White Noise


Don DeLillo

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on White Noise can help.

Everything you need
for every book you read.

"Sooo much more helpful than SparkNotes. The way the content is organized
and presented is seamlessly smooth, innovative, and comprehensive."
Get LitCharts A+
  • Easy-to-use guides to literature, poetry, literary terms, and more
  • Super-helpful explanations and citation info for over 30,000 important quotes
  • Unrestricted access to all 50,000+ pages of our website and mobile app
Get LitCharts A+

White Noise: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Reading the obituaries, Jack learns that Gladys Treadwell has died from a case of “lingering dread” after her traumatic experience in the mall kiosk. Jack admits that, when he reads obituaries, he measures himself against them, wondering how long he will live. This leads him to think about the various famous rulers and leaders of history and about how they must have approached death. Attila the Hun, he thinks, must have died stoically without obsessively paying attention the tragedy inherent in knowing that death is coming. He likes to think that Attila was not afraid, that he “accepted death as an experience that flows naturally from life.”
Even though Jack recognizes the benefit of accepting death as “an experience that flows naturally from life,” he appears unable to let go of his neurotic fears. Thus, history serves as an example he just can’t seem to follow. This is somewhat ironic, since he will, in truth, meet the same end as every single human who’s ever lived on earth—including Attila the Hun.
Fear, Death, and Control Theme Icon
Uncertainty and Authority Theme Icon
Plots and History Theme Icon
Although Jack and Babette constantly volley back and forth in their argument about who should be the one to die first—each insisting that it should be the other—Jack privately admits that he doesn’t want to be the first to go. It’s true that he doesn’t want to be alone, but he would much rather live than die. At the same time, everything he tells Babette about how her death would leave a gaping hole in his life is true.
The fact that Jack bends the truth to Babette in this way shows the depths of his fear. It’s not hard to see that Babette is extremely important to him, a fact that ultimately emphasizes the intensity of his desire to live—if he’d rather Babette die than die himself, it’s quite evident that his desperation and fear is acute.
Fear, Death, and Control Theme Icon
Murray comes over to talk to Steffie, Denise, and Wilder as part of his fascination with what he calls “the society of kids.” When Babette appears on the TV, everybody in the room is taken aback. They try to turn up the volume, but there doesn’t seem to be any sound coming from the program; Babette is simply there, her face rendered in black and white, teaching her class in the church basement. The class, it seems, is being televised by the local cable station. Though the others are excited, Jack is strangely disconcerted by the image of his wife suddenly appearing out of context like this. Wilder approaches the TV and puts his flat hand on the screen. When the program ends, the other children go downstairs while Wilder sits inches from the screen, crying quietly to himself as Murray takes notes.
Wilder is yet again portrayed as in possession of some sort of deep, unknown wisdom unavailable to the older characters. His uneasiness with the disappearance of his mother on the TV screen seems—according to Jack and Murray—the result of some hidden meaning rather than an expression of simple disappointment. With his frantic note-taking, Murray seems to believe that, just as the agents of consumer culture carry with them hidden messages, Wilder’s innocent naïveté is imbued with important connotations. The problem with this, of course, is that whatever knowledge or insight Wilder might possess is shrouded in uncertainty.
Uncertainty and Authority Theme Icon