Themes and Meanings

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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 past. The black cloud issuing from the train derailment, for example, reminds Jack of a Norwegian death ship. Jack, his family, and the others fleeing the cloud are not, he realizes, much different from refugees of ages past. Jack is not the only one to make such a connection. His son Heinrich laments or enthuses (it is not always possible to tell with Heinrich) that they seem to have been plunged back into the Stone Age. Later, a fellow refugee complains that they have all been quarantined like lepers in the Middle Ages.

Jack and the others concern themselves with death, love, infidelity, the fear of the unknown, and the question of what is knowable. These are problems and issues that have plagued humanity since Adam met Eve. If the problems seem worse today, it is not because the issues have changed—death is death, after all—but because people seem to have convinced themselves that the afflictions of the human heart, body, and spirit can be addressed and assuaged by modern technology.

The characters in White Noise are surrounded by things that consume their time, energy, and hope but ultimately do no good. Television and radio bombard them with information that is of no real value. The computers that supposedly have transformed the world cannot save it from regressing to the Stone Age. Babette’s Dylar may be a wonder drug, but it does not save her from fear of death. If modern people are more unhappy than their predecessors, it is because disillusionment—with themselves and with the sparkling edifice of modernity—has been added to the age-old infirmities of humanity.

Social Concerns / Themes

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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...

(This entire section contains 298 words.)

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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 experience, constitute the major concerns of this novel. People who should be able to speak meaningfully to each other — wives and husbands, parents and children, teachers and students — are unable to cross the gap created by the "noise" of contemporary sensory overload. The dissolution of family and community is portrayed, but the solution of the problem is not even suggested.

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