Death is part of the process of life. It has been delayed by medical science, ignored by society and disregarded by many of the young. Yet it still exists, lurking in the back of our minds. Each day we live, we all move closer to the moment of our death, but if we allow this thought to preoccupy our existence, it will prevent us from living our life to the fullest due to an intrusion of dread of fear of death and dying. Don DeLillos post modern novel White Noise is a representation of this social fear and the way in which we are always aware of death but do not wish to acknowledge it due to fear. In this way death can be seen as the white noise, which is always present in our life but not always heard. The characters in this novel must first face the inevitability of death for it is only with final acceptance that peace can be found.
Death is present throughout the novel and while the characters know it is there, they often hide behind reality instead of facing it. Jack Gladney is the founder and professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the Hill. There is not a more appropriate twentieth century icon that represents death than that of Hitler. Jack surrounds himself with his work, reading deeply into Hitler well into the night (DeLillo, 2057). The chancellor at the college even convinced Jack to alter his name, encouraged him to gain weight, and basically grow out into Hitler. And yet he hesitates to learn German because he sensed the deathly power of the language (DeLillo, 2066). With Jacks occupation comes the constant topic of death. A topic that arouses a lot of questions and curiosity in Jack, yet he is afraid to find the answers. When Babette reads everyones horoscopes, he tries not to listen, although I think I wanted to listen, I think I sought some clues (DeLillo, 2058). In a conversation with his son, coincidentally named Heinrich, he is confronted with the thought of leaving a legacy as his sons convicted murderer had intended. At first he believes that he will not go down in history but is then reaffirmed that he has Hitler. In hiding behind his internationally known program of Hitler studies, he is attempting to give himself immortality, leaving behind a reputation no one will soon forget. Jack constantly wonders who will die first, regarding himself and his wife, because the question of dying becomes a wise reminder. It cures our innocence of the future (DeLillio, 2057). When he is jarred awake from a myoclonic jerk he immediate references death, thinking death should be a swan dive, graceful, white-winged and smooth (DeLillo, 2058). These thoughts are what Jack clings to in an attempt to suppress his fear of death.
The fear death is on an individual level and many characters in the book, including Jack and those who live and work with him, display this fear throughout the story. This surrounding fear only acts as a catalysis to increase Jacks fears. Murray says of the world “The eventual heat-death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.” (DeLillo, 2054). This can be interpreted as referring to the slow death the city, and indeed the whole world suffers from. The reality of life is that as soon as we are born, every day takes us closer to death. This phrase makes the universe sound almost claustrophobic and feverish, as if it is already suffering. As soon as Murray says it, Jack changes the subject. This illustrates Jacks discomfort with death, especially in the face of a person who holds these ideas and opinions. In fact, Murray seems to be the only character in the story who has come to some terms with death and dying. He claims that he is learning important things everyday. Death, disease, afterlife, outer space. Its all much clearer here. I can think and see (DeLillo, 2069). Jack seems confused by this, which makes him seek out what he can do to make the inevitability of death seem less strange. In a conversation later in the book between Jack and Winnie, she says “Self, self, self. If death can be seen as less strange and unreferenced, your sense of self in relation to death will diminish, and so will your fear.” He asks, “What do I do to make death less strange? How do I go about it?” And she replies, “I don’t know” (Delillo 229). This is a turning point for Jack where he is beginning to realize they must enjoy these aimless days while we can (DeLillo, 2058).
Jack is faced with death every day, through the media and through his wife who is equally afraid. Jack believes that he and his wife tell each other everything” (Delillo 2065). However, she is so afraid that when see sees an advertisement for a drug that will eliminate the fear of death she jumps at the chance to take it, hiding it from Jack. This is also to lead to more heartache for Jack, not just because his wife, Babette, also has the same fear but that it is so great she will go to extreme lengths to eliminate the fear. When she finds out the tests for the drug she applied for have been cancelled she ends up sleeping with Dylar to get this medication. Babette’s fear may be worsened by her reading of tabloid papers to the elderly as she see death in a strange way everything she does this both in the papers and in those whom she reads them to, just as Jack is working with a figure which represents death.
The book in this way demonstrates that the fear it deals with is that of a personal level rather than a social level, and in this Hitler can make an individual death seam immaterial.
The idea of death to Jack is always present, even when not in collage or at home. In a supermarket Murray puts an idea into Jacks head regarding “hypothetically killing someone” (Delillo 38).
Jack then comes face to face with death, but still not his fear of it. Jack is exposed to a dangerous chemical called Nyodene D. His exposure to this was about two minutes, which is enough to put him at risk of dying prematurely from exposure. For a man afraid of death this is a catastrophe. In a nice neat book we may imagine that being brought face to face with his fear that Jack may now find an inner peace and a way of resolving the fear. But this is not a neat book, despite its high quality writing and controversial issues it remains untidy, just as life is and as such it is not to be that this incident give jack a renewed purpose of life or understanding of death. Instead he now looks for the definitive answer regarding the damage that this drug has done to his health.
His fear is not alleviated by the responses he gets from doctors, as he never gets a straightforward answer, only more tests. These tests take place with the use of modern technological machines. The reliance on man to use machine to lengthen life is already known, but it is facts not longevity that Jack is looking for. Ironically some of the machines themselves spew radiation that can be lethal in high enough doses. Just as Babette is at risk due to a trial drug that she is using to alleviate her fear so is Jack from the machine which are being used to assess his health and attempt to diminish his fear by using the more intrusive machines which put out amounts of radiation.
Babette’s use of the media also brings home to use the attention that Jack must also pay the media regarding the attention he must have seen given the evidence in the media. This in theory may make him feel less strange about the process of dying, yet he still is afraid, and perhaps by carrying on chasing the doctors for facts rather than opinions he is responding to what he has seen in the media and eliminating the fears through action the only way he knows how. The amount of attention paid to the media is demonstrated in many small insignificant ways ” I heard the TV say: ‘Let’s sit half lotus and think about our spines'” (Delillo 18). We could almost imagine that the white noise referred to could also be the noise of the television forever on in the background with its continual influencing the actions and reactions of those around it. Acclimatizing them to the fact life is continual, or showing the aspects of death, but it not until after the toxic incident that it has any effect in reducing the strangeness of death to Jack.
The end of the book indicates that the final stages of life themselves may bring about a partially change in attitude to death. Approaching the murder attempt, Jack hears “a noise, faint, monotonous, white” (Delillo 306). Thos may be the white noise, which is always present the sound of death around us from which we can never escape, and as Jack nears the murder attempt we see him becoming more aware of its presence. We also see the presence of religion at the end of the book in the form of a nun Sister Hermann Marie. However her comfort is cynical and appears to be strange for when talking of heaven , angels and hell she says ” If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse” (Delillo 318).
The words of the German prayers which the nun ‘sprays’ on Jack he finds a comfort and beautiful (Delillo 320). At this stage we start to see an acceptance rather than a fear but this is indicated in the way Jack is thinking rather than his actual words “…he wouldn’t die…, which gave him the edge on me” (Delillo 320). On its own this is not a strong enough sentence, but after this the next page says “There was nothing to do but wait for the next sunset, when the sky would ring like bronze” (Delillo 321). In this he appears to accept it as he is now resigned to it.
The resignation of the self to an inevitable event can also bring relief to the individual in place of the fear. In accepting it we can argue that death has become less strange as what is familiar is not strange to us. This interpretation of the words regarding the sunset being a metaphor for life and the loss of life as a day leaves us are later confirmed “The sky takes on content, feeling, an exalted narrative life. … Some people are scared by the sunsets, some determined to be elated, but most of us don’t know how to feel, are ready to go either way” (Delillo 324). This ca be seen as the way that many people feel about death, unknowing with some completely unafraid an others consumed by fear. But the sunset is the same for us all, no matter what we feel and jacks final acceptance of death was the acceptance within his own mind. In facing death by way of the toxic chemical he had not seen the facts but not accepted the inevitable consequence of life, whenever it happens. In facing death as an accepted inevitability he starts to find beauty in life