May’s Book of the Month: White Noise

“A brilliant satire of mass culture and the numbing effects of technology, White Noise tells the story of Jack Gladney, a teacher of Hitler studies at a liberal arts college in Middle America. Jack and his fourth wife, Babette, bound by their love, fear of death, and four ultramodern offspring, navigate the rocky passages of family life to the background babble of brand-name consumerism. Then a lethal black chemical cloud, unleashed by an industrial accident, floats over their lives, an “airborne toxic event” that is a more urgent and visible version of the white noise engulfing the Gladneys—the radio transmissions, sirens, microwaves, and TV murmurings that constitute the music of American magic and dread.” [Amazon: Description and photo].

  1. Do you find it believable that Heinrich (Jack Gladney’s 14-year-old son) can form the kinds of ideas he does and express them so clearly? Why would DeLillo specifically want to express such complicated ideas through Heinrich?
  2. What overall point is the eccentric Murray Siskind trying to communicate to Jack in this book? Is there an overall point?
  3. Stylistically, what does DeLillo accomplish by constantly quoting the television or car radio that’s always playing in the background of Jack’s family conversations? What point does DeLillo make by including these quotations?
  4. Why does Murray take Jack out of town to visit the “Most Photographed Barn in America”? What is it about this barn that makes people photograph it? How is the barn a symbol for the America DeLillo is sketching in this book?
  5. Why is death such a looming presence in this book? Why does Jack Gladney tell his Hitler Studies class, “All plots tend to move deathward” (6.51)? Does this statement hold true for plots in novels? Plots in life? Why or why not?
  6. How does being exposed to the “Airborne Toxic Event” change Jack Gladney’s life? In what way is his life the same as it always was?
  7. On a symbolic level, how might Babette’s forgetfulness be connected to the experimental drug Dylar? What might DeLillo be trying to tell us about our efforts to erase death from our minds?
  8. Why does DeLillo end the book with the description of Wilder crossing the highway on his tricycle? How does this scene tie together the themes DeLillo’s been exploring throughout White Noise? Does it succeed?
  9. Why does it take DeLillo achieve by starting the book so slowly? When does the traditional plot really get started?

[Questions from Shmoop]

What form(s) of Literary Theory(ies) would you use and why? Use excerpts from the novel to back your theory(ies).

  • Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-present)
  • Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelian Criticism (1930s-present)
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism(1930s-present)
  • Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)
  • Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)
  • Structuralism/Semiotics (1920s-present)
  • Post-Structuralism/Deconstruction (1966-present)
  • New Historicism/Cultural Studies (1980s-present)
  • Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)
  • Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)
  • Gender/Queer Studies (1970s-present)
  • Critical Race Theory (1970s-present)

[List of Literary Theories from Purdue OWL]

Links to articles dealing with Don Delillo’s “White Noise.”

The Guardian

The New York Times


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