Part I: Waves and Radiation
White Noise begins one September at a college campus in Blacksmith, a small town in the Midwest. Jack Gladney, the narrator, who is a professor at the college, watches the return of the students for the fall semester. They arrive in station wagons packed with their belongings and driven by their parents. Jack, who lives with his wife Babette and their children by previous marriages, leaves his office and walks into town. He informs the reader that he is chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. Hitler studies is a discipline he created himself in the late 1960s.
In the kitchen of their home, Jack tells Babette about the arrival of the students. Babette teaches an adult education course and volunteers as a reader for the blind. They have lunch with their children, Wilder, who is about two years old, Denise (age eleven) and Steffie (age nine). Heinrich, age fourteen, enters briefly but then walks out without a word. Denise teases Babette over Babette’s accumulation of large quantities of yogurt, which she thinks she ought to eat but never does.
Jack mentions the fact that professors at the college wear black academic robes, and that the Hitler studies department shares a building with the popular culture department, which is officially called American environments. It is staffed by a group of smart ex-New Yorkers, including Murray Jay Siskind. Murray is new to the department, and he and Jack become friends. Murray likes the small-town environment and is content to live in a rooming house. He is pleased to get out of the big city. At lunch one day he tells Jack that his ambition is to carve out a niche for himself in the popular culture department as a specialist in Elvis studies, just as Jack has done with Hitler.
Several days later Jack and Murray go to visit a local tourist attraction, known as the most photographed barn in America. Many others are there taking photographs, but Murray comments that no one actually sees the barn for what it is, because of all the hype surrounding it. He claims that no one can now know what the barn was like before everyone started photographing it.
Jack is walking across the high school lawn and towards the small stadium when he catches sight of Babette running up the stadium steps. He observes her, then meets her at the edge of the playing field. They embrace and make their way home, while Jack comments to the reader that a subject of their conversation is sometimes the question, Who will die first?
As they go home, Jack tells Babette that his daughter Bee (from his marriage to a woman named Tweedy Browner), who is in seventh grade, wants to come and stay with them at Christmas.
That evening, the entire family watches television together, a ritual they go through one night every week. Babette thinks that by doing this the harmful effect of watching TV will be reduced, making it less addictive. Jack is not so sure, since they do not always enjoy these evenings.
One night in bed, Jack tells his wife how on the advice of the college chancellor he had changed his name from Jack Gladney to J. A. K. Gladney, which gave him more of a formidable presence. He admits that the name creates something of a false image of himself.
Jack and Babette run into Murray at the supermarket. It is the first time Murray has met Babette and he is clearly impressed by her. Murray takes great interest in every item in the supermarket, noting every little detail and often finding great significance in how things are presented and packaged. The three of them leave the supermarket and Jack and Babette give Murray a ride home.
Analysis, Chapters 1-5
The first five chapters introduce some of the themes of the novel. The fact that Jack is chairman of the Hitler studies department suggests a parody of academic life, and the fact that the head of the department, when Jack first suggested the idea, “was quick to see the possibilities,” suggests the attitude of a marketing man rather than someone interested in the pursuit of truth and knowledge for its own sake. This is later developed in chapter 5, when Jack reveals how he came up with a more impressive sounding name and also started wearing dark glasses to create a more imposing appearance in keeping with his high academic standing in the world of “Hitler studies.” This is an entirely satirical concept, since so such department exists in real-life academe. What matters here is image rather than substance.
The fact that the Gladney family is a blended one signals that the novel is firmly set in the experience of 1980s America. This is not the nuclear family of the 1950s. Jack’s four children come from three former marriages (as will later become clear), and Babette has three children from former marriages. Only four of the children live with them. The emphasis on family shows that White Noise is in a sense a domestic novel, a novel about family life. Whatever the history of their previous marriages, it is clear that Jack and Babette are happy together.
Another central concern of the novel is American consumer culture and how it contributes to happiness/unhappiness, reality/unreality. This theme is introduced in the trip to the supermarket. Jack finds in this typical American ritual—the experience of shopping in spacious, well-lit, well-stocked supermarket—something comforting. Loading up the cart with food gives him a sense of well-being and security, and he seems almost to attach a mystical significance to it: “it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening” (20).
The pervasiveness of popular culture, from television to trashy supermarket tabloids, and how it creates or reinforces people’s sense of reality, is an important theme. The theme is introduced through the department of popular culture in the college, and the character Murray Jay Siskind, who absorbs popular culture like a sponge and says he wants to dive deep into what he calls “American magic and dread.” (19) This hints that popular culture, far from being superficial, in fact digs deep into what people most long for; it carries their hopes as well as their fears.
The most important theme of the novel is death—the human fear of death and the attempt to deal with that fear. This is first touched on in chapter 4, when Jack reveals that he and his wife discuss who will die first. It will later become apparent that they both think a great deal about death.