Larger than Life-Death in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise”
In the following pages I will discuss the role of Death in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” and I will show that the protagonist, Jack Gladney, is not only obsessed with death, but that fear and obsession are the main driving forces in his life. Further it is the aim of this paper to show that Jack Gladney goes through a change, which results in him being able to cope with his fear and that DeLillo holds technology responsible for Jack’s obsessive fear.
In order to support the thesis of this paper I will analyze the role that death plays in Jack’s life in regard to his family, his job, consumption and technology. To support the thesis of Jack going through a change I will discuss Jack’s relationship to death before and after the exposure to the chemical spillage and, most important, before and after Jack’s being “nearer to death”, when attempting to kill Willie Mink. Concluding, I will look at the novel’s link between death and technology.
Jack Gladney lives with his wife Babette and their children from previous marriages in a house at the end of a quiet street in the quiet town of Blacksmith. He is head of the department of Hilter Studies at the College-on-the-Hill. Jack has specialized on Hitler and built a whole department around this single figure of history. In academic circles he is widely known as the leading expert on Hitler and his articles are printed in the appropriate journals. But Jack neither reads nor speaks the German language, a fact he desperately tries to keep a secret. He hides behind his dark glasses and academic robe. He even put on weight and added false initials to his name to gain prestige and push his academic career. Jack made himself the “false character that follows the name around” (17), or as Conroy has put it, “he is a charlatan […] and unfortunate enough to realize it”. But Jack has build his whole career on Hitler, he depends on Hitler. Being asked by one of his former wives about Hitler, he replies that Hitler is “fine, solid, dependable” (84), “Hitler becomes something reliable and reassuring for Jack to draw confidence from”. But a source of income and an academic career are not the only reasons for Jack to chose Hitler as a subject: as Cantor pointed out,
in a world where truth is now generally thought to be relative, Hitler often seems to
stand as the lone remaining absolute: the incarnation of absolute evil”.
Jack Gladney has a secret obsession with death and DeLillo has pointed out that his protagonist studies Hitler to calm his obsessive fear of dying:
In this case, Gladney finds a perverse form of protection. The damage caused by Hitler
was so enormous that Gladney feels he can disappear inside it and that his own puny
dread will be overwhelmed by the vastness, the monstrosity of Hitler himself
Hitler is “larger than death” (287) and Jack tries to find comfort in something that is stronger than his own individual dying. Jack has a special interest in the crowds that Hitler assembled for his speeches because (as he lectures at college):
many of those crowds were assembled in the name of death. They were there to attend
tributes to the dead. […] Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To
become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an
individual, to face dying alone. (73)
Jack has chosen Hitler for two reasons: one is to use the subject for his academic career and the other is to form a shield against his obsessive fear of death.
Another topic in this novel, and worth looking at in regard to the thesis of this paper, is consumption. Over and over again the novel lets the reader witness the Gladney’s shopping trips. When Jack has been shopping groceries with his wife Babette he reflects on the huge amount of their shopping:
the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some
snug home in our souls – it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not
known to people who need less, expect less (20)
The “fullness of being” and the “security” hint at the deeper reason for Jack’s “well-being” while shopping: Jack usually neither feels a fullness of being, nor security and it is his obsessive fear that prevents him from achieving these. Having achieved these after shopping reveals that consumption functions as a form of comfort or relief for Jack.
 Don DeLillo. White Noise. London: Picador, 2002. p. 309. All references are to this edition.
 Mark Conroy. „From Tombstone to Tabloid: Authority Figured in White Noise“. Critique-Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35.2 (1994) p.100
 N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge. “Toxic Events: Postmodernism and DeLillo’s White Noise”. The Cambridge Quarterly 23.4 (1994) p. 307
 Paul A. Cantor. “Adolf, We Hardly Knew You”. New Essays on White Noise. Frank Lenticchia (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. p. 39
 Don DeLillo in: Anthony DeCurtis. „An Outsider in This Society. An Interview with Don DeLillo”. Introducing Don DeLillo. Frank Lentricchia (ed.). Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. p. 63