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.
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 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, 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...
(The entire section is 1,478 words.)