White Noise (novel)

White Noise (novel)
White Noise  
White Noise by Don DeLillo.
Author(s) Don DeLillo
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Postmodern
Publisher Viking Adult
Publication date 21 Jan 1985
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 326 pp (hardback first edition)
ISBN 0-670-80373-1
OCLC Number 11067880
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 19
LC Classification PS3554.E4425 W48 1985

White Noise, the eighth novel by Don DeLillo, is an example of postmodern literature. Widely considered his "breakout" work, the book won the National Book Award in 1985 and brought him to the attention of a much larger audience. Time included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[1] DeLillo originally wanted to call the book Panasonic, but the Panasonic Corporation objected.[2]



Set at a bucolic Midwestern college known only as The-College-on-the-Hill, White Noise follows a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a professor who has made his name by pioneering the field of Hitler Studies (though he doesn't speak German). He has been married five times to four women and has a brood of children and stepchildren (Heinrich, Denise, Steffie, Wilder) with his current wife, Babette. Jack and Babette are both extremely afraid of death; they frequently wonder which of them will be the first to die. The first part of White Noise, called "Waves and Radiation," is a chronicle of contemporary family life combined with academic satire. There is little plot development in this section, which mainly serves as a introduction to the characters and themes that will dominate the rest of the book. For instance, the mysterious deaths of men in Mylex suits and the ashen, shaken survivors of a plane that went into free fall anticipate the catastrophe of the book's second part. Outside of the family, another important character introduced here is Murray, who frequently discusses his theories, which relate to the rest of the book.

In the second part, "The Airborne Toxic Event," a chemical spill from a rail car releases a black noxious cloud over Jack's home region, prompting an evacuation. Frightened by his exposure to the toxin, Gladney is forced to confront his mortality. An organization called SIMUVAC (short for "simulated evacuation") is also introduced in Part Two, an indication of simulations replacing reality.

In part three of the book, "Dylarama," Gladney discovers that Babette has been cheating on him in order to gain access to a fictional drug called Dylar, an experimental treatment for the fear of death. The novel becomes a meditation on modern society's fear of death and its obsession with chemical cures as Gladney seeks to obtain his own black market supply of Dylar. However, Dylar does not work for Babette, and it has many possible side effects, including losing the ability to "distinguish words from things, so that if someone said 'speeding bullet,' I would fall to the floor to take cover."[3]

Jack continues to obsess over death. During a discussion about mortality, Murray hypothesizes that killing someone could perhaps alleviate the fear. Jack decides to test Murray's theory by tracking down and killing the man who had given Dylar to Babette in exchange for sex. Jack successfully locates and shoots Willie Mink, who is delirious from his own Dylar addiction. He then puts the gun in Willie's hand to make the murder look like a suicide, but Willie then shoots Jack in the arm. Suddenly realizing the needless loss of life, Jack carries Willie to a hospital run by German nuns who do not believe in God or the afterlife. Having saved Willie, Jack returns home to watch his children sleep.

The final chapter describes Wilder, Jack's youngest child, riding a tricycle across the highway and miraculously surviving.


White Noise explores several themes that emerged during the mid-to-late twentieth century, e.g., rampant consumerism, media saturation, novelty academic intellectualism, underground conspiracies, the disintegration and reintegration of the family, human-made catastrophes, and the potentially regenerative nature of human violence.

Stylistic Elements

The novel's style is characterized by a heterogeneity that utilizes “montages of tones, styles, and voices that have the effect of yoking together terror and wild humor as the essential tone of contemporary America”.[4]


Jack Gladney is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. He is a professor of Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college in middle America.

Babette is Jack’s wife. They have four children from previous marriages. She has an affair with Willie Mink, aka Mr. Gray, in order to obtain Dylar.

Heinrich is the fourteen-year-old son of Jack and Janet Savory. He is precociously intellectual, prone to be contrary, and plays correspondence chess with an imprisoned mass murderer.

Denise is the eleven-year-old daughter of Babette and Bob Pardee. She suspects her mother is a drug addict and steals the bottle of Dylar.

Steffie is the daughter of Jack and Dana Breedlove.

Wilder Babette’s six-year-old son, and the youngest child in the family. Wilder never speaks in the novel, and periodically Jack worries about the boy’s slow linguistic development

Murray Jay Siskind is a colleague of Gladney’s. He wants to create a field of study centered around Elvis in the same way Jack created one around Hitler. He teaches a course on the cinema of car crashes, watches TV obsessively, and cheerfully theorizes about many subjects.

Orest Mercator is Heinrich's friend who trains to sit in a cage with vipers.

Vernon Dickey is Babette's father, who visits the family in chapter 33 and gives Jack a gun.

Willie Mink is a compromised researcher who invents Dylar.


Barry Sonnenfeld was preparing a film version of White Noise for 2006. However, pre-production appears to have ceased as of the fall of 2006 and the Internet Movie Database has removed all references to this movie.

Cultural references

The band Airborne Toxic Event took their name from the novel.[5] In Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 episode 9, What's My Line: Part 1, the character of Principal Sydner tells the character Xander Harris that 'whatever comes out of your mouth is a meaningless waste of breath, an airborne toxic event'. San Diego string band Shady Side Players recorded an instrumental called Dylar Breakdown, composed by Evan Moring.[6]


External links

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