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White Noise | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In White Noise, what comment does Don DeLillo make on how well people can know one another?

In following and exposing Jack and Babette Gladney's relationship, Don DeLillo first lulls the reader (and Jack Gladney) into believing that Jack and Babette share a deep understanding of each other. In Part 1, Chapter 7 Jack claims, "Babette and I tell each other everything," and he details the way they tell each other their deepest fears and hopes. Yet Jack's claim foreshadows the revelation that Babette has, in fact, been keeping a great deal from him: her fear of death, the consumption of Dylar, and the affair with Willie Mink (Mr. Gray). These are huge revelations that cause Jack and the reader to revise everything they know about Babette. DeLillo seems to be making the comment that knowing another person completely is impossible.

In White Noise, what is the significance of Jack Gladney's focus on Hitler?

Jack Gladney's focus on Hitler has less to do with Hitler as a historical figure and more about the aura and power he contained. Hitler is a figure associated with mass death, and Jack is a man preoccupied with death. As founder of a department of "Hitler Studies," Jack cloaks himself in Hitler's notoriety, all the while hiding the fact that he doesn't even speak German. Don DeLillo himself has claimed that within Hitler, "Gladney finds a perverse form of protection." Hitler is such a monstrous figure that Jack's own dread can disappear inside it. Like much of the novel, there's a dark comedy to be found in Jack's profession, yet DeLillo links it to the aura of death lurking through much of the novel.

What does White Noise have to say about the violence of contemporary life?

White Noise presents characters who experience many different forms of violence in different ways. Jack Gladney's family gathers around the television to calmly watch natural disasters on television, and then are forced to flee their home because of a real airborne toxic event. Jack's son Heinrich is pen pals with a convicted murderer in prison who regrets, not his crime, but the fact that he didn't get media coverage for it. Murray Siskind gives a class in car crashes in the cinema. Jack ends up shooting a man with a gun his father-in-law gave him. Don DeLillo seems to be demonstrating that contemporary violence lurks and infiltrates people's lives in all kinds of ways, and that people have grown increasingly used to it because of overexposure from television and other media.

In White Noise, what role does Willie Mink (Mr. Gray) play in Jack's life?

Willie Mink (who also goes by Mr. Gray) at first plays a frustratingly mysterious role in Jack Gladney's life. Babette Gladney won't disclose his real name, and so Jack is forced to imagine her with a "gray man" of some sort, a blurry figure he can project his fears and insecurities onto. Though Jack tells Babette he doesn't feel threatened by Willie Mink, he becomes consumed with thoughts of him. Jack's decision to find him and kill him also has to do with his quest to obtain Dylar for himself, yet when he finds the real Mr. Gray—Willie Mink—in Part 3, Chapter 39, he encounters a sad, scrambled man who represents the worst-case scenario of Dylar's side effects. In the end, Willie both prompts Jack to action and shows him that the motivation for his action is hollow.

What is the effect of the characters' dialogue on the structure of White Noise?

The dialogue helps show how the different characters interact. Much of the dialogue in the novel is between Jack Gladney and his family, or between Jack and Murray Siskind. The characters are often quick to debate and argue, and Don DeLillo keeps their dialogue fast-paced and witty. In the group family conversations, DeLillo doesn't differentiate between who is speaking; instead, turning them into something of a Greek chorus. Jack's conversations with Murray and with Heinrich tend to take on a more serious bent. He has philosophical discussions with Murray about often absurd topics, with one of them posing a question and the other providing a lengthy answer. When he talks to Heinrich, his son often tells him truths he could not otherwise know.

What role do tabloid magazines play in White Noise?

Tabloids—long associated with misinformation and rumors—hold a deep fascination for some characters in the novel. Mr. Treadwell enjoys the magazines, so Babette Gladney reads them to him. She also reads from a tabloid to the crowd in the shelter. Don DeLillo seems to deliberately abstain from having his characters question the validity of the tabloids as news or entertainment. In Part 3, Chapter 40 the novel ends in the supermarket with a lingering gaze on the racks of tabloid magazines, and Jack Gladney observes that "everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks." They are part of the "language of waves and radiation" with which the novel's characters construct meaning.

How can White Noise be considered a study of American attitudes toward death?

White Noise is a novel obsessed with death. Each character deals with it in a different way, yet many are reluctant to discuss it frankly. For Jack and Babette Gladney, a fear of death is always lurking, and each wonders aloud often "who will die first?" Jack Gladney admits that even though he says he wants to die first, he actually doesn't. Both Jack and Babette do what they can to ward off their mortality—Babette exercises constantly, and Jack attempts to decode what he sees as signs and symbols about his mortality. Don DeLillo holds up a mirror to the American treatment of the subject of death as a taboo obsession—something people fend off at all costs, while avoiding discussing it as much as possible.

How can White Noise be considered a work of "American magic and dread," to use Murray Siskind's words?

In Part 1, Chapter 5, Murray Siskind tells Jack Gladney that he wants to "immerse [himself] in American magic and dread." Don DeLillo shows how the mundanity of American existence—such as supermarkets and television—contains something mysterious, and even terrible. The supermarket is given a spiritual reverence, full of "psychic data." The television is also given a mystical aura, such as when Jack and his children see Babette Gladney on the screen and can't believe the magic of what they are seeing. The novel is also steeped in the sensation of dread, particularly the dread of death. Nearly every character brings up death at one point, and Jack's dread of it is a constant hum throughout his narration.

In Part 2, Chapter 21 of White Noise, what does Jack Gladney mean when he tells Babette, "the greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear"?

Jack Gladney is speaking to Babette Gladney about the airborne toxic event, whose origins and side effects are misunderstood and inspire great fear. The novel frequently demonstrates that human-made technology has the capacity to create unforeseen chaos and destruction. Here, Jack connects the fear of the unknown with the strange coincidence that humans create the very things causing their fear. Humans are capable of great scientific advances, yet they can barely begin to understand those advances. Their lack of understanding ignites a "primitive" fear of the unknown, akin to when humans feared things like solar eclipses. As Heinrich says in the shelter in Part 2, Chapter 21, "Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works?"

In Part 1, Chapter 17 of White Noise, what does Jack Gladney mean when he claims, "the family is the cradle of the world's misinformation"?

Jack Gladney's proclamation is in response to a family debate that reads like a game of telephone: Babette Gladney mishears the word "Dylar" for the name of a girl staying with their neighbors, which fragments into a debate about movies and camels. Jack observes, "there must be something in family life that generates factual error." His words are a pun on the phrase "cradle of civilization," used to refer to a place from which civilization sprang. With the "cradle of ... misinformation," there is a deterioration of civilized behavior. The family members are constantly disagreeing or correcting one another, based on a combination of information and misinformation. Each family member firmly believes that what he or she is stating is a true fact, yet the sources of this knowledge are constantly being revised by the television and radio.

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