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White Noise | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Waves and Radiation | Summary

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Don DeLillo wrote White Noise in three parts, further divided into chapters. For the purposes of analysis, this study guide groups some chapters together.

Summary

The narrator of the novel, Jack Gladney, recites a litany of observations about the arrival of new students on the college campus where he teaches at the beginning of the fall semester. He focuses on the many items they bring, from blankets to stereos to computers to snacks. Jack muses that he's watched this ritual take place every fall for 21 years. He notes how similar and self-congratulatory (and wealthy: the husbands suggest "massive insurance coverage") all the parents seem to be.

Jack leaves his office and walks into the town, which is described as having nice houses, an insane asylum, a supermarket, and Gothic churches. Jack lives at the end of a quiet street with his wife, Babette Gladney, and their children from previous marriages. He is the chairman of the department of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill, a department he invented in March 1968. Jack's lectures focus less on the historical aspects of the crimes Hitler committed and more on his celebrity and aura.

Analysis

The setting of White Noise is representative of many small college towns in the United States in the late 20th century. The school's name, the College-on-the-Hill, deliberately evokes the image of the "city on a hill," a phrase from the biblical gospels that became the Puritan metaphor for an ideal city.

By describing the town and the well-heeled parents and listing the many material items college students bring at the beginning of the semester, Don DeLillo begins to point to the obsession with consumer goods that engulfs many of the characters in the book. DeLillo also sets a satirical tone from the start, beginning with the notion of an entire department devoted to Hitler studies nestled alongside Elvis studies and commercial studies, rather than under the auspices of the history department.

The emphasis on Jack and Babette Gladney's blended family, consisting of stepchildren, is significant. It places them in a contemporary era when mixed families were not unusual but were a marked departure from the long-held American tradition of the "nuclear family." DeLillo takes great care to show their family in as many ordinary domestic settings as possible: their home, the supermarket, their jobs, and schools.

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