White Noise Part 1, Chapter 20 Summary

Don DeLillo

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 first, although she is convinced nothing bad can happen to them because they still have small children living in their house. Gladney claims he wants the same thing and would be inconsolably lonely without Babette. Later, however, he acknowledges to himself the truth: though he would be desperately lonely without his wife, he would rather not die first. Their discussion about death and dying continues long into the night.

After Babette leaves to teach her posture class to adults, Siskind comes over to the Gladneys to continue his research by observing the children. Heinrich and his father discuss the merits of tea (which Heinrich prefers) and coffee (which Gladney prefers), and Heinrich wishes Babette would switch from drinking coffee to drinking tea. Heinrich lectures his father about all the energy he wastes by being so inefficient as he makes a cup of coffee. Gladney does not understand such an argument.

When Gladney takes coffee to Siskind (who is observing the children), they are all shocked to see Babette’s face suddenly appear on the television screen. It is such an unexpected sight that it takes them a few moments to realize she is being interviewed about her posture class held in the basement of the church. There is no effective sound to accompany the video, but her class is obviously being televised by a local cable channel. They are all rather mesmerized by the scene, and Gladney claims Babette’s image is somehow being diffused into them through the television.

Siskind continues taking notes as he observes each child’s reactions. Wilder does not know what to do with what he is seeing and tentatively touches the screen in confusion. When Babette’s face disappears from the screen, the girls are excited and run downstairs to greet Babette when she gets home from her class. Wilder sits alone next to the television screen and cries softly.