What is Heinrich's role in the Gladney family in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Jack Gladney's family is not traditional in nearly any sense of the word, though they live in a small Midwestern town and live uneventful lives most of the time. White Noise, by Don DeLillo, follows the Gladney family for several years.

Jack Gladney is a college professor who created and teaches a world-renown Hitler studies program (though he does not know German). Gladney named his now fourteen-year-old son Heinrich because he thought the name "had an authority that might cling to him." In some sense that is true of Heinrich.

Heinrich thinks about things more like a cynical adult and already has a receding hairline (symbolic of his beyond-his years thinking). He is moody and unsociable; one of his pastimes is playing chess through the mail with an imprisoned and convicted mass murderer. He is quite anti-social and does not generally do things with his family. 

Nearly every character in this story who has interactions with Jack Gladney serves as a contrast to him, and Heinrich is no exception. While Jack believes that we are all being manipulated by the media, Heinrich believes it is our own senses which often trick us and that all truth is relative.

Gladney and Heinrich do not talk about the typical father-son things, nor do they ignore one another. Instead, they engage in philosophical discussions which both enhance the theme of the novel and give Gladney another viewpoint to ponder (though he generally does not do so). He believes no one should trust what their minds tell them is true: "It's all this activity in the brain and you don't know what's you and what's some neuron that just happens to fire. . . ."

One morning when Gladney is driving Heinrich to school in the rain, they have a philosophical discussion about the weather. Heinrich comments that the weather report said it was going to rain, but his father points out that it is already raining, something which should be obvious by looking outside the car. Heinrich stubbornly insists that the senses can lie; the only truths are found in our own minds, and there is scientific evidence that our minds can deceive us. Thus, all truth is relative. Gladney tries again, but Heinrich wins the argument by noting that since neither of them are wet, it must not be raining. 

Heinrich is an odd young man absorbed with death and technology; however, he asks many of the questions his father should be asking, rather than blaming everything on the media.


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