White Noise Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

At once hilarious and horrifying, Don DeLillo’s White Noise dramatizes a contemporary American family’s attempt to deal with the mundane conflicts of day-to-day life while grappling with the larger philosophical issues of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world. The novel is divided into three sections. All incidents, images, and exchanges among characters in the first section, “Waves and Radiation,” culminate thematically in the second section, “The Airborne Toxic Event.” The third section, “Dylarama,” chronicles not only the direct effects of the “event” but also the indirect but even more profound changes in the way the characters subsequently see themselves and their world.

The novel’s first-person narrator is Jack Gladney, a college professor specializing in studies of Adolf Hitler. Many of the other characters are also in some sense observers of contemporary culture: Murray Jay Siskind, an Elvis Presley specialist; Jack’s other colleagues in the popular culture department; his son Heinrich, who translates technical information to his father and the reader; and his daughter Steffie, whose obsession with health has made her into an expert in drugs and medical matters. The bulk of the novel is less a sequence of important events than a series of dialogues concerning various interests and obsessions.

Immediately after the opening chapter, with its description of incoming college...

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White Noise Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

White Noise probably succeeded mostly for its dramatization of a topical issue: the danger to the environment—and to humankind—represented by the many substances continually issuing from chemistry laboratories. While death from chemical poisoning is a major theme of the novel, however, it is only subsidiary to the grim awareness of inevitable death and annihilation that seizes everyone’s consciousness in the book. White noise fills up all frequencies, creating a steady hiss. In DeLillo’s imagination, it becomes a sobering metaphor for that low, monotonous, but steady small whisper of human mortality constantly filling up the otherwise unused frequencies of an individual’s mental processes.

White Noise has all the best features of a DeLiIlo novel: crazy characters presented with wit and imagination, language that carries its conceptions gracefully, several wonderfully conceived set pieces, and a major character who at the end braces himself against the world’s madness. It also has the failure of plot that is not unexpected in a DeLillo novel.

White Noise is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Waves and Radiation,” develops the comic characterizations and dwells on the ubiquitous noises that make up the background to everyday life; the “dull and unbeatable roar” of the supermarket, the “great echoing din” of the hardware store, and, most disturbing of all, a seven-hour spell of loud crying that inexplicably overtakes the protagonist’s young son. Jack Gladney, the first-person narrator, chairs the department of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill.

Jack suffers much unease over his inability either to read German or to speak it, a scholarly failure that leads to a comic interlude when Jack hosts a conference on Hitler studies but hides from all the German participants. His welcoming speech includes all the words he can find that are the same in both German and English, and it features many allusions to Hitler’s dog, Wolf, whose name is the same in both languages.

Jack’s two closest colleagues are Howard Dunlop, a self-taught meteorologist, and Murray Jay Siskind, a researcher in popular culture. Howard’s correspondence school degree in meteorology authorizes him to teach that subject “in buildings with a legal occupancy of less than one hundred.” Even this eccentricity traces to a preoccupation with death, as Howard...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

White Noise Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

As he has for the past twenty-one Septembers, Jack Gladney watches from his office the moving-in rituals of students arriving on campus. The amazing array of station wagons has arrived, laden with everything the incoming students will need for a successful year, and they crawl their way to the dormitories.

The vehicles contain suitcases with both lightweight and heavier clothing; bedding for inside and sleeping bags for the outdoors; equipment such as rafts, saddles, skis, backpacks, and bicycles; electronics such as radios, stereos (including records and cassettes), computers, mini refrigerators, and hot plates; sports paraphernalia like soccer balls, tennis rackets, hockey and lacrosse sticks, and bows and arrows; necessary personal items such as birth control and controlled substances; and of course junk food ranging from potato chips to cereal, fruit chews to popcorn, suckers to mints.

It is a spectacle to see. Students greet each other effusively, sometimes even with tears, after summers “bloated with criminal pleasures, as always.” The parents all look around in a daze, seeing “images of themselves in every direction.” Their suntans are perfect, their makeup is perfectly applied, and they all have the same cynical look on their faces.

The mothers are “diet trim” and seem to know everyone’s names; the fathers appear somehow substantial and are content just to wait until the process is completed. This ceremony, more than anything else that will happen all year, reminds parents that they are part of a collective, “spiritually akin, a people, a nation.”

Gladney leaves his office and walks down the hill into town. It is a quiet and rather staid old town where people sit on their porches in the shade of stately trees. He and his wife, Babette, and their children from previous marriages live in a house at the end of a quiet street that was once a wooded, hilly area. Now, far below, an expressway runs. At night, the sparse traffic provides a “remote and steady murmur” at the edges of the family’s sleep.

At College-on-the-Hill, Jake Gladney is the head of the department of Hitler studies, something he created in 1968. When he proposed building an entire department around Hitler’s life and work, the chancellor quickly acquiesced and the program became an “immediate and electrifying success.” (The chancellor, who later became an advisor to Nixon, Ford, and Carter, died on a ski lift in Austria.)

As Gladney walks home, he sees a policewoman checking parked vehicles for potential violations, and he sees homemade signs, posted on telephone poles, seeking help to find lost cats and dogs. 

Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

Babette Gladney is “tall and fairly ample.” She has tousled, dirty blond, magnificent hair that she wears rather carelessly; on a more petite woman it would look too planned. Her husband tells her the moving-in spectacle was glorious, as always, and she is disappointed to have missed it. She is a bit disheveled, too busy with other, more important things, to worry very much about her appearance.

Her accomplishments are not great as the world measures greatness. She is a mother to her children, teaches adult education classes, and volunteers to read to the blind (such as Old Man Treadwell, who wants to hear stories from popular magazines such as the National Enquirer, the Globe, and the Star).

She is a lover of life, and Gladney enjoys watching her do her mundane activities. Babette makes him feel connected to the world in a way his other wives had not, and she is a refreshing change from the “self-absorbed and high strung bunch” in the academic community.

Babette chides him for not reminding her that today was the day and asks what the women were wearing. Gladney tells her they somehow looked like they felt entitled to their money. The Gladneys have a station wagon, too, but it is metallic gray and one door is completely rusted.

The couple does most of their living in the kitchen and the bedroom; the rest of the house is a necessary storage place for kids, stuff, and memorabilia of other lives and relationships. For Gladney, the random belongings carry “a sorrowful weight” and are a kind of foreboding of something on a grand scale.

Wilder, Denise, and Steffie join their parents in the kitchen. They talk about school supplies before each of them scrounges for what they want to fix for lunch; it is a comfortable, sprawling meal. Another son, Heinrich, enters the kitchen, surveys the scene, and promptly disappears out the back door.

Babette had planned to eat something healthy for lunch. As always, she feels guilty for not eating the wheat germ and yogurt she always buys; however, she also feels guilty if she does not buy it, if she sees it sitting in the refrigerator, or if she has to throw it away uneaten. Eleven-year-old Denise berates all of her mother’s wasteful habits, but Gladney defends Babette, claiming he is the one who needs to develop a more disciplined diet.

People generally trust those who have some substance to them, but Babette is unhappy with her hips and thighs and routinely exercises by running steps. She knows her husband tries to make virtues of her flaws because it is his “nature to shelter loved ones from the truth.”

The smoke alarm in the upstairs hallway goes off, warning the Gladneys that either the battery just died or the house is on fire. The family silently finishes their lunch. 

Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary

At College-on-the-Hill, all department heads wear academic robes; the full-length, black, sleeveless tunics are puckered at the shoulders. Gladney likes the flourish the robes create when he makes the simple gesture of looking at his watch.

The Hitler department does not have its own building but is located in Centenary Hall; it shares the brick building with the popular culture department, known officially as
“American environments.” The staff of that department is composed primarily of New York transplants: “smart, thuggish, movie-mad, trivia-crazed.” They spend their time here studying the popular culture, things like bubble-gum wrappers and jingles for detergent.

The head of this department...

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Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary

Because when times are bad people tend to overeat, the town of Blacksmith has a lot of overweight citizens. Everyone but the elderly seems to be in a “fever of eating.” Even though the elderly are not always mentally present, they are slim, healthy-looking, and well dressed.

Gladney walks to the open stadium behind the building where his wife is running up the stadium steps. He sits on the stone steps and watches her run to the top, stop to catch her breath for a few moments, and then walk back down the stairs. When she gets to the bottom, she stretches her neck and starts back up the steps. She is working hard. Gladney watches Babette perform this ritual three times before he meets her at the edge of the playing...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary

Jack Gladney feels as if he should enjoy his current “aimless days” because he fears they are somehow about to accelerate. At the breakfast table, Babette reads everyone’s horoscopes aloud; Gladney tries not to listen, although subconsciously he is hoping for some clue about his future.

He and Babette see Murray Jay Siskind at the grocery store, and it is obvious they have disparate shopping strategies. While the Gladneys’ cart is full of items with bright packaging and modern products, Siskind’s cart contains only a few items, all with the most generic packaging. His jar of roasted peanuts, for example, only has the words “Irregular Peanuts” in black, block lettering on a white label. As they talk,...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary

Heinrich Gladney’s hairline is beginning to recede, and his father wonders if he is somehow to blame. Perhaps Gladney’s wife ingested something hazardous when she was pregnant, or maybe Gladney unknowingly raised him too close to some kind of nuclear or chemical dump site. (The word around town is that the sunsets here are much more intense than they were thirty or forty years ago.) This is a world in which man’s guilt is now compounded by technology, “the daily seeping falsehearted death.”

Fourteen-year-old Heinrich is a moody and evasive boy who is sometimes terrifyingly obedient. Gladney suspects that his son only accedes to his parents’ wishes as part of a silent reproach against them. Babette fears that...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 7 Summary

Three evenings a week, Babette Gladney goes to the other side of town and teaches a course on proper posture to a group of adults in the Congregational church basement. Most of her students are old, and sometimes Gladney goes to watch her teach them how to sit, stand, and walk correctly. It is as if the adults can somehow postpone death if they practice proper grooming and personal habits.

Babette talks to her students about things of which they have undoubtedly never heard, yet they nod in agreement as she speaks to them as if it is their last great hope to redeem their bodies from a lifetime of bad habits: “It is the end of skepticism.”

Tonight Gladney walks home with Babette; in the moonlight their...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 8 Summary

As the most recognized Hitler scholar in the country, Gladney has tried to hide the fact that he does not know the German language: he cannot speak, read, or understand even the simplest words or the most rudimentary sentences in German. Even his most inexperienced colleagues in the department know some German, and many of them are “reasonably conversant.”

Every Hitler studies major at College-on-the-Hill is required to study German for at least one year. Gladney’s failure makes him feel as if he is “living on the edge of a landscape of vast shame.”

Hitler even appeared to struggle with how best to express himself in his autobiography, so Gladney is not surprised that his efforts to learn the...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary

The middle school in Blacksmith stays evacuated all week as both students and teachers are experiencing physical reactions to something. Men in Mylex suits with respirator masks sweep the building looking for hazardous materials. The offending material could be the ventilating system, paint, varnish, foam insulation, electrical insulation, rays emitted from computers, asbestos, adhesive on shipping containers, the cafeteria food, or something virtually undetectable. Denise and Steffie stay home all week.

Gladney and his family run into Siskind at the supermarket, the fourth or fifth time Gladney has seen him there and about the same number of times he has run into Siskind on campus. He works his way around Babette,...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 10 Summary

College-on-the-Hill charges fourteen thousand dollars for tuition, Sunday brunch included; its students come from affluent homes.

Denise watches Babette unwrap a package of sugarless chewing gum and tells her this gum causes cancer in laboratory animals; Babette reminds Denise that she is the one who suggested this product to her mother. But that was before the gum came with a warning label.

Babette suggests that Denise can choose the lesser of the two harmful products, sugared or sugarless, and Steffie suggests Babette chew no gum at all. That is not an option, as Babette has to chew gum to help her quit smoking and tells Denise she is “making a fuss over nothing.”

The phone rings. Some...

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Part 1, Chapter 11 Summary

Jack Gladney wakes up in a sweat at 3:51 a.m., riddled with paralyzing fear. He moves close to his wife’s warm body and finally falls asleep again. This time he is awakened by the smell of burnt toast, a smell Steffie loves. It is her treasured scent.

Babette and Steffie are in the kitchen; Gladney joins them. He feels old, as he will turn fifty-one next week. Steffie’s mother, Donna Breedlove, is about the same age as Babette and a contract agent for the CIA. When the phone rings and Steffie is distracted by a computer-generated marketing survey, Gladney tells his wife that Steffie’s mom used to pit people against one another and speak in foreign languages to create intrigue.

After a delicious meal...

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Part 1, Chapter 12 Summary

Gladney attends his German lessons twice a week, and Dunlop insists that they sit facing one another for the duration of the lesson. Gladney is supposed to listen to all of the sounds and view all of the contortions of tongue and mouth Dunlop undergoes as he speaks; when Gladney speaks, Dunlop peers into his pupil’s mouth as Gladney attempts to reproduce what he has heard.

The time before and after each lesson is filled with strained silence; the lesson itself is filled with Gladney’s unnatural articulation, which undoubtedly sounds like “a stone or tree struggling to speak.”

Dunlop has taught many other things, including Greek, Latin, and ocean sailing, but he is most passionate about teaching...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 13 Summary

There is not much for college students to do in the town of Blacksmith. The town does not have any natural attraction or hangout, so everything the students do tends to be centered on campus. Blacksmith is an old town, full of “looming Victorian homes” that are only growing older, and it regularly arrays all of its “failed possessions” in driveways during tag sales and yard sales.

Babette calls her husband at his office in Centenary Hall to tell him that Heinrich had been down at the river with his camera, watching the authorities drag the river looking for bodies, when the police received word that the Treadwells had been found. They were discovered “alive but shaken” in an abandoned cookie kiosk in the...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 14 Summary

Gladney is in bed studying German when Denise tells him she discovered a medicine bottle buried in the trash container under the sink; the bottle had Babette’s name on it along with the name of the medication. The substance is Dylar and the directions say it is supposed to be taken once every three days; Denise has not been able to find this drug in her reference book and she is concerned. Gladney is not.

Denise asks Gladney a serious question: why he named his son Heinrich Gerhardt Gladney. At the time, Gladney was just starting the Hitler department and he wanted to do something German as a gesture. He thought the name sounded forceful and strong. Gladney still thinks Heinrich is an impressive name, which he hopes...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 15 Summary

Wearing his customary dark glasses and his black scholar’s robe, Gladney unobtrusively enters Murray Jay Siskind’s Elvis lecture. Siskind is talking about the relationship between Elvis and his mother, Gladys, who appears to have known the likely ending of her son’s life if he became a star.

From the back of the room, Gladney speaks about Hitler and his extraordinarily close (shockingly close, some would say) relationship with his mother, Klara. The two professors speak in counterpoint, each man matching the other with pertinent points about their respective “stars” as they walk around the room and through the groups of students gathered for the lecture.

Soon Siskind shares his last bit of...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 16 Summary

Today, Wilder starts crying at 2:00 p.m. and does not quit. At 6:00, Wilder cries sitting on the kitchen floor as the rest of the family steps around him and hurriedly finishes their meal.

Babette watches the boy as she eats, knowing she has to teach her sitting, walking, and standing class in an hour and a half. She has tried every form of coercion and coaxing, and now she looks at her husband for some help. The old people will be waiting for her.

Wilder’s crying comes in short, steady bursts that grow stronger and weaker at times but never stop. The boy is exhausted and Gladney says they must stop by to see the doctor on the way to Babette’s class; she is not convinced a doctor will see a child just...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 17 Summary

Gladney’s daughter Bee is arriving in a few days. The entire family is in the car when Denise directly confronts Babette about the medication she may or may not be taking, hoping to surprise her mother into admitting something. Gladney admires Denise’s timing but the result is not what the girl had hoped, and her question is never answered.

The Gladney family is the “cradle of the world’s misinformation,” and one random (and generally faulty) fact shared by one person leads to an entire meandering string of ridiculous half-facts. Siskind believes people are “fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts” that threaten their basic happiness and security, and families do their best to seal off...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 18 Summary

Gladney drives to Iron City to retrieve his daughter Bee from the airport; instead, he finds his ex-wife Tweedy. First he thinks that something happened to Bee and that Tweedy has come to tell him in person; however, Bee is arriving on a later flight and Tweedy is here to spend a little time with her.

Tweedy finally says Bee is in Indonesia with her father; Gladney reminds her that he is Bee’s father and that Malcolm Hunt is only her stepfather. More importantly, he is concerned about the young girl traveling so far on her own, but Tweedy says Bee is perfectly capable of coping on her own and that this is good practice because she intends to become a travel writer.

Tweedy tells Gladney (she calls him...

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Part 1, Chapter 19 Summary

Bee, although only a seventh grader, unintentionally makes the family feel uncomfortable during her visit. Her presence in the home seems to focus a “surgical light” on all of the family’s flaws. The Gladneys are rarely intentional about the things they do, avoid making decisions when they can, “take turns being stupid and emotionally unstable,” leave wet towels wherever they drop, and occasionally lose Wilder.

Suddenly everything they do and say seems to need explaining to their guest. Babette is the most flustered by Bee’s presence, a “silent witness” to the sights and sounds of her family.

Bee is a year older than Denise and has the composed, mature demeanor of someone who has traveled and...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 20 Summary

Gladney reads in the newspaper that Old Man Treadwell’s sister, Gladys, died from a condition the doctor called “lingering dread,” probably the result of being lost at the mall with her brother for four days. Because of his obsession with dying, whenever Gladney reads the obituaries he compares the ages of those who have died to his own age. Today he ponders the life of Attila the Hun, who died young, and wonders if all the great men in history faced their own deaths as bravely as he imagines they did.

Even though she believes their life is good and is quick to say it out loud, Babette confesses to her husband that she has nightmares. The couple discusses their concerns about dying. Babette claims she wants to die...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 107-116) Summary

It is a snowy January day as Gladney walks home. He sees Heinrich, in his camouflage, sitting on the ledge of the attic looking through binoculars at a train wreck in the distance. Gladney retrieves the fourteen-year-old boy from the ledge, but later the boy hears sirens and returns to his perch with a radio and a highway map.

The derailed tanker was carrying Nyodene Derivative/Nyodene D; Heinrich saw a movie in school about toxic waste and remembers this chemical causes “urgent bumps” in rats. The initial news reports warn about the “feathery plume of smoke” causing skin irritation and sweaty palms, but the reports are now warning about nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. The black cloud of smoke rising...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 117-125) Summary

Twenty minutes after the loudspeaker’s warning, the Gladneys are in the car. The radio announcer says all evacuees from the west end of town are to go to the abandoned Boy Scout camp, where Red Cross workers would provide coffee and juice; those leaving the east end of town should report to the Kung Fu Palace restaurant.

The Gladneys join the procession heading for the camp. Behind them, they hear the loudspeaker’s warning: “Abandon all domiciles. Now, now. Toxic event, chemical cloud.”

Snow begins to fall and the Gladneys are silent as they attempt to assimilate what is happening to them. They examine the faces of the people in the vehicles next to them, trying to gauge how frightened they should...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 126-135) Summary

At the Boy Scout camp, some families choose to sleep in their cars; others are forced to do so because there is no more room. The Gladneys are in one of the barracks, a dismal place made cheerier by the presence of other refugees and their belongings as well as the helpful Red Cross workers. It feels like a safe place to be.

Gladney walks the room seeking information; he learns there are nine evacuation centers and that the governor is on his way to the site. He is surprised to find Heinrich at the center of a cluster of other people seeking information; the boy, “speaking in his new-found voice,” is sharing his technical knowledge and his “morbid delight” about the impending calamity. The impressed crowd moves...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 136-149) Summary

The evacuation worker tells Gladney that they will all know more about the effects of his exposure to Nyodene D in fifteen years; until then, he “definitely has a situation.” Nyodene D has a life of thirty years, so in fifteen years Gladney will have made it halfway. The man says if he were a rat, he would not have liked to be exposed to the toxic chemical; however, since the long-term effects on humans are unclear, he would ignore the computer’s assessment and go on to live a productive, happy life.

Gladney is not comforted; he knows he is the sum total of his data and feels as if he is already dead. He wishes he had his dark glasses and academic robe.

He needs a distraction, so he sits behind Babette...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 150-156) Summary

Gladney feels as if he has slept for only a few moments before he is awakened by noise and commotion in the barracks. Denise is pounding on his torso to wake him; once he is up, she tries to wake Babette, as well. Everyone around them is dressing and packing and a bell is clanging a warning. The wind has changed and everyone must evacuate.

Now both girls are pounding on Babette, but she simply rolls over contentedly and asks for five more minutes. Outside, the “amplified voice” continues to warn that the toxic cloud has changed direction; Wilder eats a cookie and waits. Denise is frustrated at the repetitive voice and at her mother, who is so slow to respond.

Finally the girls get their mother up on all...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 22 Summary

The supermarket in Blacksmith is full of elderly people looking lost and confused, like inmates walking aimlessly through institutional corridors. Gladney pushes Wilder in a cart, and the boy is captivated by the brightly colored items practically screaming at them from the shelves.

The addition of a butcher’s corner and a bakery is exciting for all of them, and the other exciting news is why the market is full of shoppers: heavy snow is on its way. Roads will soon be impassable, so everyone must stockpile their supplies before it is too late. He sees his friend Siskind with a Teflon skillet under his arm, talking to five shoppers and awkwardly taking notes.

Siskind tells Gladney that he is thankful for...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 23 Summary

Gladney feels an urgency to learn German, so he asks his German teacher to add an extra half hour to each lesson. Gladney does well with the vocabulary and grammar rules, and if he were given a written test, he would score well. He still struggles with pronunciation, however; Dunlop does not seem to mind and ceaselessly enunciates words for (and emits motes of spit on) his pupil. Now they meet three days a week, and Dunlop seems to have lost some of his reticence.

Men in Mylex suits still patrol the town. Although the citizens of Blacksmith welcome the dogs, the men in suits remind them of their trouble and fear. At dinner, Denise wonders why the men do not dress in regular clothes; Babette assures her that they only...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 24 Summary

The next night Gladney inadvertently discovers the Dylar; it is in a plastic bottle taped to the underside of the bathroom radiator cover. He immediately gets Denise and they carefully examine the evidence. They leave the bottle intact and go to Denise’s room to talk privately.

Denise says that if confronted by the evidence, Babette will simply claim forgetfulness; Gladney wants to find out what Dylar is. At Christmastime, Denise went to three drugstores and tried to do that. None of them had ever heard of Dylar and found nothing about it when they looked it up in their lists.

Gladney will call Babette’s doctor at home, where he cannot hide behind answering services, receptionists, or nurses; Denise...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 25 Summary

Gladney examines the small, white Dylar tablet before giving it to Winnie Richards, a young, brilliant research neurochemist. Richards examines the tablet for several minutes before licking it and shrugging, saying it does not have much taste. She tells Gladney to check back with her in 48 hours, but he cannot find her anywhere on campus for the entire rest of the week.

Denise is careful not to ask Gladney anything about the Dylar and does not even give him a look that might convey any meaning; however, every look Babette gives now seems to have some kind of meaning. In the middle of conversations, she turns her attention to other things and appears to be in serious contemplation of them. These private reveries estrange...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 26 Summary

That night Gladney quietly forces Babette to talk about the Dylar, explaining what he knows about the drug. Denise is worried too and will be much more confrontational than Gladney is. After five minutes of silence, Babette quietly asks to tell the story in her own way. Gladney says they have all night.

About a year and a half ago, Babette began to experience an unnamed condition and assumed it was a phase that would pass. Once she realized it was not going away on its own, she tried to break it down into manageable segments and attempted to cure those—all while trying to hide her research from the curious and persistent Denise. Her studying yielded nothing helpful and her condition did not improve; however, one day...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 27 Summary

Gladney goes for his second medical checkup since the airborne toxic event and for the second time is pronounced healthy; evidently the “death is too deep to be glimpsed.” On his drive home, he is stopped because the street is closed for a disaster simulation; one of the workers explains that since Gladney is in the exposure path, he is now dead. Nearly two dozen volunteer victims are in various poses of distress, and Gladney is shocked to see Steffie among them. Steffie is a model victim—too good, in Gladney’s mind, for he can hardly bear to look at her. She wants Gladney to leave before she gets in trouble for talking to him. Steffie has always been devout in her victimhood.

A man’s voice is booming from...

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Part 3, Chapters 28 Summary

Steffie, one of the many volunteer victims who never got help in the disaster simulation, finally returns home. She receives a letter from her mother; she wants Steffie to go visit her in Mexico City for Easter. Gladney explains that he will drop her off at the airport and her mother will meet her at the other end; the idea of going to a foreign country, flying thirty thousand feet above the ground at supersonic speed, and doing it all alone is sobering for the nine-year-old.

After a few moments of thought, Steffie claims she promised to serve as a volunteer victim again just before Easter, so she cannot go. Gladney says he will write her an excuse. Dana Breedlove, Steffie’s mother, was Gladney’s first and fourth...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 29 Summary

Babette and Gladney are shopping at the supermarket. They see a family shopping in sign language and Gladney keeps seeing brightly colored lights. The couple now routinely asks one another how each of them are doing. Gladney says he feels good and his doctor has confirmed that nothing is wrong with him. When he wants to go to another aisle for an item, Babette will not let him go without her; she does not want to be left alone, and he should know that.

Gladney is certain the two of them will make it through this crisis and perhaps be even stronger than ever. They are each “determined to be well.” Babette is a positive, affirming person who gets things accomplished; nevertheless, they walk each aisle together. She...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 30 Summary

In the dark that night, Gladney cannot sleep because he is filled with panic, the “old defenseless feeling.” Gladney feels small and weak, alone and bound for death. He wakes up Babette (not an easy feat) and tells her he has to know the true identity of Mr. Gray, the man with whom she slept and did research. He is not angry and claims to have a sense of perspective about this, but he wants to try Dylar to see if it will relieve him of his horrific fears. Babette refuses to tell him, but he begs her to arrange a meeting so he can plead his case to the researcher. Still she refuses.

In his office that afternoon, he watches the science building until he sees Winnie Richards slinking her secretive way across campus;...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 31 Summary

No one wants to cook that night, so the Gladneys go to a restaurant specializing in chicken parts and brownies and then eat in their car. Eating is something they need to do, but they take no joy in it tonight, and they certainly do not need to make eye contact or conversation. All eating stops as the family conducts another inane, disjointed, and factually flawed discussion, this time about space.

The conversation eventually changes to weather, and Babette claims Russian psychics are to blame for the “crazy weather.” There has been no crazy weather, but this week a policeman saw a body tossed from a UFO and later the body of an unidentified man was discovered. The cause of death was multiple fractures and heart...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 32 Summary

Gladney and Siskind walk companionably across campus. Gladney’s hands are folded monkishly under his robe and across his abdomen. They discuss Gladney’s progress in learning German. Howard Dunlop is teaching Gladney some opening remarks for the convention, but there is something about the man which makes Gladney uneasy. Siskind lists several aspects of the man which make him uneasy, and Gladney agrees.

Dunlop’s skin is too soft, he has dried saliva in the corners of his mouth, looks at people over their shoulders, and walks rigidly even though he shuffles when he walks; but there is something even worse. Gladney is certain Siskind will be able to identify what has been eluding Gladney, but Siskind just...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 33 Summary

Gladney wakes unexpectedly to find Wilder silently staring at him. When the boy turns and leaves the room, Gladney follows him and discovers a white-haired man sitting in a wicker chair in the back yard. He wonders what he is seeing until he realizes Wilder is no longer standing next to him; he finds his son sleeping soundly in his own bed. The man is still outside, unmoving, and Gladney is certain Death has come for him in the form of this man.

He tries to do things to take his mind off his fear, but finally he decides the best way to keep death from entering his house is to go outside to meet him. Gladney looks in on his children before he goes outside, wondering if they will see his death as yet another divorce in...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 34 Summary

Gladney and Siskind walk downtown, and Siskind is enamored of the orderliness of diagonal parking, something quite peaceful compared to the aggressive front-to-back parking rampant in the cities. Blacksmith’s main street buildings are old and quiet, two-story and ordinary like most pre-war buildings. They make Gladney think of Albert Speer’s Law of Ruins. Speer wanted every structure he built to “decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins.” In this way, the ruin is built into the creation. Siskind is unimpressed with everyone’s nostalgia but his own.

The weather has turned humid, and Gladney finds himself in the house alone one day. He looks into the trash compactor, certain that the bag must have been...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 35 Summary

Babette is obsessed with talk radio; she also wears her sweat suit everywhere and spends as much time as she can with Wilder. She is no longer the “healthy, outgoing” woman she used to be. Her fear of death has not dissipated, and it is fine with her that Wilder is talking even less now than he used to you (she says there are enough words already). Denise is worried about her mother, even refusing to let Babette leave the house without every exposed patch of skin being slathered in sunscreen. Babette insists that the worst of the sun’s rays are direct; since she is a runner, she is not likely to receive many direct hits from the sun. Denise is dumbstruck at Babette’s thinking, but Babette believes everything is connected to...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 36 Summary

Occasionally, Gladney thinks about the gun his father-in-law gave him, now hidden in the bedroom. It is warmer now, and when he walks down the street he can hear everything the women inside are saying as they talk on the telephone. One night Gladney gets a collect call from Mother Devi (Heinrich’s mother, Janet); she wants to know if Heinrich will be joining her at the ashram this summer. Gladney will let his son go if he wishes, but he does not want Heinrich to be sucked into the philosophy she has espoused. Later Gladney wonders if Janet’s swami has the answers to Heinrich’s questions, the questions Gladney cannot answer.

Delegates for the Hitler conference are arriving. The ninety participants will spend three...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 37 Summary

At noon, Gladney and Siskind begin walking and talking about death. Gladney says he is “just going through the motions” of living but is “technically dead.” An insecticide byproduct has created in him a nebulous mass, and it is a “shallow, unfulfilling” thing from which to die. Gladney thinks this death is unfair and premature. Despite Siskind’s urging him to loftier thoughts, Gladney’s only true regret is death itself. There is only one consideration: he wants to live.

Siskind asks for clarification, and Gladney assures him that he would be just as reluctant to die if he had lived a long, accomplished life. Siskind tells Gladney he is in the unique position to be able to speak of death with a certain...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 38 Summary

That night Gladney tells Babette that Siskind thinks the problem is that people who fear death are no good at suppressing their fears. Babette is confused, as they have been told for years that repression causes “tension, anxiety, unhappiness; a hundred diseases and conditions.” People are supposed to talk about their fears and “get in touch with their emotions.” Siskind disagrees, believing repression is something that differentiates people from animals. It may be crazy, but Gladney says it is the only way to survive.

The next day, Gladney begins to carry his gun with him to school. It is always with him, in his jacket or in his desk drawer, and it gives him a sense of power. This is something he can control,...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 39 Summary

Gladney plans to find Willie Mink (Mr. Gray), shoot him three times, create a suicide scene, take the Dylar, drive back to Blacksmith, hide the car, and walk home. He looks in the motel window, the latent violence “a smashing intensity” inside him.

Gladney enters the motel room and faces a man dressed in a Hawaiian-print shirt and Budweiser shorts. The man does not look away from the television screen as he asks whether Gladney is “heartsick or soulsick.” Eventually he looks at Gladney and says he must be here for Dylar, the same thing for which others have come. It soon becomes apparent to Gladney that this former genius has become nothing but a pill-taking drug dealer who has lost touch with most of reality....

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 40 Summary

Wilder gets on his tricycle and rides around the block until he reaches the dead-end street, where he walks his tricycle around the guard rail. His ride continues along a walkway which winds past several overgrown lots until it reaches a set of twenty concrete stairs. The rest of the astonishing account is told by two older women who were watching from the second-story back porch of one of the tall houses nestled in the trees.

They see the boy walk his tricycle carefully down the stairs until he reaches the bottom; there he remounts and rides across the street and onto the grassy area bordering the expressway. The concerned women begin to call Wilder, rather tentatively, until they see he plans to pedal diagonally down...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Lori Steinbach, Ed. Scott Locklear