The Characters

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One of the principal philosophical conclusions of White Noise is that people act less than they are acted upon, as victims of forces beyond their control or knowing. Appropriately, Jack, the central character, does very little in the novel. His one dramatic action is to shoot Willie Mink, but this has no more practical effect on the direction of the novel than the tossing of a pebble has on the course of a river. Jack sees, listens, thinks, and comments, but there is little that he can do. Mostly, he thinks about death and chaos in reference to himself, his family, and ultimately American society.

Babette broadens and intensifies the emotional impact of themes that Jack, early in the novel, considers mostly in the abstract. When it is discovered that the apparently normal Babette has been taking drugs (at the expense of giving herself to the contemptible Willie Mink), for example, Jack realizes that her fears are symptomatic of life in modern America.

Similarly, their nine-year-old daughter Steffie’s precocious knowledge of pharmaceuticals and health matters indicates her to be a budding Babette. At some point in the future she will become obsessed with death, if she is not already.

Her half-brother Heinrich serves a similar, although more complex, function. Like Steffie, he is precociously aware of the intricacies of modern technological society, his field of expertise being science and the media. Whereas Steffie is vigilant in protecting herself and her parents against potential harm, Heinrich is fascinated with and more a product of his culture. In one funny and disturbing scene, Heinrich and his father argue for three pages whether it is raining. Heinrich refuses to acknowledge what his senses clearly tell him because the radio weather report said that it would not rain until later in the day.

Murray Jay Siskind is involved in none of the major scenes in the novel, but he provides the reader, through his conversations with Jack, with insights into popular American culture. The scene in which Jack and Murray simultaneously lecture to a class on the lives of Hitler and Elvis, for example, is a comic and thought-provoking masterpiece.

Lecherous, amoral, rodent-like Willie Mink is modern society sunk to its sleazy, wretched low. He serves as a marker of the depths of American culture and morals.

Because contemporary culture is so vividly and convincingly rendered, DeLillo’s characters impress the reader with their individual realities. Their most important function, however, is to represent certain thematic positions or reactions to various aspects of modern society. They are less actors than voices in a symposium on life and death in America.

Characters Discussed

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Jack A. K. Gladney

Jack A. K. Gladney, the narrator. Fifty years old, Jack enjoys his academic success as founder and chair of the unique Hitler studies department at the College on the Hill in Blacksmith, a pastoral Midwestern town. Not a German speaker, he takes German lessons so that he will not make a fool of himself at a planned international conference on Hitler studies. Jack appears happy with his fifth wife, Babette, and his children and stepchildren, but he suffers an unease in his materialist and consumerist world of shopping malls, supermarkets, and television, all products of technology. In particular, he finds in them no solace for his great fear of death. Jack’s obsession with death intensifies when he suffers from a technological disaster that exposes him to Nyodene D., a toxic agent. Jack’s concern about death causes him to throw out many of his possessions and search out the inventor of Dylar, a medication that might cure his fear of...

(This entire section contains 796 words.)

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death. Denied the medication and told that it is a failure, Jack shoots its inventor, Mr. Gray, but also shoots himself. Neither dies.

Babette Gladney

Babette Gladney, Jack’s current wife, the mother by her earlier marriages of Denise and Steffie. In addition to her family roles, Babette is a jogger, reads tabloids to the blind Old Man Treadwell, and lectures adults on good posture. Babette is very forgetful but denies to Jack and Denise that she is taking any medication that causes this. Because of her great fear of death, she commits adultery with Mr. Gray, the inventor of Dylar, so that she take the drug. The drug, however, fails her.

Murray J. Siskind

Murray J. Siskind, a former New York sportswriter. Appointed visiting lecturer on living icons at the College on the Hill in the popular culture department, he befriends Jack. Siskind then enlists Jack in his dream of establishing an Elvis studies department, and in their discussions they discover similarities between Hitler and Elvis. Siskind seems to find meaning in consumerism and enjoys teaching a seminar on car crashes in films. He and Jack take long walks and have long discussions, frequently about death.

Heinrich Gerhardt Gladney

Heinrich Gerhardt Gladney, Jack’s fourteen-year-old son from his first marriage. Heinrich, named when Jack was beginning his Hitler studies department, is a student of science who talks mostly about environmental hazards. He challenges any statement of certainty and any possibility of knowing any truth.

Denise Gladney

Denise Gladney, Babette’s eleven-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage. Denise is generally critical of her mother’s behavior. She confronts Babette about her forgetfulness and conspires with Jack to find out what medication Babette is hiding from them.

Steffie Gladney

Steffie Gladney, Babette’s younger daughter from an earlier marriage. When Babette chews gum in place of the cigarettes she has given up, Steffie lectures her on the health dangers of chewing gum. She is obsessed with health.

Wilder

Wilder, a preschool-age child from Jack’s fourth marriage. Wilder’s innocence comforts his mother and stepfather. He is large-headed and small of body. He disturbs them with a long crying spell for which they can find no cause. At the book’s end, Wilder rides his plastic tricycle safely across a major highway in a miraculous escape from death.

Howard Dunlop

Howard Dunlop, Jack’s German teacher. As he gives lessons in his boardinghouse room, his behavior becomes increasingly odd. When he becomes a reminder of death, Jack discontinues his lessons.

Old Man Treadwell

Old Man Treadwell, an elderly blind man who lives alone but enjoys being read to from tabloids. He and his sister, Gladys, disappear and are found in the shopping mall, where they have been lost for four days.

Winnie Richards

Winnie Richards, a secretive young researcher at the College on the Hill. She has a reputation of moving around the campus without being seen on the walkways or in her office. She helps Jack when he is trying to find out what Dylar is.

Mr. Gray

Mr. Gray, also called Willie Mink, a mysterious project manager of Dylar experimentation who seduces Jack’s wife before giving her the medication. His office is in the Roadway Motel, in the Germantown area of Iron City, where Jack shoots him.

Vernon Dickey

Vernon Dickey, Babette’s father. Dickey, a white-haired man, appears sitting in the yard and seems to Jack to be a figure of death. He gives Jack the German-made gun with which Jack later shoots Mr. Gray.

Bob Pardee

Bob Pardee, Babette’s former husband and Denise’s father. He raises funds for the Nuclear Accident Readiness Foundation.

Orest Mercator

Orest Mercator, Heinrich’s snake-handling friend. He trains to set a record sitting with dangerous snakes but fails the test.

Characters

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The central character of White Noise is Jack Gladney, a professor of "Hitler Studies" at an elite private college (somewhat like Sewanee, in that its faculty members wear academic garb to class, but located in a more urban area), and his wife and children. Gladney's profession offers many opportunities for satiric digs at the pretensions of contemporary academics (including a shot at a descendant of Endzone's Anatole Bloomberg, a neurotic Jewish intellectual called Murray Jay Siskind, who is a visiting professor in Jack's general area of popular culture), and provides a suitably ambivalent context in which the reader must attempt to evaluate the moral stance of the novel. In the course of the narrative, Gladney discovers that he knows little or nothing about his nearest relatives. His wife, apparently, has become addicted to prescription drugs without his knowing it; he cannot talk at all with several of his children; and his sense of his surroundings becomes increasingly uncertain as he tries to navigate the "evacuation route," which no one believes will be effective, though everyone seems to cooperate up to a point. The claustrophobic effect of the narrative increases as Jack becomes more aware of his isolation and inability to communicate. (One comic aspect of this inability is Jack's ignorance of the German language; as a professor of Hitler Studies, he is hosting a conference at which most of his colleagues will surely speak German. He tries frantically to learn the language before they arrive.)

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