Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
In White Noise, the characters themselves announce the themes—death, the nature of reality, government conspiracies, the possibility of happiness in contemporary America—and then analyze them through their thoughts and especially through their conversations throughout the novel. White Noise is, therefore, as much a symposium or colloquy as it is a traditional realistic novel.
The various themes and conflicts in the novel can be summed up in one question: Why are modern people so unhappy? No character in the novel suffers from hunger or poverty. The novel begins and ends, in fact, in a context of material comfort and plenitude. The opening scene of parents helping their sons and daughters unload their belongings in preparation for the first days of college makes Jack uneasy and leads Babette to think of death. The last scene takes place in a supermarket with shelves laden with items that the characters certainly have the wherewithal to purchase; because the shelves have recently been rearranged, however, the shoppers are unsettled to the point of neurosis and desperation.
One problem with American life may be that people mistakenly believe that their problems are idiosyncratically modern and American. They try to invent new remedies, such as psychoanalysis, space-age drugs, and self-indulgent material goods, for afflictions that are not new at all. White Noise is replete with imagery connecting the present and the...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
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Various problems of communication form the core of the narrative of White Noise. The most dramatic problem is that the whole community is menaced by a cloud of undetermined origin — perhaps poisonous, or carcinogenic, but certainly a pollutant — which triggers a massive evacuation. Clearly there is neither a comprehensive nor a coherent evacuation plan for the community, and so random movement becomes the self-defeating norm. Within this context, the difficult relationships among the members of the family of the narrator — a remarried father whose second wife also has several children from a previous marriage — become more and more problematic. The narrator begins with a strong affirmation of continuity and with some confidence in the ability of the usual arrangements to sustain order. He describes the arrival of his students — he is a college professor — at the beginning of the new semester, and further evokes the "authority" of the meter maid and the homey posters on telephone poles for lost pets and other trivia. As the title suggests, this is a novel about the sharp contrast between the usual flow of meaningless information (white noise) and the sudden eruption of "facts" that rivet the attention of anyone not hypnotized by the usual flow. The general breakdown of communication in a context in which every detail is as important as every other detail, and the need to find a basis for distinguishing among the important and the trivial elements of...
(The entire section is 298 words.)