White Noise (novel)

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White Noise
White Noise.jpg
1st edition
Author Don DeLillo
Country United States
Language English
Genre Postmodern novel
Publisher Viking Adult
Publication date
21 January 1985
Media type Print (hardcover & paperback)
Pages 326 pp (first hardcover)
ISBN 0-670-80373-1
OCLC 11067880
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3554.E4425 W48 1985

White Noise is the eighth novel by Don DeLillo, published by Viking Press in 1985. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.[1]

White Noise is an example of postmodern literature. It is widely considered DeLillo's "breakout" work and brought him to the attention of a much larger audience. Time included the novel in its list of "Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".[2] DeLillo originally wanted to call the book Panasonic, but the Panasonic Corporation objected.[3]


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 hasn't taken German lessons until this year). He has been married five times to four women and rears 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 first section, which mainly serves as an introduction to the characters and themes which will dominate the rest of the book. For instance, the mysterious deaths of men in "Mylex" (intended to suggest Mylar) suits and the ashen, shaken survivors of a plane that went into free fall anticipate the catastrophe of the book's second part. Beyond the Gladney family, another important character introduced here is Murray Jay Siskind, also a college professor and friend of Gladney, 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 terror 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 aloud the words "speeding bullet", I would fall to the floor to take cover."[4]

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 planning to kill the man who had given Dylar to Babette in exchange for sex. After a black comedy scene of Jack driving and rehearsing, in his head, several ways in which their encounter might proceed, he successfully locates and shoots the drug-pusher, Willie Mink, who at the time is in a delirious state caused by his own Dylar addiction.

Jack 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 an 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.


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.

Dana Breedlove is Jack's first and fourth wife and the mother of Mary Alice and Steffie.

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 to hide it.

Steffie is the nine-year-old daughter of Jack and Dana Breedlove.

Wilder is Babette's two-year-old son, and the youngest child in the family. Wilder is never quoted for dialogue in the novel (however, at one point, it is said that he asked for a glass of milk), and periodically Jack worries about the boy's slow linguistic development.

Mary Alice is the nineteen-year-old daughter of Dana Breedlove and Jack's first marriage.

Murray Jay Siskind is a colleague of Gladney's. He wants to create a field of study centered on Elvis Presley in the same way that Jack has 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.

Winnie Richards is a scientist at the college where Jack works, to whom Jack goes for information about Dylar.


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 disasters, and the potentially regenerative nature of human violence. 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."[5]

Ecocritic Cynthia Deitering had described the novel as central to the rise of "toxic consiousness" in American fiction in the 1980s, arguing that the novel "offers insight into a culture's shifting relation to nature and to the environment at a time when the imminence of ecological collapse was, and is, part of the public mind and of individual imagination".[6]

Cultural references[edit]

The band Airborne Toxic Event took their name from the novel.[7]

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "What's My Line, Part 1" (season 2, episode 9), Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman) tells Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), "Whatever comes out of your mouth is a meaningless waste of breath, an airborne toxic event."[8]

The band Clare Quilty included a song entitled "Dylarama", in reference to part three of White Noise, on its 2000 album Strong.[9]


  1. ^ "National Book Awards – 1985". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
    (With essays by Courtney Eldridge, Matthew Pitt, and Jess Walter from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  2. ^ Grossman, Lev (11 January 2010). "White Noise (1985), by Don DeLillo". Time. Archived from the original on 9 November 2013. Retrieved 2014-08-04. 
  3. ^ "An Annotation of the First Page of White Noise, With Help From Don DeLillo". Andrew Hearst. 22 February 2005. Retrieved 2014-07-08. 
  4. ^ p. 193, original Penguin paperback edition.
  5. ^ Lentricchia, Frank (ed.). New Essays on White Noise. Cambridge; New York: CUP, 1991.
  6. ^ Deitering, Cynthia. 'The Postnatural Novel: Toxic Consciousness in Fiction of the 1980s.' The Ecocriticism Reader. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. p.196-7
  7. ^ Banks, Brian (16 September 2008). "The Airborne Toxic Event interview". Music Vice. Retrieved 2014-07-08. 
  8. ^ Gordon, Howard; Noxon, Marti (November 17, 1997). "What's My Line, Part 1". Season 2. Episode 9. Retrieved October 1, 2012.  Missing or empty |series= (help)
  9. ^ "Clare Quilty - "Dylarama" [Official Audio]". YouTube. 6 May 2013. Retrieved 2014-07-08. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories
Ellen Gilchrist
National Book Award for Fiction
Succeeded by
World's Fair
E. L. Doctorow