Existential Outlines and Backgrounds in the Novel White Noise

The actual significance of White Noise novel is evident on the thematic level. It brings the three major thematic strands that run throughout the novel. These are death, sunset, and the supermarket. They are the phases of Jack's rebirth. He overcomes his death obsessions, goes through the cycle of sunsets, and experiences spiritual illumination and rebirth in the supermarket.

White Noise is Jack's existential tragedy in a world of simulations and appearances. His journey is indeed tragic as he goes through a variety of painful experiences and doomed to tragic death. Indeed, Jack's sense of the tragic elevates his petty existence in a world of atrophied existence. His fatal flaw is his obsession with death that leads him to assume a false identity and a career as a Hitler studies professor. The presence of Hitler in his life and his exposure in the toxic event serve to heighten the tragic sense of his life. Hence, the significance of the attained moment of peace in the last chapter for Jack and the readers of the novel alike.

DeLillo’s presentations of the characters reactions to social conditioning: anxiety, panic, and apathy, are part of his strategy of critiquing postmodernism from the inside. Paradoxically, characters often act out their agency panic through self-defeating actions. The characters in the novels experience control of, and intrusions into, their identities and bodies, and their reactions range from apathy to violence; they are either “killers” or “diers,” as Murray Siskind explains in White Noise. In White Noise, the characters’ identities are repeatedly shown to be influenced and shaped by society. As has been pointed out by several critics, mass media intrudes constantly into the lives of the characters of White Noise. TV and radio “noise” invade the characters’ minds and determine their choices and values. As a result of influence from mass media, the characters think about product jingles and mutter product names in their sleep, and one of the children thinks the sun’s corolla is a car. Frank Lentricchia views Jack’s tendency to note the brand names of products everywhere as Jack’s “unconscious epistemology of consumption”. The shopping habits of the Gladney family are products of the messages they have received from external sources, thus evidencing how the mediated signals the characters receive penetrate their minds and impact their lives in constructing their identities.

Jack Gladney experiences agency panic in connection with his academic identity. On one hand, he is the chair and founder of Hitler studies, a respected scholar. On the other hand he feels like he is “the false character that follows the name around”, having invented an extra initial in his name (on the chancellor’s advice) in order to “be taken seriously as a Hitler innovator”. He has put on weight, also on the chancellors suggestion, refrained from growing a beard on the advice of a previous wife and always wears academic robes and “glasses with thick black heavy frames and black lenses” to strengthen his image as scholar whenever he is on campus. His professional and social environments have constructed his image to counteract “his feeble presentation of self”. He is the country’s leading scholar of Hitler, but does not even speak German. To hide this fact, he compiles a list of words that sounds roughly the same in German and English and uses it to give the introductory speech at the conference hosted by the College-on-the-Hill. The disparate elements of Jack’s identity leave him feeling like a fraud. His anxiety stems from the fact that he recognizes the influences exerted upon his identity, yet feels powerless to resist it.

The frail and tenuous quality of Jack’s identity is further emphasized when he runs into Eric Massingale at the hardware store. Jack is without his uniform, his robe and glasses, and the “Turkish army sweater” he wears cannot provide him with the authority he needs. Massingale remarks: “You look so harmless Jack. A big, harmless, aging, indistinct sort of guy”. The encounter threatens to expose Jack’s insecurities and he turns to a typical American past-time: shopping, trying to replace his missing powerful image through assembling the parts of another.

White Noise’s sense of closure resides somewhere between the current therapeutic usage and the old biblical peace. In order to achieve peace of the soul Jack has to surrender to the collective power of consumerism in the light of the absence of the traditional spiritual values. This is an act of willing self-treatment with therapeutic effects. Yet, it implies a further surrendering of free will and individual identity as a condition to secure self-treatment. Jack finding peace in accepting his world is not only a way to cope with his existential fears and anxieties but it brings him to experience the real world as opposed to the simulated reality which is being imposed on him via the TV and the media throughout the novel.

Fear of death characterizes and shapes the identity of both Babette and Jack, but they handle their fear in different ways. Babette’s deception comes as a result of her attempts to deal with her fear of death. Babette tries medication, secretly acquiring an experimental drug that influences the part of the brain where fear of death is located. She involves herself with a shadowy Mr. Grey and even agrees to sleep with him in exchange for Dylar. Her addiction to Dylar leaves her with the side-effect of memory loss. Jack sees Babette’s identity shifting and she no longer conforms to his image of her.

One of Jack’s strategies designed to insulate himself from his fear of death is his field of scholarly research, Hitler studies. DeLillo stated in an interview: “Gladney finds a perverse form of protection. The damage caused by Hitler was so enormous that Gladney feels he can disappear inside it and that his own puny dread will be overwhelmed by the vastness, the monstrosity of Hitler himself”.

Toward the end of White Noise, Jack Gladney acts out his agency panic through violence. His “death sentence,” the helpless feeling he has when encountering doctors, his insecurity toward his own identity exacerbated by Babette’s unfaithfulness, culminate in an attempt to kill Willie Mink. His plot to murder Mink is another strategy to insulate himself from his fear of death. Murray’s explanation that “violence is a form of rebirth” whereby one accumulates strength through violence, is a form of magical thinking supposed to empower Jack. In plotting to kill Mink, Jack tries to escape from the insecurity to secure his identity and attain the power of self. He is trying to be a killer rather than a dier, to revoke his death sentence by inflicting one on another. Of course his attempt at self-determination is only the result of another influence; he has internalized society’s conditioning script “the path of homicidal rage”. What he thinks is self-realizing and strength-accumulating.

Mark Osteen draws attention to the fact that the three last scenes of White Noise all comprise the end of the novel. The three scenes are Wilder’s bicycle-ride across the interstate, Jack and Babette’s trips to watch the sunsets, and the closing scene in the supermarket. The last scenes leave the Gladneys almost where we found them, but there are also redemptive elements. Wilder survived to contemplate another oven, Jack and Babette find some peace in the sunsets, and although the shelves have been rearranged in the supermarket, the generic food has not changed place. Some continuity in life still exists.

Overall, DeLillo’s works are illustrative of American life and culture, in that they reveal and comment on cultural pathologies that can be understood as inherently American, and that these pathologies are linked with postmodernism.The novel resents a protagonist who is on a journey of self-discovery, effectively seeking what many critics have identified as an out-dated form of self – a modernist notion of self. The problematic nature of identity in the novel is exacerbated by changes in representation and warfare, particularly the perceived loss of originality and the rise of terrorism. 

07 July 2022
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