Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The Wild and Wacky World of Academia

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a smart and funny work of fiction that manages to entertain whilst also providing a narrative that is interesting and engaging; a work that, while perhaps not appealing to a casual reader who needs to be pulled along a well-paced narrative, is, for an engaged and active reader, a piece that provides laughs and thought provoking observations on government, intellectualism and a number of postmodern themes that are seeded in every page of the novel.


DeLillo's novel features a 'dog-earned copy' of Mein Kampf?!?!?

DeLillo’s novel features a ‘dog-earned copy’ of Mein Kampf?!?!?

One of the most entertain aspects of the novel is DeLillo’s lampoon of academia.  Only in the world of academia can somebody use the phrase “My dog-eared copy of Mein Kampf” and not sound like a red-neck doing a prison sentence for a hate crime.  There is also a passage where two professors are discussing the use of the world brilliant.  One professor, Winnie Richards, shrugs off the label of being brilliant, saying: “What else can they say?  I do neurochemistry.  No one now what that is” before going onto note that the world of academia is “a form of communal ego” where everybody calls each other brilliant.  The other professor, the protagonist Jack Gladney, laments: “No one calls me brilliant.  They call me shrewd.”  Richards, consoles her peer: “I’m built funny and walk funny.  If they couldn’t call me brilliant, they would be forced to say cruel things about me.”  The exchange is very telling.  It speaks to human nature, especially when Richards notes that because she is not conventionally attractive, she must make up for it by excelling at something, otherwise she will simply be belittled, even in the realm of academia.  Another passage has one educated person confess that all they read is the back of cereal boxes, claiming they are “the only avant-garde we’ve got”.


Production of a film adaptation of the novel was suspended in 2006, but should a film be made, Monica Bellucci might well cast as "Babette", white to protagonist Jack Gladney.

Production of a film adaptation of the novel was suspended in 2006, but should a film be made, Monica Bellucci might well cast as “Babette”, white to protagonist Jack Gladney.

We also see conversations on gender with a humourous tone.  When Gladney states: “As the male partner I think it’s my responsibility to please”.  His wife responds: “I’m not sure whether that’s a sensitive caring statement or a sexist remark”.  This speaks to how we allow academic conversations dictate how we are supposed to feel about personal issues.  Babette is at once flattered and offended by the comment and is not sure which side to take on the issue.  The fact that the man feels the need to please her is ingratiating, but if accepted opens the door for sexist mentalities.  Sexist conventions have benefited both genders in certain ways (which does not justify them), so it can be difficult to abandon them completely.  Should the women buy flowers for her husband on their anniversary?  Should a woman pay for the first date?  Should a woman hold the door open for her boyfriend?


There are some interesting conversations on the nature of language and the nature of semiotics as well.  One instance is when Gladney and his colleague Murray Siskind, go to see a barn, the two men discuss how no “one sees the barn” as once “you’ve seen the signs

DeLillo seems as interested in semiotics as was Rene Magritte.

DeLillo seems as interested in semiotics as was Rene Magritte.

about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn”.  Pragmatically, of course, this seems absurd, but because the barn is a tourist attraction, people who come to see it do not see it as it was meant to function, but as an attraction.  They do not judge it as they would judge other barns, or look at it as they would look at other barns. It becomes an attraction by which they judge through comparisons to other attractions.  We see a similar sentiment when Gladney suggest that he is “the false character that follows the name around”. He has lost his personal identity to his academic identity.  People have certain expectations of him based on his reputation.  He is not true to that, and so, he becomes a false character.  He is defined by how others perceive him, just as the barn is, and so, is not true to that definition of himself.


Another classic work dealing with semiotics from Magritte.

Another classic work dealing with semiotics from Magritte.

DeLillo furthers this discussion on language through other dialogue.  Questions like: “What makes you think the sun is high?” are answered with logic like: you have to look up to see it. In a similar vein, Gladney asks: “How could there be north below a south?”  Such instances speak to context and perspective.  The sun, for example, appears up because gravity, coupled with our language, positions us in such a way that we perceive it as above us.  North and south are human constructs, but like left and right they are dependent on context.  The “West Indies”, if there were actually a part of India, SHOULD have been called the East Indies, since they would have been the most easterly part of India.  However, those who named it traveled west to get there, and so defined the islands by their own perspective.



Protagonist Jack Gladney names his son Heinrich.  Hmm... what other Heinrichs can I think of?  I just don't now.

Protagonist Jack Gladney names his son Heinrich. Hmm… what other Heinrichs can I think of? I just don’t know.

A conversation which Gladney has with his son Hienrich about rain carries similar themes.  When asking if it is raining ‘now’, Heinrich notes he can’t answer that because as soon as the question is asked the ‘now’ becomes ‘then’.  When the question is rephrased, he is asked is it raining ‘here’, but since the two are in a moving car, Heinrich notes that the ‘here’ becomes ‘there’ in the same manner.  Heinrich says simply when asked if it is raining that he “wouldn’t want to have to say”.  This also speaks to the ambiguity of academia.  Because one must recognize that truth is dependent on context, and that context is perpetually changing, there can be no truth.  This leaves us at an impasse.  We must agree to simply acknowledge ambiguity and move forward, otherwise no progress can be made.



If Monica Bellucci is unavailable to play Babette, Chrstina Hendricks would be just as suited to play her in a film adaptation of the novel.

If Monica Bellucci is unavailable to play Babette, Chrstina Hendricks would be just as suited to play her in a film adaptation of the novel.

The potency of language comes into play when a toxic cloud arrives.  At first the cloud is referred to as a ‘feathery plum’.  It soon upgraded to a ‘black billowing cloud’ and then an ‘airborne toxic event’.  In all three instances the chemical compound was the same, but in each instance perception of the cloud is determined by the language used.  Our perceptions are our realities.  This is enhanced when the possible side effects are listed and people begin to experience them.  What happens is like an inverted placebo effect. Rather than improving health based on perception, problems begin to arise.  People begin getting symptoms they shouldn’t, prompting Gladney to ask: “Could a nine-year-old girl suffer a miscarriage due to the power of suggestion?”  This isn’t to suggest that such a girl could become pregnant, but rather that all the symptoms associated with a miscarriage could be felt.  Eventually he wonders which “was worse, the real condition or the self-created one?”  This speaks to the potency of language because people begin to physically feel and experience symptoms because of words they have heard and not due to a physical reaction.  This is furthered later in the novel when a drug has the side effect of preventing people from being able to “distinguish words from things.”  To hear a word, like cold, would cause one to feel cold.  This speaks also to how we differentiate between constructs and physical realities.  We have constructs such as virginity or chastity, for example, but where do these things exists if not in the social realm?  And if the physical truth is one thing, but the social perception is another, which is true?  The answer seems obvious, but if the thing in question is a social construct to start with, how can it be true without social perception working in concert?



whitenoisedondelilloThere is another hilarious scenario where, during an evacuation, Gladney runs into a person wearing a SIMVAC uniform.  The person is taking part in an actual evacuation, but they are part of a team that performs simulated evacuations.  The man is using the actual evacuation as a lesson for the simulated ones.  He begins to complain as the conditions of the actual evacuation are not as ideal as the simulated one and fails to see the irony in his approach.  Later, during another trial where they are performing a simulated evacuating due to a faux toxic odour, the SIMVAC personal note that if somebody becomes legitimately injured during the simulation, they will be ignored if they are in the way because in the future, should an actually evacuation be taking place, they will need to be able to draw on the training to rescue lives then, displaying the full range of irony in that they are willing to expend human lives in a simulations in order to save lives in an actual evacuation.  When an actual toxic odour arrives though, there is no evacuation whatsoever, and so the training was a self-serving event with no true purpose.  Such instances seems to speak to the bureaucracy of government agencies.


If ever adapted for the screen, either Jessica Beil (left) of Megein Tovah would be great as Winnie Richards.

If ever adapted for the screen, either Jessica Beil (left) of Megein Tovah would be great as Winnie Richards.

Obviously with a work of such depth, an entire monograph could be written about it and still not be comprehensive.  It is a book well worth reading as it entertain and challenges the reader and is even willing to make fun of itself.  The book shares similar themes as other DeLillo novels, such as rampant consumerism (present in Cosmopolis), feminism and other post-modern themes.  With that I will leave you with some of my favorite lines from the book:



“Here we don’t die, we shop.  But the difference is less marked than you think.”


“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation”


“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas.  Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.”


“People like to have their beliefs reinforced”


“We’re the sum of our own chemical impulses”


“a star-hung night in Barbados. Dana was there to bribe an official.”


“You’re more than a fair-weather friend—you’re a true enemy.”


“Brilliant people never think of the lives they smash, being brilliant.”



“Would they regard a parent’s death as just another form of divorce?”


“It’s natural to deny our nature… It’s the whole point of being different from animals.”



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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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