From his office, Jack Gladney surveys the campus of the College-on-the-Hill, watching a long line of station wagons arriving to drop off students for yet another school year. He watches them unpack their cars, listing the junk foods and technologies they carry with them. The wealthy, confident parents proudly assess their grown children, feeling pleased with their happy lives. Jack has watched this procession every Fall for 21 years, intrigued by the crowd of “the like-minded and the spiritually akin” that the students and parents embody.
Jack’s interest in this crowd of students and parents demonstrates his attention to the ways in which people invest themselves in groups as a way of confirming their own identities. As he surveys this crowd of people, he is attuned to their social positions, which to him are indicators of who they are and whether or not they are happy in life.
Leaving his office, Jack walks down the hill and into the town of Blacksmith, which boasts Greek revival and Gothic churches, as well as an old insane asylum. The chairman of the College-on-the-Hill’s Hitler Studies department, Jack lives in a suburban house at the end of a quiet street with his fourth wife, Babette, and four children, all of whom come from different marriages. In describing the street he lives on, Jack notes that it was once “a wooded area with deep ravines,” but now there is an expressway in the distance, stretching out below and beyond their backyard such that their house looks over it. When they sleep, “sparse traffic washes past, a remote and steady murmur.”
By mentioning that this street used to be a quiet place with “deep ravines,” DeLillo emphasizes the elements of the manmade world that surround Jack and his family. The fact that the expressway behind their house drones throughout the night in a “steady murmur” is the novel’s first instance of white noise, a sound that represents an ever-present kind of uncertainty that pervades Jack and Babette’s lives.