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White Noise | Themes


Fear of Death

The fear of death infiltrates the novel early when Jack Gladney observes in Part 1, Chapter 1 how the sound of the faraway highway traffic is like "dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream." Sometimes the characters joke about death, but more often their fears are serious, such as when Jack and Babette Gladney wonder aloud to each other who will die first. As Jack approaches his 51st birthday, he looks around for hidden codes and messages about his own mortality. When he is exposed to the airborne toxic event, his fear is confirmed—his exposure will affect him, but not until he is well into old age. This knowledge affects Jack's perception of his own mortality, and this looming fear governs many of his desperate actions later in the book. Babette has secretly been taking the experimental drug Dylar, which is supposed to relieve the fear of death, despite its many side effects. Yet Jack and Babette are contrasted with characters such as Orest Mercator and Wilder, who have no fear of death and actively put themselves in harm's way. Don DeLillo offers a variety of competing ways of understanding and approaching death.

Simulation versus Reality

DeLillo closely investigates the characters'—and the reader's—relationship to simulation versus reality. Jack and Murray Siskind's philosophical trip to the most photographed barn in America—where they ponder the artificial nature of the barn's "aura"—blurs the line between illusion and reality. As the novel progresses, this clash between simulation and reality comes to a head during the airborne toxic event in which a group called SIMUVAC is studying the real-life events in order to prepare for future simulations. A SIMUVAC clerk even gives Jack his prognosis from his exposure, blending reality with artifice in a way that, at times, confuses both the characters and the reader. The characters are also frequently bombarded by conflicting media on the television and radio, calling into question whether or not the symptoms they are experiencing as side effects are actually real.

Even though Jack founded Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill, his department is situated in "the popular culture department, known officially as American Environments." His colleagues lecture on everything from Elvis Presley to cereal boxes. Nobody suspects that Jack can't speak or read German, and he treats Hitler more as a figure from popular culture than one from history. At the same time, Jack and his family are constantly taking in superficial information from the television and tabloids, information that his friend and colleague Murray Siskind dubs "psychic data." This ceaseless stream of random information makes it difficult to determine what is meaningful in it. Don DeLillo uses its influence on his characters to comment on the difficulty of navigating information in the postmodern era, and the ways in which people are influenced as much by popular culture as they are by religion.

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