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White Noise | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1: Waves and Radiation

The narrator of White Noise is Jack Gladney, a middle-aged professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill in the small, liberal arts college town of Blacksmith, located in middle America. He begins his narration at the start of the semester, observing the many possessions his students bring back to school every fall. Jack lives in Blacksmith with his wife, Babette, and their four children from previous marriages. At the college, Jack befriends a new colleague, Murray Siskind, and they visit a nearby tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America.

Jack and Babette often wonder who will die first in their relationship, and Jack claims they tell each other everything and don't keep secrets. They spend a lot of their time shopping at the supermarket, where they frequently run into Murray, who tells them it is a place full of "psychic data" and spiritual renewal. Jack's family, including the children from previous marriages (Heinrich, Denise, Steffie, and Wilder), tends to spends its time together in front of the television.

Jack tells his students during a lecture that "all plots tend to move deathward," but is unsure of the phrase's meaning. Readers learn that, although he is the founder of Hitler Studies at the college, he has concealed from his colleagues and students the fact he doesn't know German. Jack begins secretly taking German lessons with a man named Howard Dunlop.

Jack begins waking up feeling panicked, searching his surroundings for signs and meaning; his panic seems related to his upcoming 51st birthday in a week. His daughter Steffie tells him she saw Babette take some medication, but Babette denies it. One night Mr. Treadwell, the old man Babette reads to, disappears, and they report him missing. He is found alive with his sister after having gotten lost in the mall for two days.

One day, Wilder begins crying and doesn't stop, though they can find nothing wrong with him. Strangely, Jack becomes soothed by the sound of his crying, believing that Wilder is expressing something primal and mournful. Hours later, Wilder stops crying just as suddenly. Jack picks up his daughter Bee at the airport, where passengers are disembarking from a plane that almost crashed. Jack's ex-wife Tweedy also shows up, and they reminisce about their marriage, which was full of secrets. When Jack drops Bee at the airport after the holidays, he stops at the town cemetery, the only place he can escape the "white noise" of his life.

Part 2: The Airborne Toxic Event

One morning, Heinrich alerts the family about a nearby train derailment that has triggered an airborne toxic chemical spill responsible for causing strange side effects such as sweaty palms and déjà vu—both of which Jack's daughters claim to experience. Though Jack initially claims people who live in wealthy college towns aren't affected by environmental toxins, they are soon forced to evacuate. At the emergency shelter, a simulation event worker checks Jack's exposure to the chemical, and his test results come back positive, though he won't know the effects for another 15 years.

Part 3: Dylarama

Jack keeps his prognosis a secret from Babette, even after they return home. Their town is still patrolled by chemical-sniffing dogs and men in Mylex suits. One night, Jack discovers a bottle of medication called Dylar hidden in the bathroom, but rather than confront Babette, he takes it to his colleague Winnie Richards to be analyzed. Jack tells Babette he found the Dylar, but she initially claims to know nothing about it. Later, she reveals to Jack that she has been feeling a fear of death and has volunteered for a study to test the drug. The drug was deemed too risky, so Babette agreed to have an affair with a man she calls Mr. Gray in order to access the drug. She tries to convince Jack to forget about it and move on. He asks her to give him access to Mr. Gray to see if he would qualify as a research subject, but Babette refuses.

Jack is awakened in the middle of the night by the arrival of his father-in-law, Vernon Dickey. Vernon gives Jack a gun, warning him that they are living in dangerous times. Meanwhile, Jack desperately searches the family's trash in an attempt to find the bottle of Dylar Denise claims to have thrown out. After Jack discusses his fear of death with Murray, Murray convinces Jack to "be the killer ... Let someone else be the dier."

Winnie Richards is finally able to tell Jack about the makers of Dylar, and she gives him the address of Mr. Gray, now known as Willie Mink. Jack steals his neighbor's car and drives to the address of a motel in nearby Germantown. Once there, he discovers a near-catatonic Willie Mink and shoots him, but then Jack decides to save him after Willie Mink shoots him in the wrist. Jack takes Willie Mink to a religious hospital where a German nun tells Jack nuns don't actually believe in heaven and angels—they only pretend to because the nonbelievers need the believers.

In the last climactic scene of the novel, Wilder rides his tricycle across the interstate freeway, narrowly avoiding cars. He survives, crying only when he falls in a puddle. The novel ends in the supermarket where the shelves have been rearranged. Jack muses that everything everyone needs that isn't love or food can be found in the checkout stand tabloids.

White Noise Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Jack's new year of teaching begins.

Rising Action

2 Jack's fear of death begins to grow.

3 Babette begins acting suspiciously.

4 Wilder's crying fit affects his parents.

Climax

5 The airborne toxic event occurs.

Falling Action

6 Jack discovers Babette is taking Dylar.

Resolution

7 Jack shoots Willie Mink and rescues him.

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