White Noise


Don DeLillo

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White Noise: Chapter 32  Summary & Analysis

Jack and Murray take a walk on campus. They start talking about Jack’s German instructor, Dunlop, each of them trying to articulate the “strange air about him” that they sense. Four days later, Murray calls Jack at one in the morning and says, “He looks like a man who finds dead bodies erotic.” After that, Jack attends only one more lesson and is profoundly creeped out by Dunlop’s eerie manner.
The fact that Murray calls Jack at one in the morning to tell him his assessment of Dunlop is comically in keeping with his tendency to overanalyze even the smallest, most trivial ideas. Furthermore, it’s no surprise that Jack is so disconcerted by the idea that Dunlop finds dead bodies sexually attractive; this is something Jack, with his intense fear of death, could never fathom. Suddenly, then, Dunlop becomes yet another incarnation of his fear.
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The insane asylum catches fire one night, and Jack and Heinrich go to watch it burn. They find other father-son pairs standing alongside them, making comments about the fire or the firefighters, making predictions about what happened or what will happen. A woman emerges in her nightgown, wildly enflamed. The fathers and sons can tell that she is crazy; Jack finds this spectacle “powerful and real.” “How deep a thing [is] madness,” he says. A firefighter sprays her with a hose and she collapses on the ground. Murray emerges from across the street, appearing at Jack and Heinrich’s sides and silently shaking their hands before leaving again. Soon the blaze begins to give off an intense, acrid smell that dispels the crowd of onlookers. Jack feels as if, in smelling the fire, death has entered his nose and mouth and he wonders how this might affect his soul. At home in bed that night, Jack can’t stop thinking about Mr. Gray, imagining the mysterious man having sex with Babette.
Yet again, death is portrayed as something in the air, something that seeps into Jack’s body, this time by way of smoke inhalation. It’s notable that he calls the woman on fire “powerful and real,” since this description couples his desire for power with his fear of death, a conflation he has perhaps never made before, since he’s always trying to use any power and authority he might have to avoid death. Here, though, death becomes power—a striking reversal.
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