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Literature / White Noise

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The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.
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White Noise is a 1985 novel, a postmodern novel by Don DeLillo, dealing with themes of media overload, consumerism, and paranoia. The novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, Professor of Hitler Studies, whose banal suburban life is shaken up by an "Airborne Toxic Event". Afterward, he seeks out a drug called "Dylar" which is meant to relieve the fear of death. Along the way, Gladney spends much time contemplating his navel and having Seinfeldian conversations.

As you might expect, this book comes up often in college literature classes.


This novel contains examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Our own mortality.
  • Arc Words: "Who will die first?"
  • Broken Pedestal: Heinrich seems to be genuinely upset when his friend Orest fails spectacularly to achieve his goal of staying in a snake pit for 67 days.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Quite literally, the Zumwalt. Jack uses it to shoot Willie.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: About half the dialogue.
  • Fantastic Drug: Dylar, which is an important element of the third act ("Dylarama").
  • Going to See the Elephant: The "Most Photographed Barn in America" early in the book, a Deconstructive Parody of roadside tourist attractions whose fame is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.
  • Insufferable Genius: Both invoked and deconstructed with Heinrich. He seems extremely well spoken and precociously intelligent, but much of his knowledge is either incorrect or a mix of useless pedantry and contrarianism (such as spending the better part of 2 pages arguing that he can't actually know whether it's raining outside.)
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  • Lemony Narrator: Gladney, who frequently indulges in philosophical asides, quotes random things "the TV said", and sometimes drops brand names into his narration as if they rise up from his subconscious.
  • Mind Screw: For most of the novel we just get the playfully enigmatic postmodern style one would expect, but near the end, as Jack begins to unravel and fray and the plot build to the climax, it gradually gets more and more bewildered, only to resolve in what appears to be clarity in the last chapter.
  • Non Sequitur: As mentioned above, Jack Gladney narration is full of those, as names of products or things he heard on the radio or the TV pop out of nowhere. Willie Mink has also full lines of this, probably as a result of his Dylar addiction.
  • Doorstopper
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Murray, Jack's friend and colleague at the college, often make long and elaborated speeches on rather banal topics, such as car crashes.
  • There Are No Therapists: Both Jack and Babette are preoccupied to the point of near-constant terror with their own mortality, and are driven to try and obtain a rare, illegal drug to try and alleviate it; Babette even goes so far as to cheat on Jack to obtain it. And yet neither of them think to consult a psychologist about what would no doubt be classified today as an anxiety disorder. Especially surprising oversight from an academic like Jack.
    • Could be considered a case of Justified Trope, Truth in Television, and/or Fridge Brilliance, at least in Jack's case, as American academia has been criticised heavily for its extreme marginalisation of people with mental disorders, to the point where many people involved in it refuse to seek treatment for mental conditions they suffer because they are afraid of professional repercussions. There have been several studies documenting the stigmas within academia, and they have even been blamed for several suicides (for instance, political scientist Will Moore's). For this reason it is perhaps understandable that an American university professor would be disinclined to consider therapy.
  • The Tetris Effect: Gladney notices one of his children reciting brand names in her sleep, apparently as a result of seeing too many commercials, and he does so himself in his narration.
  • The Treachery of Images: A major theme of the novel is the blurring of simulacra and reality.
  • Tranquil Fury: Jack comes off as quite calm and methodical as he psychologically tortures and then shoots Willie Mink.
  • Yes But What Does It Do: The side effects of Dylar include losing one's ability to tell words from real things and reciting utterances heard on TV. And it doesn't actually eliminate the fear of death, but makes people more fearful.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Nobody seems to suffer any physical symptoms from the toxic cloud until they hear about the symptoms it supposedly causes on the radio.

Example of: