White Noise describes an academic year in the life of its narrator, Jack Gladney, a college professor in a small
American town. The novel itself can be hard to follow, since Jack spends much of his time detailing seemingly
inconsequential conversations, and several events in the novel have no direct impact on the action of the story.
Despite these tangents, a general plotline emerges from the narrative.
Jack teaches at a school called the College-on-the-Hill, where he serves as the department chair of Hitler
studies. He lives in Blacksmith, a quiet college town, with his wife, Babette, and four of their children from
earlier marriages: Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder. Throughout the novel, various half-siblings and ex-
spouses drift in and out of the family’s home. Jack loves Babette very much, taking great comfort in her
honesty and openness and what he sees as her reassuring solidness and domesticity.
Jack invented the discipline of Hitler studies in 1968, and he acknowledges that he capitalizes on Hitler’s
importance as a historical figure, which lends Jack an air of dignity and significance by association. Over the
course of his career, Jack has consciously made many decisions in order to strengthen his own reputation and
add a certain heft to his personal identity: when he began the department, for example, he added an initial to
his name to make it sound more prestigious. Yet he is continually aware of the fact that his aura and persona
were deliberately crafted, and he worries about being exposed as a fraud. To his great shame, Jack can’t
speak German, so when a Hitler conference gets scheduled at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack secretly begins
taking German lessons.
Hitler studies shares a building with the American environments department, which is mainly staffed by what
Jack refers to as the “New York émigrés,” a tough, sarcastic group of men obsessed with American popular
culture. Jack befriends one of these professors, a former sportswriter named Murray Jay Siskind. Murray has
come to Blacksmith to immerse himself in what he calls “American magic and dread.” Murray finds deep
significance in ordinary, everyday events and locations—particularly the supermarket, which he claims
contains massive amounts of psychic data.
The majority of the novel is structured around two major plot points: the airborne toxic event, and Jack’s
discovery of his wife’s participation in an experimental study of a new psychopharmaceutical called Dylar.
One day, Jack finds his son Heinrich on the roof of the house, watching a billowing cloud of smoke rise into the
sky. Heinrich tells him that a train car has derailed and caught on fire, releasing a poisonous toxic substance
into the air. The entire town of Blacksmith is ordered to evacuate to an abandoned Boy Scout camp. While at
the evacuation camp, Jack learns that he’s been exposed to Nyodene D., a lethal chemical. The technician
tells Jack that the chemical lasts thirty years in the human body and that in fifteen years they’ll be able to give
him a more definitive answer about his chances for survival. Perhaps due to the vagueness of this explanation,
Jack becomes preoccupied with the idea that he has now been marked for death. The townspeople remain
evacuated from their homes for nine more days. After the toxic cloud disappears, the sunsets in Blacksmith
become shockingly beautiful.
Meanwhile, Babette’s daughter Denise discovers a vial of pills, labeled Dylar, which her mother has been
taking in secret. Babette evades both Denise’s and Jack’s inquiries, so Jack takes a pill to Winnie Richards, a
scientist at College-on-the-Hill. After analyzing the pill, Winnie tells Jack that the drug is an incredibly advanced
kind of psychopharmaceutical. Jack finally confronts Babette about the pills. In tears, she tells him that Dylar is
an experimental, unlicensed drug, which she believes can cure her of her obsessive fear of dying. In order to
get samples of the drug, Babette admits to having had an affair with the Dylar project manager, a man she
refers to only as Mr. Gray. In return, Jack confesses to Babette about his fatal Nyodene D. exposure. His fear
of death now greater than ever, Jack goes in search of Babette’s remaining Dylar pills, only to find that Denise
has thrown them all away.
Jack begins to have problems sleeping. He goes in for frequent medical checkups and becomes preoccupied
with clearing all the unused clutter out of his home. He stays awake late into the night to watch the children
sleep. One evening, Wilder wakes him up, and Jack finds his father-in-law, Vernon Hickey, asleep in the backyard. Vernon, a tough, aging handyman, has come by for a surprise visit. Before he leaves, Vernon
secretly gives Jack a handgun. Shortly afterward, Jack confides in Murray about his acute death fixation.
Murray proposes the theory that killing someone else can alleviate the fear of death. Jack begins to think of the
gun at odd moments, eventually bringing it to class with him one afternoon.
On his way home from campus, Jack runs into Winnie Richards, who tells him that she read an article on the
project manager responsible for Dylar. She tells Jack the man’s name, Willie Mink, and the approximate
location of the motel he’s now living in. Armed with his gun, Jack finds Willie Mink, disheveled and half-crazy,
in the same motel room where Mink conducted his affair with Babette. Jack plans to kill him, and, after a brief
conversation, he pulls out his gun and shoots Mink twice. In an attempt to make it look like a suicide, Jack
places the gun in Mink’s hand, only to be shot in the wrist by Mink a moment later. Overcome by a sense of
humanity, Jack drives Mink to the nearest hospital—which is run by atheist German nuns—and saves his life.
Jack returns home and watches the children sleep. Later that day, Wilder rides his tricycle across the highway
and miraculously survives, an event that finally allows Jack to let go of his fear of death and obsession with
health and safety hazards. Jack, Babette, and Wilder take in the spectacular sunsets from the overpass. Jack
closes the novel with a description of the supermarket, which has rearranged its aisles, throwing everyone into
a state of confusion.
Jack Gladney - Narrator of the novel, and the chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. Jack lives
in Blacksmith, a quiet college town, with his fourth wife, Babette, and four of their children from previous
marriages. Jack often worries that he will be found lacking or incompetent, and as such he surrounds himself
with things that make him look weighty and dignified by association. Jack, like every American, faces a
continuous barrage of health and safety warnings from such sources as the news media and the packaging on
the consumer goods he buys. Consequently, Jack is obsessed with the fear of his own death, a persistent
dread that becomes magnified by his exposure to a toxic substance. Jack loves his wife, Babette, deeply,
finding great comfort in her honesty and strength.
Jack Gladney is the narrator and principal character of White Noise. Jack suffers from two linked fears: the fear
of his own death, and the fear that he will be exposed as an essentially incompetent, insignificant man. As the
chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack shrouds himself in the distinguished, stately
trappings of a successful academic. He wears sweeping, dramatic robes whenever he’s on campus and refers
to himself professionally as J. A. K. Gladney. He builds his career around Adolf Hitler, capitalizing on Hitler’s
reputation as one of the most prominent figures of modern history. At the same time, Jack realizes that his own
professional persona is mostly fabricated. When establishing himself as an academic, he added a false initial
in order to give his name more weight and, in the process, subtly evoke the initials of John F. Kennedy,
another extremely important historical figure. Jack also feels like an intellectual fraud, since he has never
mastered even the rudimentary basics of the German language, despite his field of expertise.
Jack also suffers from an acute fear of dying. His study of Hitler speaks, in large part, to that fear: Hitler
represents death on an unfathomably large scale; in the face of the Holocaust, Jack’s own, individual death
seems insignificant and, therefore, manageable. However, his fear often threatens to overwhelm him,
especially when he becomes exposed to a toxic chemical called Nyodene D. The technicians inform him that
Nyodene D. remains in the human body for thirty years and that in fifteen years they will be able to give him
more specific figures about his chances for survival. Even though these figures are incredibly vague and, given
the fact that Jack is already middle-aged, don’t actually affect his life expectancy, Jack becomes increasingly
gripped by fear and anxiety.
Although the fear of death seems unwarranted, Jack’s worries grow in intensity. Jack’s unspoken fears speak
to greater anxieties at play in late twentieth-century America. An endless stream of white noise, both
technological and human, characterizes Jack’s life. As he wades through the never-ending currents of data
and chatter, Jack senses something larger, deeper, and more primal emanating from behind, or possibly
within, all the noise. Often, this unnamed entity fills Jack with dread, but just as often Jack—like Murray—finds
it wondrous and potentially transcendent. The experience of reading White Noise, with its constant digressions and seemingly pointless anecdotes, resembles Jack’s own experience of modern life, with its pulsating
interconnectedness and stream of stimuli.
Babette - Jack’s wife, and the mother of Wilder and Denise. Loving and caring, with a head of messy blond
hair, Babette's sturdy and guileless character proves highly reassuring to Jack, particularly given the secretive,
high-strung women he’s been married to in the past. Babette teaches adult education classes and reads to an
elderly blind man named Old Man Treadwell. Like her husband, Babette has a deep-seated, acute fear of
dying. She keeps this hidden from Jack and secretly begins participating in an experimental drug trial to
alleviate her fear. As the treatment progresses, she has frequent memory lapses and becomes increasingly
Babette, Jack’s fourth wife, is described as the quintessential loving mother and spouse. Slightly overweight,
with a head full of messy blond hair, Babette bakes cookies for the children, tells her husband everything, and,
in her free time, reads tabloids to the blind and teaches a course on posture to the elderly. In her apparent
honesty and sincerity, Babette contrasts with Jack’s previous wives, who were closed off and secretive. Jack
takes great comfort from Babette and the openness that characterizes their marriage. Babette, however, has
secretly been taking an experimental drug called Dylar. When first Denise and then Jack confront her about the
pills, Babette completely denies any knowledge of it. Only after Jack finds a pill and has it analyzed does
Babette confess that she has been sleeping with a doctor in exchange for Dylar, in the hopes that the drug
would relieve her own overwhelming fear of death. The shift in Babette’s personality, from open and loving to
evasive and cynical, reflects the novel’s pervasive concern with the fluctuating and unstable nature of identity.
Heinrich - Jack’s awkward, analytical fourteen-year-old son with Janet Savory. Heinrich is dispassionate and
skeptical and endlessly contradicts his father. Heinrich was born in the same year Jack founded the Hitler
studies department, and he was given a German name in honor of that event.
Willie Mink - Project manager responsible for the drug Dylar. Willie Mink conducts experimental tests of the
drug from his motel room, trading Dylar for sex. Willie remains a mysterious figure through most of the novel,
known only as “Mr. Gray.” When we finally encounter him in the last two chapters of the novel, Willie has gone
half-crazy and spends his days staring vacantly at a soundless television. Jack becomes fixated on Willie Mink,
partly because he wants revenge for Mink and Babette’s affair and party because he wants to obtain a supply
of Dylar for himself.
Willie Mink is a shadowy figure who makes a brief but significant appearance at the end of the novel. Long
before he actually appears in the text, we know of Willie Mink as Mr. Gray, the corrupt project manager behind
the drug Dylar. Mink has been carrying on an affair with Babette, who believes Dylar can alleviate her
overwhelming fear of dying. Willie Mink is both the center of Jack’s jealous rage and Jack’s only hope of
getting Dylar himself.
When Willie Mink finally does enter the story, he has already become a pathetic, half-crazed figure. Deranged
and debilitated, he personifies the corrupting influence of technological and media stimuli, the novel’s titular
white noise. Fixed in front of a soundless television, muttering phrases from old shows and commercials, Willie
Mink fills the narrative with his own white noise, or babblings. For Willie, the distinctions between real and
artificial have collapsed entirely, and he can no longer differentiate between the two. Willie Mink is the ultimate
casualty of this world of simulations, where characters live almost entirely under the illusions they create.
Murray Jay Siskind - One of several professors from New York who teach at the College-on-the-Hill. Murray
always speaks in an exaggerated academic style and is preoccupied with the deconstruction and analysis of
American popular culture. His ambition is to create a department devoted to studying Elvis, much like Jack’s
Hitler studies department.
A former sportswriter and current college professor, Murray Jay Siskind is one of the tough, media-obsessed
New York émigrés who teach in the American environments department at College-on-the-Hill. Like the other
émigrés, Murray is preoccupied with the iconography of American popular culture and dreams of someday
devoting himself to the study of Elvis. Murray makes no distinction between his scholarly and everyday lives.
He always uses highly academic, intellectualized language, and he constantly analyzes and deconstructs the mundane world around him. For Murray, analysis is romantic in that it allows him to elevate and celebrate the
seemingly insignificant. The supermarket, for example, reminds Murray of the Tibetan holding place for dead
souls. He believes that television emits enormous quantities of spiritual and psychic information, which people
don’t know how to read properly.
Murray is a satire of the postmodern college professor, who finds deeply significant meaning in everything—
particularly things that other people would consider shallow or irrelevant. Often, however, at the heart of
Murray’s lectures on television and consumerism lies an accurate, if perhaps somewhat extreme, perception of
the contemporary world. Beneath his deliberately constructed intellectual persona, complete with pipe and
corduroy jacket, Murray is prone to generalizations and stereotypes. Murray enjoys being contrary and pushing
other people’s buttons.
Howard Dunlop - Jack’s German teacher. Solitary and taciturn, Howard lives in the same boardinghouse as
Steffie - Jack’s seven-year-old daughter with Dana Breedlove. Steffie is far more sensitive than the other
children in her family and has trouble watching television shows where characters get hurt or humiliated.
Denise - Babette’s eleven-year-old daughter with Bob Pardee. Denise is a sharp, often bossy girl and
continually nags Babette about her health. She is the first person to notice her mother’s memory lapses, and
she discovers Babette’s secret supply of Dylar.
Orest Mercator - Heinrich’s friend, a nineteen-year-old senior at Heinrich’s high school. Orest wants to set a
new world record for sitting in a cage with poisonous snakes. He claims to be unafraid of dying, which Jack,
with his own powerful fear of death, finds fascinating.
Wilder - Babette’s six-year-old son, and the youngest child in the family. Wilder never speaks in the novel,
and periodically Jack worries about the boy’s slow linguistic development. Nevertheless, in his wordlessness,
he remains an essential source of comfort for both Jack and Babette. More than any of the other children,
Wilder seems genuinely open to the kind of “psychic data” Murray believes American children are privy to.
Wilder has an older full brother, Eugene, though their father remains unnamed in the novel.
Winnie Richards - Brilliant neuroscientist at the College-on-the-Hill. Winnie helps Jack learn about Dylar and
Willie Mink. Jack discovers that she is almost always impossible to find, since she goes out of her way to be
Sister Hermann Marie - Atheist German nun who treats Jack for his bullet wound. Sister Hermann Marie tells
Jack that she doesn’t believe in heaven but that she and the other nuns maintain the illusion of faith for the rest
of the world’s sake.
Vernon Dickey - Babette’s father. Vernon is a rough, good-natured man, seemingly unafraid of dying, who
works with his hands and knows how to build things. His skill and ability make Jack feel incompetent and less
masculine. Vernon drops by unexpectedly for a visit and gives Jack a loaded gun when he leaves.
Alfonse Stompanato - Chairman of the American environments department at the College-on-the-Hill.
Stompanato is a tough, imposing personality who, like Murray, is part of the college’s group of smart, caustic,
New York professors.
Bee - Jack’s pensive, twelve-year-old daughter from his marriage to Tweedy Bonner. Bee is a worldly,
cosmopolitan child, and in this regard she makes Jack highly self-conscious and uncomfortable.
Tweedy Bonner - Jack’s ex-wife, and Bee’s mother. Tweedy is remarried to a high-level jungle operative
named Malcolm Hunt. Tweedy visits with Jack for a while and confesses that Malcolm’s extended periods
spent living abroad under assumed identities make her anxious about her husband’s true identity. Dana Breedlove - Jack’s ex-wife, and Steffie’s mother. Dana is a contract agent for the CIA who conducts
covert drop-offs in Latin America. According to Jack, Dana liked to plot and often got him entangled in
domestic and faculty battles.
Janet Savory - Jack’s ex-wife, and Heinrich’s mother. Janet now lives in ashram and is known as Mother
Devi. Before that, however, she was a foreign-currency analyst for a secret group of advanced theorists.
Dimitros Cotsakis - One of the New York professors at the College-on-the-Hill. Dimitros is a large man and
former bodyguard. He is Murray’s principal competitor in Elvis studies, until he dies in a drowning accident.
Bob Pardee - Babette’s all-American ex-husband.
Tommy Roy Foster - A convicted killer serving time in a penitentiary. Heinrich plays chess with Tommy Roy
Foster via mail.
Sundar Chakravarty - Jack’s doctor.
Old Man Treadwell - Elderly blind man, to whom Babette reads tabloids. One day, Old Man Treadwell and his
sister, Gladys, go missing for several days. They are later discovered, lost and confused, in a shopping mall.
Gladys Treadwell - Sister of Old Man Treadwell. She dies soon after she and her brother get lost in a
shopping mall for several days.
Adele T. - A local psychic, called in by the police to help find the missing Treadwell siblings.
SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
PART 1: WAVES AND RADIATION
Summary: Chapter 1
Jack Gladney, the novel’s narrator, watches as packed station wagons full of returning students arrive at the
College-on-the-Hill’s campus. Jack has witnessed this annual event for twenty-one years, continually amazed
at the students’ excitement and the mannerisms of their affluent, contented parents. As Jack walks back to his
house, he describes the quaint town he lives in, with its old houses, its Gothic and Greek churches, and its
local insane asylum. Jack gives a brief history of his affiliation with the College-on-the-Hill. He is the chairman
of the department of Hitler studies, a discipline he invented in 1968.
Summary: Chapter 2
As he arrives at his home, Jack talks about his wife, Babette, a tall, ample woman with dirty blond hair. Jack
describes her as disheveled and tousled, which he says gives her the dignified air of being someone with more
important things to think about than her appearance. Jack lists Babette’s gifts to the world: she takes care of
the children, reads to a blind man named Old Man Treadwell, and teaches a course in adult education. Jack
finds great comfort in the open and capable Babette. She isn’t like his former wives, whom Jack describes as a
“self-absorbed and high-strung bunch, with ties to the intelligence community.”
Wilder, Denise, and Steffie—three of Jack and Babette’s children, all from different marriages—arrive in the
kitchen for lunch. Jacks says that the kitchen, along with the bedrooms, is the center of the house and the
Gladney family’s domestic activity. Heinrich, Jack’s eldest son, enters but then disappears without speaking to
the rest of the family. Denise chides her mother for buying healthy food and then failing to eat any of what she
buys. Jack defends his wife and describes Babette’s exercise routine for the reader. The smoke alarm goes off
during lunch, but the family doesn’t seem to react to it.
Summary: Chapter 3
Jack describes the sweeping, dramatic robes he wears while teaching, then describes his colleagues. Hitler
studies shares a building with the Popular Culture department, which is officially known as American
environments. The faculty of this department, headed by Alfonse (Fast Food) Stompanato, is mostly comprised
of what Jack calls “New York émigrés,” a tough, bitter, media-obsessed crowd of male professors. Murray Jay Siskind, a former sportswriter turned lecturer, is something of an exception to this characterization.
Over lunch, Murray tells Jack about living as a boarder in a rooming house and explains that he has come to
the small college town of Blacksmith to get away from the complications of city living. He admires what Jack
has done with Hitler studies and wants to do something similar for Elvis Presley.
A few days later, Jack and Murray take a drive into the country to visit the Most Photographed Barn in America.
They find a group of tourists there who are all taking notes, setting up their cameras, and snapping photos of
the barn. Murray argues that the barn isn’t significant in and of itself. Rather, the magic of this tourist attraction
is the fact that so many people have come together to see this building and thus have collected all their
energies in one location. The thousands of people who have seen this barn create an aura around the
otherwise inconsequential building. It is the aura that is powerful and moving, Murray happily declares, and that
aura is impossible to avoid or ignore.
Summary: Chapter 4
Jack meets Babette at the local high school, where she is running up and down the stadium steps. As he
watches her exercise, Jack lists the mundane details of their life together. He notes that throughout their
everyday activity and conversation, the question “Who will die first?” seems to constantly lurk in the
background. Jack wonders if the idea of death is simply part of love or whether death just hangs in the air we
breathe, like an inert gas. Sometimes, Jack thinks that the fear of death is what cures his marriage of its
That night, the whole family gathers to watch television. This activity is a Friday night ritual mandated by
Babette, who believes that turning television into a wholesome, domestic activity will deglamorize it and reduce
its damaging effects. The rest of the family finds it somewhat painful, particularly Steffie, who becomes very
upset whenever she sees someone shamed or humiliated on TV. It has become Jack’s custom to read books
by and about Hitler after these family viewings and to read late into Friday night.
Jack recalls one such Friday night, when he told Babette about how, when he founded Hitler studies in 1968,
the college chancellor advised him to purposefully construct a more powerful aura around himself so that he
could be taken more seriously as an academic. Jack added an initial to his name and started referring to
himself professionally as J. A. K. Gladney. His then-wife disapproved of his plan to grow a beard, but he did
begin wearing heavy-framed glasses with dark lenses. Jack notes that now he has become a false character
who simply follows his new name around.
Summary: Chapter 5
Jack expresses his fear that his life is moving too fast. In a quick succession of scenes, he recounts a single
day—from Babette’s reading of horoscopes at breakfast to a fragment of a commercial he heard after dinner,
and finally to a sudden, startling fear of dying that comes over him while he sleeps.
Jack and Babette run into Murray at the supermarket. Murray expounds on the wonders of generic packaging.
He notes the austerity of the plain white wrappers and how he somehow feels more spiritual when he buys
generic, as opposed to brand-name, products. As Babette moves to the frozen food aisle, Murray tells Jack
how extraordinary he finds Babette. The three leave the supermarket together, and Jack muses on how much
comfort and reassurance he finds in the supermarket. Jack and Babette find that the sheer number of brightly
colored products in their crowded bags lends their lives a sense of fullness.
Jack and Babette drop Murray off at the boarding house, as Jack notes how Murray has self-consciously
constructed a persona that, Murray believes, women will find attractive.
The opening chapters of White Noise introduce three themes that recur throughout the novel: the power of
appearances and imagery, the pervasiveness of consumerism, and the palpable but elusive presence of death
in the world.
The clique of New York émigrés represents one level of the novel’s fascination with images and surface
appearances. The faculty members study the iconography of popular culture, such as celebrities, soda bottles,
and cereal packaging. Murray wants to create a whole department around Elvis Presley, a rock-and-roll singer he finds as relevant and historically important as Hitler, one of the most awesomely powerful figures of the
twentieth century. The professors in the American environments department find this kind of cultural detritus
deeply significant, although many people would consider it worthless and banal. DeLillo doesn’t shy away from
the absurdity of the New Yorkers’ scholarship, but he also seems to acknowledge the validity of their
arguments. The enveloping “white noise” found in commercial jingles, pop songs, and television sitcoms
speaks to something deep and mysterious about American culture.
Jack is highly aware of the ways in which people, not in the least himself, manipulate surface images in order
to construct their identities. He suspects that Murray dresses in corduroy because it’s a fabric associated with
seriousness and higher learning. He believes that Murray self-consciously tries to cultivate an attractive air of
vulnerability, which, according to Jack, results in him looking more sneaky and underhanded than anything
else. Jack notes how Babette’s tousled, untidy appearance actually makes her seem very dignified, as if she
has better things to do than tend to her looks and her clothing. Jack, in turn, alters many aspects of his
appearance to present the illusion of having more depth and heft. Hitler is a hugely significant figure, and Jack
feels that he must be a more impressive character to match his subject. On the chancellor’s recommendation,
he adds an initial to his name and begins to wear heavy glasses. The image becomes part of his persona, but
it remains dissociated from him, and Jack begins to feel that the name J.A.K. Gladney is somehow more real
than he is himself.
One of the central locations in White Noise, the supermarket represents both the banality and the resonance of
capitalist consumerism. For Murray, the entire world is open to interpretation, and the supermarket in particular
holds a special place in his deconstructive analysis. Murray’s brief but expansive diatribe on the meaning of
generic foods is comical, but it marks one of the novel’s first attempts to establish the supermarket as a place
where the world’s vast mysteries can be decoded. As Jack, Babette, and Murray drive home, Jack feels a
sense of completeness rooted in the quantity of their purchases. Consumerism has the power to complete the
individual, and the supermarket stands at the center of that commodity-driven world.
The question “Who will die first?” is our first hint at Jack and Babette’s shared obsession with death. As Jack
notes, the question is a reversal of the traditional question “When will I die?”and shifts the burden of sadness
onto the living, rather than onto the person dying—and it is life, rather than death, that becomes a hardship. At
the same time, however, both Jack and Babette are ultimately concerned with their own deaths, and that fear,
not the fear of living on, drives their actions. The question will repeat throughout the novel like a refrain,
highlighting the role that sound and noise play in the novel’s treatment of death. The interconnectedness of
noise and death are also at play in the beginning of Chapter 5, when Jack rapidly recounts the events of a
single day. That day has four elements: listening to Babette read the family’s horoscopes, a drifting line from a
television program, the sound of blue jeans tumbling in the dryer, and Jack being jerked from sleep by a
sudden, physical fear of dying. The first three elements are all sonic, and though they appear to be unrelated to
Jack’s night spasm, they hover ominously around the event.
Summary: Chapter 6
Jack worries that Heinrich has a receding hairline. He wonders if this is his fault as the boy’s father or if toxins
in the air are to blame. As Jack drives Heinrich to school, Jack tries to initiate a mundane conversation about
the weather. Heinrich refuses to entertain Jack’s attempt and parries each of Jack’s comments with a deadpan
philosophical retort. As he watches Heinrich walk away from the car, Jack is suddenly seized by a desperate
love for his son, whom he feels has a strange way of attracting danger to himself.
In a movie theater on campus, Jack prepares a screening of a documentary for his Advanced Nazism seminar.
In the film, which has no narrator, Jack has collected excerpts from Nazi propaganda films, featuring long shots
of marches, meetings, and massive crowd scenes. At the end of the screening, a student asks Jack about the
plot to kill Hitler. Jack surprises himself by responding, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of
plots.” Later, he wonders if he actually believes his own proclamation.
Summary: Chapter 7
Twice a week, Babette teaches a posture class for the elderly in a church basement. Jack speculates that her
students feel they can ward off death through proper grooming, and he always finds himself surprised by the
faith Babette’s students put in her exercises. Jack walks Babette home from class, and when they arrive they fall into bed. They discuss what they’ll do that evening, and Babette offers to read him something sexy. Jack
considers how open and honest their relationship is. Jack and Babette tell each other everything, and, in that
retelling, Jack believes they not only draw closer to one another but also manage to distance themselves from
painful events in their past. Jack goes off in search of a trashy magazine from which Babette can read him
letters. Instead, he finds several old family albums. Jack and Babette look through the albums for hours, and
as they flip through the images, Jack once again finds himself wondering, “Who will die first?”
Summary: Chapter 8
Embarrassed by his inability to speak German, despite his position as chair of Hitler studies, Jack secretly
begins taking lessons from a man named Howard Dunlop, a reclusive, taciturn man who lives in Murray’s
boarding house. Jack has a hostile relationship with the German language, and he describes it as a harsh,
strange entity. When Dunlop speaks German, it seems to Jack that Dunlop transforms into an entirely different
being. Jack finds the language distasteful, but the College-on-the-Hill is hosting a Hitler conference the
following spring, and it would be incredibly shameful if it were revealed that the chairman of the department
couldn’t speak German.
After the lesson, Jack stops by Murray’s room and invites him over for dinner. Murray puts away his copy
of American Transvestite and puts on his corduroy jacket. On their way out of the house, Murray comments
that his landlord is a great handyman, then laments the landlord’s bigotry. Jack asks Murray why he thinks his
landlord is a bigot, and Murray responds that people who can fix things are always bigots.
Back at Jack’s house, a flurry of noise and activity awaits the two men, as Denise runs the trash compactor,
Heinrich talks on the phone, Babette enters the house from running, and Steffie repeats a radio program’s
admonishment to boil tap water before drinking. In the middle of all this sound, Wilder sits, happy and silent.
Jack surprises himself with the comment that “all plots tend toward death,” but the aphorism becomes a
resonant refrain in White Noise, much like the repeated question “Who will die first?” On the one hand, plots,
schemes, secrets, and conspiracies comprise a running motif throughout the novel. Murray and the other
American environments professors purport to find secret codes in the white noise of popular culture. Jack
notes that all his former wives were secretive and anxious and involved in espionage and foreign
intelligence. Babette, on the other hand, is open, guileless, and wholesome. Jack takes great comfort in her
honesty and forthrightness and often compares her to his guarded ex-wives. In marrying Babette, Jack has
rejected plots in favor of plain dealings. His surprising comment suggests that by rejecting his plotting ex-wives
and embracing an open life with Babette, Jack feels as if he is pushing away death itself, an important move
given his oft-expressed fear of death.
The word plot also resonates in a literary sense. At this point, White Noise exhibits no conventional sense of
plot. If anything, the narrative actively resists forming itself into a plot, as the novel circles and ambles with no
clear direction. Yet if it is true that all plots tend toward death, then perhaps Jack’s persistent fear of dying is
actively keeping the novel from settling into a schematic, logical plot structure. Language often features
in White Noise as a coping mechanism. Like the din of technology and human activity, language helps alleviate
the fear and anxiety at the heart of the human condition. As the narrator of the novel, Jack has the tools of
language and storytelling at his disposal. If death is what he fears, and all plots lead to death, then naturally
Jack’s own narrative would try to avoid having a plot.
The role of the German language in these chapters develops a few different themes. The fact that Jack,
despite being an expert in Hitler studies, cannot speak German presents an embarrassing contradiction to his
carefully constructed academic persona. Of course, a strong command of German would be necessary in
order to truly study the documents and artifacts of Nazi Germany. The fact that Jack lacks this skill further
demonstrates Jack’s interest in the cultural myths that surround Hitler in Jack’s English-speaking world, rather
than in the historical despot himself. In addition, the German language is presented as a dark, foreboding
entity, but one that is ambiguous about the danger it evokes. When Howard Dunlop begins to speak German,
Jack notes that there is a “scrape and gargle that sounded like the stirring of some beast’s ambition” and that
there were “harsh noises damp with passion.” The language represents something primordial and primitive to
Jack, something that he discerns as lying at the very base of human existence. Jack’s inability to connect with
German may suggest his inability, as a modern man living in a mechanized age, to connect with a primal, natural state of being. As the novel progresses, Jack will become increasingly aware of a nameless, ancient
sound lying behind the white noise of modern life.
Jack’s concerns about the potential toxins in the environment and the air of danger that surrounds his son
foreshadow some of the events that will occur later in the novel. In addition, these concerns add an element of
depth and humanity to both Jack and Heinrich, which highlights their emotional bond as father and son. Jack’s
moment of concern comes directly after he and Heinrich have engaged in a highly theoretical, comically absurd
argument about the weather. Straightforward and heartfelt, Jack’s desire to protect his son contrasts with the
ironic, abstracted attitude he previously displayed. While much of the novel functions more as collections of
witty dialogue than as dialogue between fully-realized characters, moments like these highlight the fact
that White Noise remains deeply concerned with the emotional dimensions of the human condition.
Summary: Chapter 9
Denise and Steffie’s grade school is evacuated because children and teachers are exhibiting mysterious
symptoms like headaches, eye irritations, and the taste of metal in their mouths. One teacher starts rolling on
the floor and speaking in foreign languages. The school closes for a week while inspectors do a sweep of the
building. The inspectors’ suits are made of Mylex, a substance that confounds their detection equipment,
rendering the results ambiguous and inconclusive.
While the girls are home from school, Jack, Babette, Wilder, and the girls take a trip to the supermarket. There,
they run into Murray once again, and Jack notes that he’s seen Murray in the supermarket as many times as
he’s seen him on campus. Jack listens to the din of the supermarket and thinks he can detect a strain of noise
coming from within the human clamor: something dull and unlocatable, just beyond his perception.
Jack and Steffie walk down the aisles, and she tells Jack that Denise has been reading the Physician’s Desk
Reference to find information about a drug Babette has been taking. Jack says he knows nothing about any
In another part of the store, Murray helps Babette push her loaded cart and talks about the Tibetan philosophy
of death. He tells Babette that he finds that the noises, colors, and psychic energy of the supermarket
spiritually recharge him. Supermarkets contain untold amounts of hidden symbolism, he tells her, and reading
the symbols is only a matter of learning how to peel back the layers of inscrutability. Babette nods, smiles, and
shops her way through Murray’s lecture on dying. Wilder disappears briefly into someone else’s cart but is
As they check out, Murray awkwardly invites Jack and Babette over for dinner, which they accept. In the
parking lot, Jack and Babette hear a rumor that one of the Mylex-suited investigators died during the school
Summary: Chapter 10
As Jack observes the student body at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack feels that he can actually see the college’s
high tuition reflected in the students’ bearing and the particular ways they sit, stand, and walk. To Jack, the
students’ mannerisms signal a shared membership in some kind of secret fellowship, determined by their
At home, Denise chastises her mother for her gum-chewing habits. Denise lists the many potentially harmful
effects of gum, such as its tendency to cause cancer in rats. Denise tells her mother that she can’t chew gum
anymore and, in the course of their argument, brings up the memory lapses that Babette has been having
Upstairs, Jack finds Heinrich studying moves for a chess game he plays via mail with a convicted killer named
Tommy Roy Foster. Heinrich describes their correspondence and tells Jack that Foster committed the crime
because he wanted to go down in history. Now, however, Foster realizes that shooting a few random people in
a tiny town wasn’t enough to guarantee him fame, and if he could do it all again, he would just assassinate one
famous person. Jack comments that he won’t go down in history, either, and Heinrich comments that Jack, at
least, has Hitler, while Tommy Roy Foster has nothing. Jack and Heinrich discuss the fact that Heinrich’s
mother wants him to visit her that summer at the ashram where she lives. Jack asks Heinrich if he wants to go, and Heinrich responds that he can’t tell. He might want to go, but then that desire might just be the result of a
random misfiring neuron in his brain.
The next morning, Jack goes to the ATM to check his balance. He finds comfort in the fact that his own
accounting has been corroborated and validated by the bank’s computer system.
Summary: Chapter 11
Jack wakes up suddenly in the middle of the night, gripped by a powerful fear. The clock reads 3:51, and Jack
wonders if the number might be significant. Perhaps, he wonders, some numbers are threatening, while others
The next morning, Jack wakes up to the smell of burnt toast. Jack says that Steffie often burns her toast
because she loves the smell. When he goes downstairs, he finds Steffie and Babette in the kitchen. Jack
remarks that he’ll be fifty-one the following week. Babette asks how being fifty-one feels, and Jack says that it’s
no different from fifty. Except, Babette points out, one number is odd and the other is even.
Steffie asks about her mother, Dana Breedlove. Dana is a contract agent for the CIA who conducts covert
drop-offs in Latin America. Later, when Steffie is distracted by a telemarketer’s phone call, Jack tells Babette
that Dana liked to plot and was often getting him entangled in domestic and faculty battles. He remarks that
she would speak English to him but that when she was on the phone she’d speak Spanish or Portuguese.
Jack and Babette go to Murray’s house for dinner that evening, and Murray cooks them a Cornish hen on his
hot plate. Murray expounds on his theories about television. He describes how his students think television is
worthless junk, but Murray insists that television is a primal and important force in American life. If you can
open yourself up to television, Murray says, you can observe all kinds of incredible things concealed in the grid
of buzzing dots and blips.
As Jack and Babette walk home after dinner, Babette brings up the memory lapses that Denise claims to have
witnessed. Jack tries to reassure her that they are probably nothing. They discuss the pills Denise says she
has seen, and Babette says she doesn’t think she is taking anything that could account for memory loss.
In these chapters, the novel begins to move into threatening territory. However, the accumulating dread still
isn’t attached to a particular event or cause. Instead, this dread, continuously hovering in the distance, seems
to linger around Jack. Menace seems to lurk around every corner, often in seemingly innocuous places. Gum
chewing, according to Denise, can have fatal consequences, and the supermarket, according to Murray,
resembles the Tibetan holding place for the dead. The mysterious ailment that afflicts the girls’ school
represents the novel’s first real brush with danger. However, the threat passes almost as soon as it appears,
dissolving away with nearly no consequences—except for the anonymous inspector, rumored dead.
Throughout White Noise, ominous situations arise, only to be quickly deflated. But, as is the case with the
dead, Mylex-suited inspector, discomfort and uneasiness never truly dissipate. This tendency will be most
clearly demonstrated in the airborne toxic event of Chapter 21, in which Jack finds himself exposed to a
chemical that will surely prove lethal, but probably not for several decades, at which point Jack will already be
well into old age. This evaluation confirms Jack’s suspicions that he has been marked for death, yet it keeps
the actual realization of Jack’s death at bay. Jack lives under the shadow of an unnamed threat yet can never
be truly sure of the nature of that threat.
Heinrich’s relationship with Tommy Roy Foster represents another threatening element in these chapters,
confirming Jack’s earlier suspicions that Heinrich “brings a danger to him.” Heinrich’s relationship to Tommy
Roy Foster is typical of the relationship Jack’s family has to danger, in that Foster remain distant and separate
from Heinrich, safe behind bars and only communicating through letters. Like the unnamed menace that
seems to hover around Jack, Foster makes his presence felt without actually being present, tangible, or visible.
While he discusses Foster with Jack, Heinrich is the first to note the way Jack’s interest in Hitler is more than
simply academic. Heinrich remarks that Tommy Roy Foster won’t “go down in history,” since he only killed
some anonymous civilians. Jack, however, “has Hitler,” while Foster has nothing. Just as Foster would
capitalize on a famous victim’s personal glory, Jack capitalizes on Hitler’s fame to bolster his own identity. The
fact that Heinrich equates his father with a convicted mass-murderer foreshadows the events of the final chapter, when Jack attempts murder. In a more general way, it also suggests the voracious way Jack
consumes Hitler’s mythos in order to strengthen himself.
Finally, these chapters develop the theme of codes and code-breaking more fully. Throughout the novel,
characters analyze texts, symbols, and images to divine deeper meanings. Denise pores over the Physician’s
Desk Reference in an attempt to diagnose her mother’s illness. Murray is an extreme case of this tendency, as
he claims to find evidence of codes everywhere—from television transmissions to the colors and shapes of
food packaging in the supermarket. To Murray, the entire modern world pulses with hidden messages and
secret languages, and the act of decoding is a source of endless fascination and wonder to him. Jack also
thinks he sees codes working all around him, but he isn’t sure whether they are benign or malicious. He notes,
for example, that he wakes up at exactly 3:51 and frantically tries to grasp the meaning of this mysterious
number. He wonders if he should find significance in the fact that 3:51 ends in an odd digit or in the fact that he
will be fifty-one on his next birthday. Jack would like to believe that the world operates in such systematic,
precise ways, because such regularity would lend his life shape and meaning. However, as the novel
progresses, whether the world is, in fact, methodical becomes increasingly less clear.
Summary: Chapter 12
Jack and Howard Dunlop have a German lesson. Jack describes how Dunlop sounds as if he were violating
the laws of nature when he speaks German. Jack tries to tease some personal information out of the reticent
Dunlop, who volunteers the information that he also teaches Greek, Latin, sailing, and meteorology. Dunlop
turned to meteorology after his mother’s death and found the study of weather patterns deeply comforting.
Jack finds Bob Pardee, Denise’s father and Babette’s ex-husband, at his house when he returns from his
lesson. Bob takes the three older children out to dinner while Jack drives Babette to her tabloid-reading
appointment at Old Man Treadwell’s. A few minutes after dropping her off, Babette comes back to the car and
says Mr. Treadwell and his elder sister are missing. They report the disappearance to the police, then go to
meet Bob and the kids at a donut shop. Jack sees Babette look carefully and sympathetically at Bob, as if she
were trying to comprehend the four dramatic years they spent together.
The next day, the police begin to drag the river in search of the Treadwells.
Summary: Chapter 13
While Heinrich watches the proceedings at the river, word comes that the Treadwells have been discovered at
the local shopping mall, where they’d been for four days. Two of those days were spent huddled in a kiosk,
while the sister foraged for scraps of food from garbage cans. No one knows how the two of them got there or
why they didn’t call for help. Jack surmises that the Treadwells were most likely overwhelmed by the vast
strangeness of the mall and overcome by their own helplessness.
Before the Treadwells were found in the mall, the police called in a psychic named Adele T. to help locate
them. She didn’t help the police at all in that search, but she did lead them to two kilos of heroin, stashed away
in an airline bag with a handgun. Though Adele has helped the police find evidence of many criminal activities,
she has always done so when she was looking for something else.
Summary: Chapter 14
Denise comes into Jack’s bedroom and asks him what they are going to do about Babette’s memory lapses.
She tells Jack that she found a bottle of medication buried in the trash. The drug is called Dylar, but Denise
can’t find references to the drug anywhere. Jack tries to reassure Denise, telling her that everyone takes
something. Denise doesn’t seem comforted, but she drops the subject.
Denise asks Jack why he gave Heinrich that name. Jack explains that he thought the name had an air of
authority and that Heinrich was born shortly after Jack started Hitler studies. Jack admits that there is
something in the German language and culture that he needs, something that makes him feel stronger and
bigger. Steffie comes into the room, and Jack and the girls go through the German-English dictionary together,
looking for words that are similar in both languages. Heinrich rushes into the room and tells them that there’s
footage of a plane crash on TV, and the girls run out with him. Later that night, the family gathers around the
television for the weekly Friday ritual. Jack and the children are absorbed by the footage of calamity, disaster,
and tragedy. At work on Monday, Murray complains that he’s having trouble establishing himself as the department’s Elvis
expert. Alfonse Stompanato, the department chairman, believes that Dimitros Cotsakis has more authority on
the subject, because Cotsakis interviewed Presley’s family immediately following Elvis’s death and has already
appeared on television as an expert on the Elvis phenomenon. Jack offers to stop by Murray’s lecture to lend
his own influence and prestige to Murray’s campaign.
Jack joins the New York émigrés for lunch. Jack describes Alfonse Stompanato, a forceful, charismatic,
domineering man. Jack asks Alfonse why people are fascinated by watching catastrophes on television.
Alfonse says that it’s because people are bombarded by information every day, and only catastrophes can
break through that constant flow of data. We crave catastrophes to get our attention, Murray argues, as long as
they happen somewhere else. He continues by saying that people suffer from brain fade, and their senses
have gotten weary from misuse.
The New York émigrés engage in a kind of storytelling battle, as they compare personal anecdotes about
moments when they brushed their teeth with their fingers or used dirty, run-down toilet facilities. Alfonse then
challenges each professor to relate where he was when James Dean died. Each man has a quick answer,
except for Nicholas Grappa, who is ridiculed for hesitating.
In earlier chapters, Jack has already demonstrated that his interest in Hitler specifically, and German culture
generally, represents more than a simple academic preoccupation. His discussion of his son Heinrich’s name
reveals even more about Jack’s investment in Germanic studies. Jack notes that he wanted to give his son a
name with force and power, which German culture represents to Jack. The name Heinrich also calls to mind
Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the German police who was responsible for the Final Solution, the systematic
extermination of Jewish people during World War II. Himmler is a figure surrounded by intrigue, secret plots,
and, of course, death. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the grotesqueness of a figure like Himmler, his
persona also has an undeniable force and strength behind it. Heinrich Himmler is certainly a character who
demands to be reckoned with.
As Jack notes, some people carry guns, while others wear a uniform in order to feel stronger and safer. Jack
also seeks safety and security, and he finds these things in the German culture’s emphasis on strength and in
the towering, monumental figure of Adolf Hitler, which he metaphorically wraps around himself like a protective
mantle. Jack is not the only character in White Noise who uses his studies to ward off death. In fact, all of the
principle adult characters in the novel up to this point are teachers, and, to some degree, their subjects all
relate to death—either as a direct engagement with it or an attempt to avoid it. For example, Howard Dunlop,
Jack’s German teacher, turns to meteorology after his mother’s death as a way of finding solace in the world.
Even Babette’s posture classes are an attempt to keep death away: her elderly students train their bodies to be
rigorous and upright, as if this would help instill a new health and vigor in them.
The Treadwells’ ordeal in the mall, like Jack’s experience in the supermarket, again parodies consumer
culture. However, while the supermarket proves both rejuvenating and fascinating to people like Jack and
Murray, the shopping mall ends up being a terrifying place. The mall is so vast and overwhelming that it literally
swallows the individual. The supposed consumers end up consumed themselves. The Treadwells are old, and
to them the scale of the mall is more than they can bear. Unable to participate as consumers, they huddle in a
kiosk, scavenging for food as if they were homeless in a city. Throughout the novel, everyday, mundane
events, objects, and locations become imbued with a mystical or supernatural force, rendering otherwise
recognizable entities as alien and strange. This process of defamiliarization can sometimes lead to a sublime,
transcendent experience, but just as often it proves harrowing.
When the police bring in a psychic to help find the Treadwells, Jack notes, “the American mystery deepens.”
The police approach the psychic searching for one thing and instead find another, but they never find the
connection they were searching for. For someone like Jack, who obsessively searches out connections in
order to create meaning, mystery itself represents a dark, powerful force. Mystery appears in the absence of
connections. It defies logic and thwarts efforts to create a cohesive meaning around one’s life. And, of course, mystery is almost always part of plot. The mysteriously beautiful sunsets continue to captivate Jack and the
family, and as Jack notes, they are either ominous or spectacles of pleasure—and perhaps both.
Summary: Chapter 15
Jack attends Murray’s Elvis lecture. When he walks in, Murray is making a point about the close relationship
between Elvis and his mother. Jack interjects that Hitler too adored his mother. Jack and Murray engage in a
back-and-forth volley, trading anecdotes about their respective cultural icons. Murray relates how Elvis fell
apart when his mother, Gladys, died, and Jack counters with a description of the elaborate, expensive funeral
Hitler held for his mother, Klara. Alfonse Stompanato enters the room and settles down to watch. Murray
discusses Elvis’s death, particularly the way the man had deteriorated into a haze of bloated, grotesque
excess. Jack describes the surging crowds who gathered on the occasion of Hitler’s death. He argues that the
crowds gathered not so much to honor Hitler, but simply to be a crowd. Losing one’s individual identity in a
crowd, Jack says, is a way of forming a shield against death. After this extended passage, the lecture ends.
Murray looks at Jack thankfully, and Jack notices, as students gather around him, that they have become a
crowd. Jack says that, for once, he doesn’t need a crowd around him, because, in the classroom, death is
strictly a professional matter. In the classroom, Jack is comfortable with the concept of death.
Summary: Chapter 16
At 2 p.m. one afternoon, Wilder begins crying and won’t stop. Jack and Babette decide to take Wilder to the
doctor, who tells them to give him an aspirin and put him to bed. Jack proposes going to the emergency room,
but Babette insists on going to teach her posture class. While Babette is in class, Jack waits in the car with
Wilder. As he holds Wilder, Jack becomes absorbed in the sound of the boy’s wailing. He seems to find
something ancient, eternal, and primal within the noise. As they drive home from the class, Wilder stops crying.
At home, everyone tiptoes around him, cautious and awestruck.
Summary: Chapter 17
The family takes a trip to the Mid-Village Mall. During the drive, Denise casually tries to confront Babette about
Dylar, but the conversation jumps rapidly from tangent to tangent, and Denise is ultimately unsuccessful.
At a huge hardware store in the mall, Jack runs into Eric Massingale, who teaches computers at the College-
on-the-Hill. Eric remarks that Jack looks so harmless off campus, without the dark glasses and all his
professorial regalia. The encounter puts Jack in the mood to shop. He and his family roam the mall, as Jack
shops voraciously. With each purchase, Jack feels he becomes stronger and more powerful.
They return home, and each family member retreats to his or her own room, wanting to be alone.
Summary: Chapter 18
Jack goes to the airport in Iron City to pick up his daughter Bee, who is coming in for a visit. Instead of his
daughter, Jack finds her mother, Tweedy Browner, waiting for him at the arrivals area. Tweedy tells him that
Bee will arrive in two hours on a flight from Indonesia, where she’s been staying with her stepfather, Malcolm
Hunt. Tweedy will head to Boston the following day and has come to spend some time with Bee before she
Jack and Tweedy drive around Iron City, discussing their past and current marriages. Tweedy expresses her
unhappiness with her inscrutable new husband, Malcolm, a diplomat who runs deep cover operations in
foreign countries. When Malcolm is working undercover, Tweedy says, he doesn’t just disappear in the here
and now. He disappears so completely, it’s almost as if he never existed in the first place. Tweedy worries that
she doesn’t truly know the man she married and that maybe the part of his life spent undercover is more real to
him than the part of his life he spends with her. Jack tells Tweedy that Janet Savory, Heinrich’s mom, lives at
an ashram now and goes by the name Mother Devi. Tweedy tries to wax nostalgic about her and Jack’s
marriage, but Jack thwarts her attempt.
After driving around Iron City for a while, Jack and Tweedy go back to the airport. Before Bee’s flight arrives,
passengers from another flight come staggering into the airport. As a crowd gathers, one of the passengers
tells Jack the details of the near crash they just survived. The plane had lost power in its engines and began
hurtling toward the ground. A voice over the intercom shouted desperately that they were falling from the sky.
That was followed by another calmer voice, which explained that they had not been prepared for this in flight
school. The second voice narrated, coolly and precisely, what would happen to the passengers upon impact. As people prepared for a crash landing, the plane suddenly regained control. As the officers and flight
attendants transitioned back into their smooth corporate mode, everyone wondered why they had ever been
afraid in the first place. Jack finds Bee and Tweedy, and Bee asks where the media had been during the plane
crisis. Jack tells her that Iron City has no media, and Bee responds with incredulity that the passengers, then,
must have gone through the ordeal for nothing.
As they travel back to Blacksmith, Tweedy tells Jack that all children should have the opportunity to fly alone
early in their youth. Barring any unforeseen accidents, Tweedy proclaims, an airplane is one of the last
remaining bastions of manners and good living.
In its rhythms and its intensity, the face-off between Jack and Murray in the lecture hall resembles a boxing
match more than an academic exchange. This battle for dominance, however, remains carefully staged at
every point. Before Jack walks into the room, he puts on dark glasses and adopts a serious expression.
Murray’s hands tremble in a “stylized” way, and Jack consciously “attempt[s] to loom” in the background when
he enters, creating an aura of menace and power around him. When he reaches a dramatic moment in his
speech, Jack stares at the carpet and silently counts to seven, letting the tension in the room build.
Throughout, Jack describes his and Murray’s actions in terms drawn from performance. For example, Murray
doesn’t lecture, he delivers a “thoughtful monologue.” Jack and Murray remain constantly aware of the other’s
presence, like two dancers. Neither professor seems terribly concerned with factual information about his
respective subject. Instead, they trade stories, anecdotes, and myths—not unlike the New York émigrés, who
similarly battle with stories in the lunchroom. Murray and Jack remain more invested in the auras and imagery
surrounding Elvis and Hitler than in the actual, historical figures. In this, Elvis and Hitler come to resemble the
Most Photographed Barn in America, another entity whose surrounding aura of importance seems more
significant than the object itself.
The scene in the lecture hall also develops the notion that Hitler studies helps Jack ward off the fear of death.
While performing his role as professor and expert, Jack remains “secure in [his] professional aura of power,
madness and death.” In the classroom, death becomes something Jack can analyze, theorize, and thereby
control. His authority over the subject of death allows him to distance himself from the reality of his own death,
a force that continually threatens to overwhelm him.
The security Jack finds in his identity as a professor, however, disintegrates when the trappings of his authority
are removed. At the mall, one of Jack’s colleagues fails to recognize him, revealing again just how fragile
Jack’s sense of identity is. After being told that he looks completely harmless without his gown and glasses,
Jack goes on a spending spree, and the purchases he makes reaffirm his authority and power. Of course, the
power he claims for himself as a consumer remains as superficial as the power he has at the College-on-the-
Hill, since both depend on illusion and performance. The experience at the mall seems almost positive, as it
draws Jack’s family around him, transforming them, perhaps for the first time, into a cohesive unit. Together,
they move and shop, nearly ecstatic in their appetites. The experience proves temporary, perhaps even
destructive, since the moment they get home each goes into seclusion. Consuming has not brought them
together. If anything, it has isolated the family members from one another.
Wilder’s mysterious, extended crying fit is an important symbolic act in the novel. According to Murray, children
are more open to the mysterious, hidden energies and codes that filter through the world’s white noise. Wilder,
at six years old, has an extremely limited vocabulary. Indeed, the reader hasn’t heard a single word out of the
boy, a notable fact given how voluble and talkative the rest of the family is. When Wilder breaks out into a
forceful torrent of noise, the sound of the boy’s crying strikes Jack as something ancient, mournful, and foreign.
The noise is unintelligible, but somehow Jack recognizes it. To Jack, Wilder’s crying seems like an expression
of the primal, unnamed, unspoken force he has always sensed lurking at the periphery of his awareness. In
this scene, Wilder resembles the Delphic oracles, ancient Greek priestesses who, under the influence of
vapors, would deliver cryptic messages from the gods. When Jack looks at Wilder in the car, he notes “a
complex intelligence” operating “behind that dopey countenance.” Wilder’s crying, though not intelligible in any
recognizable sense, imports something significant to Jack. Like so much else in the novel, Wilder’s noise
strikes Jack as simultaneously terrifying and transcendent. Summary: Chapter 19
Upon arriving at Jack’s house, twelve-year-old Bee makes the entire family feel self-conscious. Bee is elegant,
worldly, and self-possessed, and Jack says that he admires her but also feels threatened by her. On Christmas
day, Jack and Bee have a conversation about Bee’s mother, Tweedy. Bee tells Jack that Tweedy looks
anxious all the time and that she believes Tweedy’s agitation stems from the persistent absences of her
husband, Malcolm. Bee says Tweedy’s real problem is that Tweedy doesn’t know who she is. As Bee talks,
comparing Tweedy to Babette, Jack gets the disturbing sensation that Bee is attempting to communicate with
him in some different, mysterious way and that she’s trying to pry secret information from him.
The next morning, Jack takes Bee to the airport. As they drive, quietly listening to the radio, Jack notices that
his daughter is watching him carefully, with a compassionate yet condescending expression on her face.
On his way back to the airport, Jack stops at a graveyard, marked with a sign that reads “The Old Burying
Ground.” The burying ground is beyond the noise of the traffic, and Jack stands there for a moment, waiting to
feel “the peace that is supposed to descend upon the dead.” Jack says that the dead have a kind of presence;
an accumulated energy that the living can detect.
Summary: Chapter 20
Mr. Treadwell’s sister, Gladys, dies from what the doctors call “a lingering dread,” resulting from the four days
she and her brother were lost at the mall. Jack says that whenever he reads obituaries he automatically
compares the age of the deceased to his own age. He speculates how great men of history like Attila the Hun
must have felt about the prospect of death. Jack wants to believe that Atilla the Hun met death without fear,
accepting it as a natural part of human existence.
Over breakfast, Babette comments to Jack that their life is good. When Jack asks what brought on that
observation, Babette says that she felt it needed to be said, before telling Jack that she has bad dreams. They
once again discuss the question “Who will die first?” Babette is adamant that she wants to die before Jack but
believes that as long as there are children in the house, nothing serious can happen. Jack counters her, saying
that he wants to die first, because without her he would feel incomplete. They continue to debate, back and
forth, into the night.
Later, Babette leaves to teach her posture class. Murray comes over to talk to the children, because he
believes that children are open to special forms of consciousness. Jack goes to make Murray a cup of coffee,
and Heinrich chastises him for not doing it efficiently, thereby expending huge amounts of unnecessary motion.
Jack admits to us that he does not actually want to die first—though he doesn’t want to be alone after
Babette’s death either. Jack doesn’t know who to plead his case to, because he doesn’t know “who decides
Later, while watching television, Babette’s face comes onto the screen. Everyone is frightened and confused
for a moment, until they realize that a local cable station must be televising Babette’s class. The program
doesn’t seem to be producing any sound, but the family watches Babette’s image, awestruck,
anyway. Jack says that they’re being penetrated and irradiated by Babette’s image. When the image of his
mother vanishes, Wilder begins to cry softly, while the rest of the children eagerly run downstairs to greet
The scene at the Old Burying Ground represents perhaps the first moment in which Jack doesn’t find himself
bombarded by white noise of any kind. The small graveyard lies beyond the technological sounds of traffic or
factories, and the solitude frees Jack from human babble as well. Here, Jack enters a meditative state, and a
moment of eerie stillness settles over the novel. For a man who claims to suffer from an irrational, gripping fear
of death, Jack spends a lot of time surrounding himself with the object of his fear. He specializes in the study of
Hitler, one of the most murderous despots in modern history, and he names his son—evocatively, if not
intentionally—after Heinrich Himmler, a cold-blooded Nazi leader. Jack feels soothed by the presence of Hitler,
just as he now seems to find tranquility in the graveyard. Jack often speaks of hiding within Hitler, allowing the
tyrant’s huge aura to render Jack’s own anxieties small, insignificant, and manageable. His meditative moment
at the Old Burying Ground might spring from a similar impulse: perhaps Jack wants to hide among the dead,
so as to avoid facing the painful prospect of his own solitary, terrifying death. Jack’s interlude in the graveyard ends with Jack entreating, “May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift.
Do not advance the action according to a plan.” In making this plea, Jack seeks to be released from the
structures of plot. In the literary sense, plot could very aptly be defined as “the plan according to which the
action is advanced.” Plots are what lend stories their momentum; a good plot implies that a novel will advance
meaningfully, and a well-constructed plot ensures a s