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White Noise | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Part 2, Chapter 21 of White Noise, what is the significance of Jack Gladney wondering if it is "possible to have a false perception of an illusion"?

Jack Gladney's question comes in the midst of the airborne toxic event, when many side effects and symptoms have been reported and discarded in confusion. Denise and Steffie claim to suffer each symptom as it is announced, and the latest one Jack is referring to is a symptom of déjà vu—a feeling of having experienced the present situation before. It seems an odd and almost absurd symptom, one that Don DeLillo satirizes by mocking the way in which people are prone to the power of suggestion, particularly if it comes from an authority on television or radio. Yet Jack's question can be related to the novel as a whole: how much of people's lives are false perceptions regarding something that doesn't actually exist? This question is first raised in the scene about the "most photographed barn in America," which exists only because of a false perception about its fame. Jack goes on to ask, "Which was worse, the real condition or the self-created one, and did it matter?" In other words, the postmodern condition has taxed our ability to meaningfully interpret our world.

In Part 2, Chapter 21 of White Noise, what is the significance of the SIMUVAC program's study of the real-life evacuation?

The simulated evacuation program's study of a real-life evacuation in Chapter 21 is an example of dramatic irony, in which the reader understands the situation as one of reversed expectations. It is grimly comedic, as the SIMUVAC clerk clearly takes his job seriously, yet it seems strange he would be the one to read out Jack Gladney's real, unsimulated data about his exposure. The encounter further blurs the line between appearance and reality in a book that constantly veers between the two, to the point that it dizzies and disorients both the characters and the reader. Here, the artificial has encroached on reality to the point that reality itself seems to matter less and less.

In Part 2, Chapter 21 of White Noise, what does Murray Siskind mean by "this is the nature of modern death"?

In this scene, Jack Gladney and Murray Siskind are discussing Jack's prognosis after his exposure to the Nyodene chemical in the airborne toxic event. Jack finds it bizarre that the chemical will likely outlive him in his own body, because it has its own life span as a toxin. Murray's response, "this is the nature of modern death," is a comment on human-made chemical agents having a life "independent of us." He muses that "every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain." As humans grow smarter, he says, they create the toxins that can also kill them.

In White Noise, how does Part 2, Chapter 21 connect to Jack Gladney's earlier claim that "all plots tend to move deathward"?

Jack Gladney's earlier claim in Part 1, Chapter 6 that "all plots tend to move deathward" can be connected both to his own sense of aging, as the "plot" is slowly leading him toward death, and to a comment on the structure of the novel itself—all plots inevitably end as a book ends. Jack does whatever he can to resist the "plot" of his life. In the same way, the plot of the book doesn't contain much action until the airborne toxic event occurs. This is one of the climactic moments of the novel that advances the plot, and is also the moment when Jack becomes aware of the prognosis of his own death from exposure to Nyodene Derivative. Don DeLillo links these two "advances" inevitably, because Jack's fate as a character is now tied to the plot.

In White Noise, what does the revelation of Babette Gladney's affair with Willie Mink in Part 3, Chapter 26 reveal about both her and her marriage?

Babette Gladney's revelation of her affair with Willie Mink (also known as Mr. Gray) rocks the foundation of their marriage, which Jack Gladney has always assumed was based on honesty, trust, and transparency. Her bombshell shows that Babette is also flawed and is governed by the same fears as Jack about death. In this scene, Jack can hardly face what Babette is telling him. He attempts to distract her by offering her mundane things, as though he can avoid acknowledging how different their relationship is from what he thought it was. In the end, he is forced to confront the illusion of their relationship.

In Part 3, Chapter 30 of White Noise, what is the significance of the counterpoint Winnie Richards offers in response to Dylar?

Jack Gladney's obsession with Dylar continues to grow, despite his knowledge of its side effects and the fact that Babette Gladney cheated on him to gain access to it. Winnie Richards cautions him by saying, "it's a mistake to lose one's sense of death, even one's fear of death." She sees death as a necessary "border" that makes life more beautiful and meaningful. Meaning is what Jack has continually searched for, while at the same time growing more fearful of his own looming mortality. Yet Winnie's point is significant, and she examines death's purpose in a much different way from how Jack, Babette, or Murray Siskind do. By her definition, fear of death is what gives "a precious texture to life." Don DeLillo uses Winnie as a foil to Jack in much the same way he uses Orest Mercator and Sister Hermann Marie as foils to Jack's beliefs about death and religion.

In Part 3, Chapter 33 of White Noise, what does Jack Gladney mean when he says of Dylar, "if I think it will help me, it will help me"?

This statement relates to Jack Gladney's question in Part 2, Chapter 21 of whether it is "possible to have a false perception of an illusion." Just as Denise and Steffie experienced side effects that felt real to them, even if they were brought on through the power of suggestion, Jack is reminding Denise that the power of belief can perhaps go both ways: "the power of suggestion makes some people sick, others well." The scene furthers Don DeLillo's exploration of the way in which changes in knowledge (including the phenomenon of cultural studies), technology, and drugs all contribute to the human inability to distinguish reality from illusion.

In Part 3, Chapter 34 of White Noise, how does Jack Gladney's examination of the family's garbage connect to the idea of "data" in the novel?

If the supermarket is full of fresh, gleaming psychic data, then the garbage is full of secret, hidden psychic data. Jack Gladney initially examines the trash in the hope of uncovering the Dylar that Denise claims she threw out, but in the process, he uncovers other hidden things about his family, yielding a new understanding that has always existed below the surface. Again, he is presented with information and "data" he must try to parse for meaning, in much the same way that Murray Siskind suggests the supermarket also presents a bombardment of senses and information people must make an effort to decode. Don DeLillo suggest that people's lives in the postmodern era are a constant source of information that must be decoded in order to have meaning.

In White Noise, in what ways does Wilder counteract Jack and Babette Gladney's fear of death?

A conversation about Wilder's innocence comes up between Jack Gladney and Murray Siskind in Part 3, Chapter 37, with Murray making the astute observation that Jack feels so good when he's with Wilder because Wilder "doesn't know he's going to die." In this revelation, Wilder stands in complete contrast to Jack and Babette Gladney, whose lives are nearly governed by their fear of death. Wilder is a reassurance to them, what Murray calls "a cloud of unknowing ... the adult nothing." Jack and Babette can experience innocence once again in Wilder's presence. Death is a foreign concept to Wilder; therefore, it can't be a reality.

In Part 3, Chapter 37 of White Noise, how does Murray Siskind's belief about plots compare to Jack Gladney's belief about plots?

Murray Siskind makes the claim "to plot is to live," which stands in direct opposition to Jack Gladney's earlier claim in Part 1, Chapter 6 that "all plots tend to move deathward." Murray goes on to say that "to plot is to affirm life, to seek shape and control." He means that by making choices and actions, one can shape the plot of his or her own life and gain a sense of control. This observation also lines up with Murray's later suggestion that Jack can be the "dier" or the "killer," suggesting that he be the latter and therefore take agency over his own life. In this way, Murray functions as a philosophical counterpoint to Jack, pointing out the flaws in his argument and offering him another path.

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