mentions several plots that move in this trajectory: political, relationships, narrative. He means that once a story is set in motion, it will inevitably end, or "die" in some way. His thought reflects his constant preoccupation with death, particularly his own. His pronouncement is also a nod to the fact that Jack is a character in a fictional plot that up to this point doesn't much resemble a plot. But as the narrator, he can set the story in motion, and therefore has some control over his own fate.

In White Noise, what role does Orest Mercator play in Jack Gladney's life?

Heinrich's friend Orest Mercator serves as something of a spiritual antagonist to Jack Gladney. Orest is training to win the world record for sitting in a cage with poisonous snakes, a confrontation with mortality Jack can't fathom attempting. In a way, Orest's plan makes Jack angry because he spends so much of his time avoiding death. In Part 3, Chapter 27, Jack yells at Orest that the snakes "don't know you're young and strong and think death applies to everyone but you." Don DeLillo presents Orest as a foil to Jack in this way, someone with a completely opposite attitude toward risk and mortality, and someone who is young enough not to feel the gravity of age in the way Jack constantly does. The character's name is a pun. "Orest" is a Greek name meaning "one who can conquer mountains," while a mercator projection is a way to view the globe as a two-dimensional map. On the one hand, Orest is a fearless man on a quest. On the other, he is obsessed with a silly plan that threatens to flatten him.

In what ways is Jack Gladney's family in White Noise representative of the postmodern era?

Postmodernism is defined as a theory of contemporary culture with an emphasis on fragmentation, the collapse of the distinction between high and low culture, and multiple perspectives. Another hallmark is the influence of technology on culture and the arts. In this light, Jack Gladney's family represents the postmodern era in its fragmentation—they are a blended family made up of children from multiple marriages. Individual family members seem to have their own perception of the story of their lives, and all are heavily influenced by television. The family members are constantly contradicting or correcting each other, reflecting their differing perceptions on what is real and what is not. In many ways, Don DeLillo uses them as a stand-in for modern American society, which can be seen as fragmented and distracted by technology.

What roles do belief and religion play in White Noise?

Many of the characters in White Noise seem to be searching for something to believe in, though not necessarily religion. Technology seems to have replaced other objects of worship and ritual, and the family gathers around the television for weekly dinners, taking in all the information that is conveyed as facts to believe in. For characters like Jack and Babette Gladney, this search manifests in an attempt to ward off their own mortality—for Babette by taking Dylar, and for Jack Gladney in his attempt to lose himself in his professor persona. Murray Siskind is another character who links the mundane with the spiritual. In Part 3, Chapter 39 Jack is confronted with his own need for belief when he encounters the German nun Sister Hermann Marie at the hospital. She tells him, "the nonbelievers need the believers," in response to his astonishment that she doesn't believe in heaven. Here, Don DeLillo identifies Jack as one of those nonbelievers who needs the believers—he takes for granted the faith he places in others to perform the act of believing for him.

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