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White Noise | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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In Part 1, Chapter 4 of White Noise, what is the significance of contrasting Babette Gladney's exercise with Jack's question of who will die first?

Don DeLillo contrasts Jack and Babette Gladney to show the way their love is shadowed by the specter of mortality, and the role it will play in their ability to be honest with each other. One of the things Jack Gladney most admires about Babette is her health. In some ways, she seems the antidote to death for him. It's significant that much of Babette's work and preoccupation lies in the arena of health: exercise, posture, walking, eating. In this chapter, DeLillo shows her as a paragon of health, running up and down stadium steps. The reader is therefore caught off guard by Jack's abrupt question of who will die first. However, this preoccupation with mortality will be threaded through the novel and the characters' actions. For Jack, love and death are linked, and he wonders "if the thought itself is part of the nature of physical love."

In White Noise, what role does the television play in the lives of the Gladney family?

Jack and Babette Gladney expect the television to provide a bonding experience for the family. It is constantly on in the background. The family's relationship to their television is first depicted in Chapter 4, when Jack Gladney notes that they watch TV together every Friday night, per Babette's rule: "she seemed to think that if kids watched television one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it wholesome domestic sport." But instead, the family often finds themselves in the thrall of natural disasters pictured on the television, and they view the disasters more as entertainment than news. Their relationship to the TV shows both the way in which the distinction between simulation and reality can be hard to distinguish in the media, and the effect of this blurring of perception on the American family.

In Part 1, Chapter 4 of White Noise, what does Jack Gladney mean when he says, "I am the false character that follows the name around"?

Jack Gladney makes this statement after describing how he was instructed by his mentor to change his wardrobe and name to something more powerful and befitting the department chair of Hitler Studies. This moment introduces a larger message in the book about the role and power of appearance versus reality, or words versus things. In saying that he is the false character who follows the name, Jack reverses the usual order: the initials "J.A.K." are real, but the person they name is a figment, an illusion. Don DeLillo links Jack in this way back to the "most photographed barn in America"; both the barn and the man vanish behind their aura.

In White Noise, how does Jack Gladney's search for meaning develop throughout the novel?

Jack Gladney searches for meaning on multiple levels throughout the novel, from the meaning of the odd numbers he sees on his alarm clock to his question of who will die first, he or Babette Gladney. In Part 1, Chapter 5 he eavesdrops on Babette reading horoscopes out loud, and even though he tries not to listen, he states, "I think I sought some clues." Jack is bombarded with information and "psychic data" throughout the novel, and is left to make his own meaning from things that seem random and arbitrary. In this way, Don DeLillo shows Jack as exemplary of the postmodern condition in which people attempt to make meaning from a constant stream of information. Jack's search for meaning reaches another intense point in his encounter with Sister Hermann Marie, the German nun who tends to his wounds in Part 3, Chapter 39. She confronts his entire belief system—one that relied on others believing in God and heaven for him. DeLillo asks the reader to consider the ways in which their own beliefs have been hijacked by technology, making it harder to draw meaning out of day-to-day existence.

In White Noise, what effect does charting the white noise of the characters' lives have on the structure of the book?

Don DeLillo mirrors the reader's experiences with those of the characters. The white noise begins quietly and insignificantly, with snippets of noise in the background of the characters' lives revealed incidentally, as in the fragment "Blue jeans tumbled in the dryer" in Part 1, Chapter 5. As the novel progresses, the proportion of white noise grows, and the reader must wade through more information to follow the main plots of the book. Whole episodes of irrelevant distraction are brought in, such as an imagined conversation of some grandparents at the end of Part 3, Chapter 36, or the lengthy instructions about "your new bank code" at the end of Part 3, Chapter 37. Structurally, this means the reader is often just as distracted as the characters in the book. Jack Gladney finds he can find peace only in the graveyard, and that section of the novel offers the reader a similar respite from background distractions.

In Part 1, Chapter 7 of White Noise, how does Jack Gladney's revelation about love support the theme of simulation versus reality?

Jack Gladney feels his relationship with Babette Gladney is different from those with his previous wives because Babette and he have a mutual trust and ability to confide their fears in each other. He and Babette tell each other everything, and he notes, "it is a form of self-renewal and a gesture of custodial trust." Self-renewal is important to Jack, and in his relationship with Babette, he feels he can always be himself and feel safe. In contrast, his previous marriages were marked by secrecy—many of his wives were involved in espionage in some way. But, all is not as it seems in the marriage. Babette is taking a mysterious medication behind Jack's back and having an affair. She can fake openness with him but she does not practice it, so their relationship is another instance of a blurring of simulation and reality in the novel.

In Part 1, Chapter 8 of White Noise, how does Jack Gladney's observation about "what we are reluctant to touch" apply to his search for salvation?

Jack Gladney says that what we are reluctant to touch often seems the "fabric of our salvation." He makes this observation in connection to his reluctance to learn German, which he must now do in secret so as not to be discovered by his colleagues. He knows learning German will unlock his understanding of Hitler in an entirely new and profound way, and this is why he must continue, despite his apprehension. This statement connects to a larger concept about the search for some kind of "salvation" in light of his fear of death. He searches for meaning in nearly everything he comes across, yet it's not until he is confronted in Part 3, Chapter 39 by the German nun, Sister Hermann Marie, that he reckons with his own lack of belief in a kind of spiritual salvation. He finally finds it through the ability to repress his fears, much as supermarket shoppers find consolation in reading tabloids.

In Part 1, Chapter 9 of White Noise, what does Murray Siskind mean by "psychic data"?

Murray Siskind's spontaneous lecture on psychic data refers to all the information people are bombarded with when they enter the supermarket. When he notes, "all the letters and numbers are here," he is making an implicit claim that the supermarket contains all the elemental units of meaning. For most people, a jumble of letters and colors does not have the same developed, nuanced, rich meaning as a Shakespeare play or a religious ritual. But Murray and Jack Gladney and the other cultural studies professors at College-on-the-Hill are part of a postmodernist culture; to them, every cultural artifact is equally worthy of attention, whether it is The Tragedy of Othello or the whoosh of the supermarket's electric doors. Don DeLillo is satirizing these professors, but he is not scourging them. Although White Noise is a satire, it is a generous one. The novelist, too, trades in psychic data, and in unfolding an entire world of meaning from a single fragment.

In Part 1, Chapter 14 of White Noise, what does Jack Gladney's family's obsession with watching natural disasters on television reveal?

Don DeLillo seems to be suggesting that it is hard for people to differentiate what they see on a screen. It is a physical object that seems as though it is transmitting information from a great distance, and provides a wide variety of entertainment. So the family is unable to truly distinguish between reality and illusion on the television, as evidenced by their confusion when Babette Gladney appears on screen. In the same vein, the disasters they watch lack a "realness," and the intrusion of the TV medium hinders them from grasping the scale and tragedy of the situation. Readers see this confusion again when the family is slow to react to a real disaster, the airborne toxic event.

In Part 1, Chapter 16 of White Noise, what does Wilder's crying fit signify to Jack Gladney?

Rather than grow frustrated by Wilder's incessant crying, Jack Gladney is mystified and awed by the child's commitment to it and feels as though he recognizes a certain force and message behind it. He observes, "there was something permanent and soul-struck in this crying. It was a sound of inbred desolation." Wilder's crying strangely grows to become another instance of white noise in Jack's life as it continues unabated for hours. Wilder is the only person in Jack's life who doesn't speak, and his innocence is contrasted with his soul-wearied wails. The toddler is able to express something primitive and true, something Jack feels he has lost the ability to do. In this way, Don DeLillo uses Wilder as the innocent contrast to Jack's adult anxiety.

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