Sunsets are a key motif in the novel. In chapter six, Jack comments on the “glorious sunsets” they are witnessing, and adds that he has been told that thirty or forty years ago the sunsets were not so spectacular. He wonders whether the new brilliance is due to the circulation of industrial wastes in the atmosphere. After the toxic spill, the sunsets become even more remarkable, “unbearably beautiful,” as Jack puts it (170), “broad towering ruddled visionary skyscapes, tinged with dread” (170). In chapter 30, Jack and Winnie gaze at the sunset: “The edge of the earth trembled in a darkish haze. Upon it lay the sun, going down like a ship in the burning sea” (227). In the final chapter, Jack and Babette make a habit of joining the crowds to observe the spectacular sunsets. Some people are frightened by the intensity of the sunset, while others experience feelings of exaltation. Many, however, are unsure of what they feel: “Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it transcends previous categories of awe, but we don’t know whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we don’t know what we are watching or what it means . . . “ (324).
DeLillo is here playing with the idea of the sublime in Romantic literature. The nineteenth century Romantics used the word sublime to describe the awe they experienced when they witnessed vast landscapes. The grandeur of nature created moments of transcendence for the observer in which he or she was able burst free of habitual limitations. DeLillo uses this concept but also undermines it. The brilliant sunsets in White Noise are not purely natural phenomena because they may have been enhanced by poisonous industrial waste which may also be creating a hazardous environment for humans. The beauty of the sunset may therefore be deceptive, which is why each of the descriptions above contains a darker element, and the final description emphasizes not just awe at a natural phenomenon but uncertainty about what it signifies. This strikes an authentic postmodern rather than romantic note, making the imagery fresh rather than clichéd.
The Toxic Cloud as Death
The theme of death and the fear of death is given remarkable visual expression in the toxic cloud. When the Gladneys are evacuated, they catch sight of the cloud from their car. Lit up by seven helicopters, it appears as an “enormous dark mass [that] moved like some death ship in a Norse legend” (127). As with the sunset, it fills the watchers with a sense of awe. Later, as the family heads for Iron City to escape the cloud again, they once more catch sight of the cloud, this time lit up in the night sky by the lights from eighteen helicopters. The sight is almost impossible for them to take in; the cloud is huge and “beyond legend and rumor, a roiling bloated slug-shaped mass” (157). The cloud resembles “a national promotion for death, a multimillion-dollar campaign backed by radio spots, heavy print and billboard, TV saturation” (158). Thus in this one recurring image, the author creates not only a visual symbol of death, the theme of the novel, but also manages to link it to another central theme, the consumer culture and the constant extravagant advertising that maintains it.