Literature Study GuidesWhite NoisePart 2 Chapter 21 Summary

White Noise | Study Guide

Don DeLillo

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White Noise | Part 2, Chapter 21 : The Airborne Toxic Event | Summary



Part 2 consists of a single chapter; it is entirely dedicated to the event that changes Jack Gladney's life. One morning, Jack spies Heinrich on their roof, dressed in camouflage and looking through binoculars. Jack goes up to the attic to ask him to come down, and Heinrich tells him the radio said a train derailed, and he can see a lot of smoke through the binoculars. The news says it is a toxic cloud from the chemical Nyodene Derivative, "byproducts of the manufacture of insecticide," which can cause a number of side effects. Jack doesn't believe the cloud will blow in their direction, but Denise and Steffie begin complaining they are feeling the side effects. Jack reassures them, but privately Babette Gladney tells him she is worried. He tells her people like them who live in wealthy college towns aren't affected by things like this.

The radio officially calls the cloud an airborne toxic event and reports new side effects: heart palpitations and déjà vu. While the Gladneys are eating dinner in paranoid silence, the town air raid siren goes off and an amplified voice tells them to evacuate. Jack and Babette rush the family to the car, but they end up stuck in traffic on the interstate trying to get to safety. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack sees Babette put something in her mouth and swallow it. They pass a car wreck, which Steffie claims to have witnessed before. Jack wonders how susceptible Steffie is to developing symptoms she hears about.

When the family arrives at the emergency shelter, information and rumors abound and are difficult to distinguish. Heinrich holds forth on the topic of Nyodene, collecting a crowd. He explains that no one "seems to know exactly" what it causes, although it's very dangerous and has a life span of 40 years after it seeps into the soil.

Denise points out to Jack that he may have been exposed to the chemical when he stopped to put gas in the car. Jack waits in line to get more information, and he tells the person at the desk about his possible exposure. He notices the man is wearing a label that says "SIMUVAC," which the man tells him is short for "simulated evacuation." He tells Jack they thought they could use the real evacuation as a model to rehearse a simulated evacuation. The man punches in Jack's data and tells him his data profile is generating big numbers. He tells Jack they will know more about his prognosis in 15 years, if he lives that long. It doesn't mean anything will happen to Jack "as such," just that he is "the sum total of [his] data." When Jack points out that the event is real, not a simulation, the man agrees.

Out in the parking lot, Jack runs into Murray Siskind and tells him about the SIMUVAC man's prognosis for him. Murray tells him, "this is the nature of modern death," and also that he believes the symptom of déjà vu is prevalent because "death is in the air" and is liberating repressed memories. Back inside, Jack watches his children sleep, an act he finds spiritual and reassuring. After he dozes off, he and the family are awakened by a siren and a voice telling them to evacuate: the toxic cloud is now heading in their direction. At the new evacuation center, a man claims to have experienced this moment with Jack before. The family isn't allowed to return home for nine days.


The information about the airborne toxic event further emphasizes the role television and radio play in relaying facts and data that must be interpreted as meaningful. The symptoms and side effects are constantly being updated, and Steffie and Denise's delayed responses show the power of suggestion in creating reality. It also lends a constant current of paranoia, as Jack and Babette Gladney worry whether the girls' symptoms are real, or whether they are just reacting to what they have heard on the news. Readers wonder along with the characters: are the media creating the reality?

The question of why the media don't cover the airborne toxic event more extensively echoes Bee's consternation over the people on the plane "[going] through all that for nothing." Don DeLillo suggests that, in this era, nothing is real unless it is broadcast, given a wider audience to witness what has happened. People are beginning to believe their experience is not real unless it has been recorded. Jack repeatedly reminds everyone that it can't be that bad because this sort of thing never happens to people like him—a conclusion he arrives at because he's never seen it on television.

The revelation that Jack Gladney's exposure to the toxic chemical may affect his life span brings to a head his fear of death that has followed him throughout the novel. Even though he has always known he will die someday, the SIMUVAC man's report now confirms he will die someday. Interestingly, the exposure will not likely affect his life span, because he will be an elderly man when its effects can finally be measured.

The tension between simulation and reality comes into play again as the simulation response team studies a real event in order to practice for a simulated event. It blurs the lines between what can and cannot be believed—should Jack believe the SIMUVAC man's printout about his health statistics? He can't possibly know the real date of his exposure-related death, which will arrive when he is already in old age. The fact that the girls experience the suggested symptoms also blurs the lines between simulation and reality—just because they are experiencing the symptoms doesn't mean it is all in their heads. Jack wonders, "Which was worse, the real condition or the self-created one, and did it matter?" This question seems to be Don DeLillo's point: in a postmodern condition, can we tell illusion from reality, and do people arrive at a point where they no longer care? The symptom of déjà vu further emphasizes this, because déjà vu is the sensation of having experienced something before. As Jack asks, "Is it possible to have a false perception of an illusion?"

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