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White Noise | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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In Part 3, Chapter 39 of White Noise, what does Sister Hermann Marie mean when she says, "the nonbelievers need the believers"?

Sister Hermann Marie shocks Jack Gladney when she utters this claim, because she is a nun who says she doesn't believe in God or in heaven. Up to this point, Jack took for granted that other, more religious people believed in faith and spirituality, and this knowledge reassured him as a nonspiritual person. She goes on to tell him, "as belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe." Jack needs a proxy for belief in his quest for meaning, and this revelation rattles him. Her statement is a comment on contemporary society in which religion has been largely replaced with the belief in technology. In a book constantly searching for meaning, Don DeLillo delivers an ultimate situational irony with the nun's revelation: both Jack and the readers expect one kind of response from her but are given the complete opposite. Again, there is a reference to the theme of simulation versus reality—by all appearances, Sister Hermann Marie is a religious nun, but the reality is she doesn't believe. She is, instead, dedicated to the pretense of belief.

What is the effect of Don DeLillo's use of humor in White Noise?

Although the novel deals with heavy subjects such as death, disasters, and secrecy, Don DeLillo weaves in a heavy dose of dark humor that creates, at times, an absurd effect on the story. The humor contrasts heavily with the heavier motifs, offering the reader a respite in what would otherwise be a dark book. DeLillo also uses humor to point out the absurdities in modern life, such as when Mr. Treadwell gets lost in the mall for days in Part 1, Chapter 13. Jack and Babette Gladney often find themselves having humorous conversations, and this use of humor shows how well they get along. Another example is Jack Gladney and Murray Siskind's lecture debate about Elvis and Hitler in Part 1, Chapter 15. It seems absurd and comical to put the two figures in the same context, yet here DeLillo deftly uses humor to show them portrayed as celebrity figures rather than in a historical context.

In White Noise, what philosophical role does Heinrich play?

Heinrich plays a similar (but more antagonistic) role as Murray Siskind in Jack Gladney's life. Heinrich is Jack's son, and their relationship is also marked by father–son tension. Heinrich takes it upon himself to constantly question Jack's perception of reality, with everything from the weather to how he knows for certain something is true. Because many of the characters must wade through a bombardment of information to get to the truth, Heinrich's role here is an important one, even if, at first, he can be dismissed as a combative teenager. When discussing the weather in the car in Part 1, Chapter 6, Heinrich muses, "What good is my truth? My truth means nothing." His aim is to get Jack to realize that personal truth is subjective and impossible to verify.

In White Noise, how is Jack Gladney's life different after the airborne toxic event, and how is it the same?

Jack Gladney's life is different after the airborne toxic event because now he has confirmation that his exposure to the chemical has affected his mortality. However, by the time it can be determined how it will affect him, he will have reached old age. Yet somehow this knowledge changes Jack. Whereas before he was reluctant to take actions that might "advance the plot" of his life, after the event, he acquires a gun with the intent to kill Willie Mink (Mr. Gray), a man whom Babette Gladney had an affair with. He also becomes desperate to get a hold of Dylar, which he believes will stave off his fear of death. In other ways, Jack's life remains the same: he goes to the supermarket and the mall, and enjoys the company of his family. Don DeLillo forces Jack to confront the question of how a person might live their life differently if they knew when it was going to end.

In White Noise, what is the significance of the novel ending soon after Wilder rides his tricycle across the freeway?

Throughout the novel, Wilder represents an innocence and youth that stand in direct contrast to Jack Gladney's anxiety about mortality and truth. Wilder doesn't speak very much, and as Murray Siskind points out in Part 3, Chapter 37, "he doesn't know death at all ... how lucky he is." When Wilder rides his tricycle across the freeway in Part 3, Chapter 40, he is oblivious to the risk of death, but the reader is not. By placing this episode so near the end of the book, Don DeLillo injects suspense: Will Wilder die? The resolution to this little crisis—Wilder's return to the family—sets up the novel's ending, just pages later. After the tricycle ride, the reader gets a glimpse of the Gladneys' day-to-day life: their sunset picnics; the communal ritual of Blacksmith citizens going to view the sunset; Jack's determination to avoid his doctor's calls. Almost nothing that tormented Jack is resolved, but the novel ends with a sense of closure; Wilder's safe return provides that sense of closure. The end of the tricycle episode thus stands in for the end of the novel. The neatly concluded tricycle episode offers a simulation of an ending. It prepares the reader to accept the novel's unresolved ending, in which Jack simply gets on with life with "all the old muddles and quirks."

How can White Noise be seen as a meditation on the environment?

Don DeLillo published White Noise only a month after a toxic chemical spill in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands of people. He could not have foreseen the destruction, which gives White Noise an eerie prescience about man's impact on the environment. Though DeLillo treats the fictional incident with a healthy dose of irony and humor, he does emphasize the psychological impact that these catastrophes can have on people as they try to sort through information, data, and facts. Jack Gladney observes throughout the novel that the sunsets continue to grow more beautiful and brilliant, but he has the sneaking, ominous suspicion that they are caused by man-made toxins in the air. DeLillo is emphasizing that even though technology can bring humans great things, a price must be extracted—and it is usually in terms of the environment.

In White Noise, how can Vernon Dickey be compared with Jack Gladney in their attitudes about death?

Jack Gladney constantly worries about when he will die and the state of his body and health after his exposure to the toxic event; Vernon Dickey, in contrast, is matter-of-fact in his attitudes toward life and death. It is no coincidence that, from his first glimpse, Jack mistakes the visiting Vernon for Death itself, coming to collect him from the yard. It is Vernon who gives Jack the gun he will eventually use to shoot Willie Mink (Mr. Gray), turning Jack into "the killer" rather than "the dier." Vernon advises Jack not to worry about the signs of his own mortality—everyone will die eventually, he says, so you should enjoy yourself while you can.

How does Don DeLillo portray the elderly in White Noise?

Don DeLillo portrays the elderly as always hovering at the periphery of the action, shuffling through the supermarket or getting lost in the mall. The elderly Mr. Treadwell plays a significant peripheral role in the novel, and with his getting lost in the mall, DeLillo appears to comment on how "out of touch" the elderly are with the new technology and layouts in modern times. Mr. Treadwell's sister dies of "lingering dread," which is darkly comical but also a comment on how the elderly in the novel are unable to process their surroundings. Even Vernon Dickey, Jack Gladney's father-in-law, has a completely different attitude about his own mortality than Jack does. DeLillo highlights these contrasts to show how much has changed between generations, and how quickly it has changed.

In Part 3, Chapter 37 of White Noise, what does Murray Siskind mean when he asks Jack Gladney, "are you a killer or a dier"?

In Chapter 37, Murray Siskind offers Jack Gladney a lecture on the idea that "to plot is to live," rather than to move "deathward," as Jack believes. He asks Jack if he is "a killer or a dier," and when Jack responds he's "been a dier all my life," Murray reminds him that he can change his sense of fate if he becomes the killer. This seems like bizarre advice, but it plants the seed in Jack's head that later gives him the confidence to shoot Willie Mink (Mr. Gray). Here, Don DeLillo brings up a counterpoint to Jack's entire view of life, and perhaps gives him the sense of agency he has been yearning for—he can alter his fate somehow by taking a different kind of action. "All plots lead deathward" may not include his own death if he is the killer. Of course, his attempt to kill Willie is absurdly awkward, which shows the flaw in Murray's theory.

In White Noise, does Don DeLillo insinuate that technology is a good or bad thing?

Although Don DeLillo heavily satirizes the effects of technology on modern society, he doesn't appear to condemn it outright. DeLillo is more fascinated with the ways people decode technological information and "psychic data" to inform their lives and decisions. Technology itself may not be a bad thing—but the way humans interact with it might be. From the toxic event (with a human-made chemical) to the constant role television plays in Jack Gladney's family, people tend to misunderstand and fear the very technologies they have invented to make their lives better. There is a mysticism to technology in the novel, one that has the capacity for both good and evil.

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