76 pages 2 hours read

Don DeLillo

White Noise

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


White Noise is a 1985 novel by American author Don DeLillo. A significant entry in the canon of postmodern literature, White Noise tells the story of a small-town college professor whose suburban routine is shattered when a train crash results in a massive chemical spill. As the characters struggle to accept their own mortality, the book explores a range of contemporary issues including consumerism, mass media, and conspiracy theories. In 2005 Time Magazine included White Noise on its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.

Plot Summary

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Waves and Radiation,” starts at the beginning of the school year and ends shortly after winter break. Narrator Jack Gladney lives with his family in the fictional New England town of Blacksmith. A pioneer in the field of Hitler studies, Jack is a highly respected professor at College-on-the-Hill, where he works with Murray Jay Suskind, his closest friend. Jack and his wife Babette have seven children between them, all from previous marriages, but only four of them live at their house. Jack’s children are 14-year-old Heinrich and nine-year-old Steffie. Babette’s children are 11-year-old Denise and two-year-old Wilder. While Jack has fallen into a comfortable and largely satisfying routine at home and at work, he harbors an intense fear of death.

Jack learns from Denise that Babette secretly takes a mysterious prescription drug known as Dylar. Having found no mention of the drug in the Physicians’ Desk Reference, Denise believes Dylar is experimental, dangerous, and likely the source of her mother’s frequent memory lapses. When confronted about Dylar, Babette says she doesn’t remember, confounding Denise.

Part 2, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” is set over a two-day period in January. Perched on the roof of the house with binoculars, Heinrich sees a derailed train and a black billowing cloud of smoke. The radio reveals that one of the crashed railcars contains thousands of pounds of the toxic chemical Nyodene D. Authorities evacuate the town and instruct the Gladney family to drive to an old Boy Scout camp. While pumping gas on the way to the camp, Jack is exposed to the airborne chemical for two-and-a-half minutes. One of the camp’s computer technicians tests Jack and informs him that his Nyodene D levels are troublingly high. Because the chemical has a lifespan of 30 years, Jack must wait at least 15 years before a doctor can determine if his exposure is fatal. This discovery exacerbates Jack’s fear of death, turning it into an obsession. Despite his immense antipathy toward secrets and plots, Jack decides to keep this revelation to himself.

Part 3, “Dylarama,” covers the rest of the school year and part of the summer. After discovering a bottle of Dylar taped under the bathroom radiator, Jack asks his colleague, the esteemed neuro-chemist Winnie Richards, to test the pill. When this yields few concrete answers, Jack confronts Babette. Unable to feign ignorance any longer, Babette reveals that the drug is designed to neutralize the part of the human brain that fears death. Like Jack, Babette is paralyzed by a fear of dying.

Babette continues her confession: Dylar is manufactured by “Gray Research,” a name she invents to protect the secrecy of the company. When Gray Research deems it too risky to test Dylar on human subjects, a project manager Babette refers to as “Mr. Gray” takes matters into his own hands and conducts tests on her in secret. In return, Babette must engage in regular sexual acts with Mr. Gray in a grubby motel room.

Jack is devastated by Babette’s involvement in secret plots. One of the reasons Jack married Babette was because he believed she harbored no secrets, unlike his CIA-connected ex-wives. Nevertheless, Jack is empathetic and tender toward his wife’s fear of death, a misery he shares. In the spirit of openness, Jack finally reveals to Babette that he was exposed to high levels of Nyodene D.

After a discussion with Murray, Jack decides that the only way to overcome his fear of death is to wield some control over it through an act of murder. There are “killers” and there are “diers,” Murray tells him. With the help of Winnie, Jack tracks down Mr. Gray, whose real name is Willie Mink. When Jack finds Willie in his run-down motel room, the doctor is incoherent and unstable, shoveling fistfuls of Dylar into his mouth every few minutes. Using a gun given to him by Babette’s father, Jack shoots Willie twice then places the gun in his hand to make his death look like a suicide.

The intense reverie Jack feels in the wake of this violent act is shattered when Willie pulls the trigger and a bullet grazes Jack’s wrist. Suddenly, Jack no longer wishes to see Willie dead. After convincing the delirious man that he shot himself, Jack carries Willie to a hospital where his life is saved.

In the last chapter, Wilder blithely tricycles across a multilane highway, miraculously surviving the ordeal. The book ends with a scene at the supermarket, where Jack reflects on the secret messages found in product codes and tabloid magazines. The extent to which Jack has overcome his fear of death is left ambiguous.